Behind the Scenes with a Baker

JonMcDonald2012Our artisan bread is known throughout the Triangle for its authentic Old World style. We sell over a thousand loaves each week in our stores and to local restaurants and other co-ops, and in 2015, we won the Independent’s Best in the Triangle award for Best Bread in Orange/Chatham County. We’ve always sourced organic locally milled flour from Lindley Mills, and we’ve recently added flour made from locally grown wheat from Carolina Ground in Asheville.

Jon McDonald is one of our lead bakers as well as a Board member of the co-op. Here he shares with us some stories about life in the bakery.

We used to have a window in the bakery. It opened to a completely uninteresting view of the brick side of the next warehouse. But nonetheless, every morning between six and eight in the morning, depending on the season, the sun would begin to rise and send a wonderful ray of light onto our production floor. I have a specific memory of challah one Thursday morning: the entire team crowded around a table, shaping braid after braid, joking with each other about this or that; Mana or LCD Soundsystem or T-Pain playing in the background; and that ray of light illuminating the ambient flour in the air like we were actors in a Terrance Mallick film.

Bread-photo1-with-Jon&DavidWhen I was asked to write this piece about the bakery, it was hard to narrow the focus. Do I talk about the baking experience itself? It’s hard to put it on paper: shaping takes time, repetition; it requires more mental capacity than I’d like to admit to calculate water temperature at two in the morning. The real story of the bakery is more like the time we spent an entire week assigning each other Sesame Street characters. Or the sunrise coming through the window. That window is gone now—our bagel program required extra cooler space—but the memory, along with many others, remains. So here are a few of those other memories.

I came to baking by accident. A friend emailed me an ad for an opening in the bakery the year it planned to move to Hillsborough. I had no business getting the job. In fact, I found out recently that Rob (the bakery manager) was going to pass on me if not for random luck: my boss at the time, an editor at Algonquin books, happened to like me and literally lived next door to Rob. I don’t know which lies she told him, but I’m glad she did.

Despite not having any baking experience, I was in good hands. I’ve been able to learn from the most interesting group of people. A trio of brothers from near Oaxaca, who grew up baking in their father’s adobe oven; a woman from Texas with multiple PhDs in the middle of a career change; an ex-farmer with the most telescopic attention to detail; the former head baker of a rival bakery one town over; artists; multiple chemists.

I recently tried out for the USA baking team. This is a sponsored team of three bakers who compete in the most recognized international bread competition, held in Paris every four years. I had no business trying out: a kid with minimal experience, no culinary training, no baking pedigree. The tryout was relatively straight-forward: eight hours to bake five different types of bread from start to finish, about 70 loaves total. I was able to rep the Carolinas using heirloom grains from Anson Mills and Carolina Ground. (I actually stenciled our state motto, esse quam videri, onto one type of bread.)

But what was most exciting was describing our little operation to all the big-name judges. The benefits, the vacation hours, our worker-owner stake in the company…these all piqued the interest of my fellow competitors and the judges. It didn’t seem like anyone loved his or her job quite as much as I did.

Profile: Memo Martinez

Bread-photo3-brothers&Tiffany-crop-out-BrendaMemo is our longest tenured baker. He’s like clockwork: never late, never sick. He’ll stand for hours in front of the oven on Saturday mornings, churning out hundreds of loaves, each one baked to perfection, right on time, and not break a sweat, the floor clean and the oven wiped down as if the bread baked itself and magically appeared on the shelf. In what threatens to be the most adorable relationship at WSM, he’s married to lead pastry baker Tiffany, whom he met when the bakery was in Carrboro. He’s the second oldest of six brothers. His older brother, Pablo, was the former longest tenured baker until he returned to his family in Oaxaca, and Chivo, a younger brother, also works in the bakery.