Two weeks at the San Francisco Baking Institute.
It’s early on a Monday morning in December and I’m feeling nervous. It’s my first day of school – I’m spending two weeks at the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI), learning the basics of artisan bread making. The first week is labelled Artisan I: Baking Fundamentals, and the course outline promises familiarity with the terms short mix, improved mix and intensive mix, a look at the connection between mixing and fermentation, a discussion of flour types, instruction in baker’s math and plenty of hands-on practice with mixing, diving, shaping, and baking. I don my baker’s whites (well, white jacket at least, I’m wearing black cotton pants), and head to the hotel lobby to await the shuttle bus that will take me to SFBI. I meet three other white jacket-clad folks in the lobby and know I’m not alone. We introduce ourselves: Craig Sherwin does technical research and development for General Mills in Minneapolis, Clare Rollosson is a chef with plans to open her own bakery in Arkansas and Alan Taxon has spent years in the investment world and, upon retiring, is thinking of making his own investment in artisan baking in Los Angeles. All of us love bread, and we’re all excited about the week (some people do the two weeks of courses consecutively, some opt to do them separately, others opt to do only one or the other). We climb on the hotel van and shuttle off to school.
SFBI is located on a hill in South San Francisco in an industrial area with a view of the airport on one side and mountains on the other. The building is housed with TMB Baking, the artisan baking supplies and equipment business run by Michel Suas, founder and president of SFBI. TMB really makes SFBI possible, explains Michel when we chat later in the week.
“If you want to make money, you don’t open a school,” he says.
He and wife Evelyne opened the school in 1996, after Michel had spent a few years working as a baking consultant in the U.S. He says he realized only a few people could afford to bring a bakery consultant into their business, but a school would be accessible to a much broader range of bakers and bakery owners. And so SFBI was born. TMB developed as an extension of SFBI: bakers who had learned the ins and outs of artisan baking at the school were looking for artisan baking equipment they could use in their bakeries. Michel had connections with manufacturers in Europe and the rest – histoire!
The school has helped launch the likes of ACME Bread Company, Boudin Bakeries Inc., and La Brea, to drop just a few names. Here in Canada, SFBI has worked with such businesses as ACE Bakery in Toronto, Terra Breads in Vancouver and Pane Fresco in Burlington. The school has developed a reputation as the place to go to learn about artisan baking. I ask Michel to explain the term and this is what he tells me.
“Made with the highest quality products you can find, while giving the ingredients time to interact and develop without chemicals. This can be by hand or machine, as long as the process is clean.”
And “clean” baking is exactly what our class of 14 does in the first week. The group is made up of a mix of serious home bakers and professional bakers, or those who are considering opening up their own bakeries. Most of the students are American (or living in the U.S.), with the exception of a Mexican woman and myself, the sole Canadian. The class works really well together that first week: the blend of home bakers and professional bakers doesn’t appear to present any obstacles to instructor Lionel Vatinet (owner of La Farm Bakery in North Carolina) and everyone seems to progress at the same pace.
Vatinet learned to bake as an apprentice in France and that is evident in his teaching style. It’s not necessarily dictatorial, but the class is run as I suspect he runs his bakery. He asks the group to set aside the techniques they usually employ for baking to adopt the techniques and manner of working that have served him so well over the years. This includes such things as how to divide dough, how to handle it and how to move around the bakery in general. Vatinet says there’s a dynamism required in a baker, an ability to move quickly and efficiently. He has certain mantras he repeats throughout the two weeks. They include: “Work with the flour, not in the flour,” “To teach is to learn twice,” and, “You must love the dough.” The latter, spoken with a French accent, is the most oft repeated. Baking needs to be about respecting the dough, says Vatinet.
He says his job as an instructor is to teach the basics.
“If the Tower of Babylon had a good base, it wouldn’t have fallen.”
A particular strength of Vatinet as a teacher is the fact that he owns a bakery and still works in it daily. Bakers who listen and watch carefully are able to pick up many a well-honed trick of the trade.
At the end of an intense week of a little classroom time and much lab time, we’ve learned how to mix dough, how to shape it (everything from a boule to a baguette to a batard), how to score it, and how to bake it. We learned how to use the spiral mixers, and how to load and unload the stone deck ovens (both with a peel, a manual loader and an automatic loader). We spent one session mixing the dough by hand, kneading it by hand, really seeing and feeling the gluten develop. At the end of each day, the group gathered for a post-mortem of the day’s products. We studied the crust and the crumb structure, squeezed the bread to unleash its many aromas and, most importantly, tasted the bread.
The students have nothing but good things to say about their week at SFBI.
“I’m excited,” says Layne Benson, a bakery manager who has 21 years of baking experience with Harmons Grocery, a chain of 11 grocery stores in Utah. “I’ve always wondered how artisan bread was able to be so different in texture and taste. I’m excited to go back and revamp some of my doughs.”
His colleague, Sharon Golding, is a baker with Harmons. She says she was thrilled to have the opportunity to take the course and to finally understand the “whys” behind the baking process.
“I’ve been doing it for years, but I’ve finally learned why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
For Craig Sherwin of General Mills, the class really opened up the science and craft behind producing a very specific product.
“How you can control texture, flavour, volume, colour and crust formation, not just with formula, but also with technique and with equipment.”
The second week was an in-depth look at the science of sourdough, along with more emphasis on the skills learned in the first week of the course (lots more practice with mixing, dividing, shaping, etc.). We each created our own sourdough culture, with the option of taking home a bit of the starter at the end of the week (I brought mine on the plane with me and had to empty a bit of it about halfway through the flight. I received a few curious looks from flight attendants and fellow seatmates). The second week was comprised mostly of professional bakers and the class did not mesh as well. I think the major problem was clashing egos and an unwillingness on the part of some of the students to learn techniques different from the ones they usually employed. One Canadian baker, who did not want to be named because he has plans to open a bakery close to that of a former employer, worded it this way.
“Keep your eyes and ears open, take it in, don’t discount things just because that’s not how you’ve been trained to do something. Think about it, bring it back to your bakery and integrate what you think can work.”
I ask him if the course was worth the week and the expense.
“Absolutely, no regrets,” he answers without hesitation.
With the exception of one student (who was looking for something more in-depth), everyone else answers the same way. The Canadian baker is even hoping to bring Vatinet in to train staff and help with his bakery opening.
My opinion? An absolutely fabulous two weeks that I would repeat in a second. If you’re looking to make better bread at your bakery, this is the place to learn to do it. If you’re looking to re-ignite your passion for bread and the bread making process, this is the place to do it. Michel Suas and his crew are generous, open people, who are truly in the business for its own sake. It’s all about the love of the dough, the love of the product, at SFBI. It’s the kind of passion that is infectious.
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