Why I became a baker
February 28, 2022
By Sheena Howdle
BAC asked you for stories about becoming a baker. Here’s a tale of inspiration through travel
My baking career started early. During the summers of my childhood, my father would take me to my grandmother’s farm in northern Manitoba. She was an incredible woman. To be honest, she was terrifying, especially to a quiet, shy, redheaded kid. She didn’t mince words, loved fiercely and seemed to live that way too.
Isabel spent her adult life cooking and baking to feed her 11 children. Every year she would grow a garden the size of a hockey rink, pickle, can, jam and preserve everything she could in the fall and hope it got them through until the next summer. She always managed to put food on the table, even if it was a lard sandwich some days. Looking back, I see that she was tough simply because life had made her that way.
Luckily, she seemed to know I needed some softness, and when I was staying with her, we would bake sugar cookies. We would mix them, roll them out and cut them together and then I would get to watch episodes of Anne of Green Gables (the only set of VHS tapes at her house that weren’t westerns) while she put them in the oven and watched them cool.
When the cookies were ready, I would pause Anne, and we would ice them. Sometimes using a plastic bag with the corner cut off as a piping bag and sometimes by dipping them in the icing. One of the last times that I remember baking with her she offhandedly remarked that of all my cousins (numerous, as they were), I was the only kid who had ever stuck around to ice the cookies with her. I found this odd. Wasn’t icing the cookies the whole point of making them? I mean, aside from eating them of course.
I began to notice that many of the women in my family preferred to pick the raspberries and hand them to my grandmother for her to bake the pies or make the jam. Maybe because they thought she wanted to or because her pie crust was the best, but I loved the whole process. Picking the berries, smashing them up with the sugar and letting them sit. Making a pie crust and learning Grandma’s secrets. Not even eating the pie would beat out the rush of finally cracking open the oven door and seeing it complete for the first time.
Back in Alberta, I would spend weekends with my aunties and cousins. We had a routine of going to the farmer’s market first thing Saturday mornings. We would get breakfast and buy a few things for the afternoon. Then we would go back to her house and each of us would get to bake a recipe. My Auntie Sherry would move around the room pretending that she was the host of a cooking show and ask us all what we were making and to explain our process. It was the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I was part of a club. There was no judgment. If we messed up, it was shrugged off as learning. If we succeeded, we were exalted.
Career decision time
I was in foods class all through middle and high school. I would take them over and over, even though I already had the credits. When graduation came, I panicked. I was thinking of going into cooking school, but as I looked around at all of the trades that my uncles were doing, I saw they had been doing them forever. I felt like if I chose to go to school to be a chef then I would be stuck doing that forever. The idea that you could switch careers later in life didn’t even occur to me. Instead, I turned to my other love: reading. A bachelor’s degree seemed to give you unlimited opportunities, or so the teachers were saying. I completed my BA in English and, to be honest, I have no regrets. Learning how to think critically as well as how to put my own thoughts together is an invaluable skill.
Turns out, however, that one of the opportunities that a BA in English provides you is working as an assistant at a property management company – not even close to my dream job. I craved to be making something. A physical thing. I wanted the rush of pulling the oven door open.
I decided to do some travelling, and while in New Zealand, I stopped at a famous bakery. The baking was fine – not memorable to be honest – but I do remember looking around and thinking to myself: this is a thing I could be doing. I was looking at a group of people similar to my aunties back in Alberta, chatting away to each other and to customers. I missed that. I missed being part of something that I cared about.
After applying to baking school, I was told I had to complete a phone interview with the chair of the program at the time. I sweated through the entire interview, which I was trying to do quietly at my cubicle during work hours. When I was accepted into Vancouver Island University’s Professional Baking program, I celebrated like I was going to Harvard.
At VIU I met my first love – the wood-fired-oven. I dare you to work on one and then tell me that it’s not one of the most challenging relationships you’ve ever had. I was hooked, though, and decided to do my three years of apprenticeship baking bread on a wood-fired-oven in Saskatoon. This was also the first time I met a mill. My learning curve was steep between fresh milled, organic heritage grains and a temperamental oven, but somehow I managed to get my Red Seal and maintain a small chunk of my sanity.
Working in Europe eye-opening
My career since then has gone places I would never have even dreamt of. The people that I’ve met and the places I’ve worked have completely reshaped the way I think about baking. When I applied for a two-year visa to the U.K., I went with no job and no plans. At Haxby Bakehouse, I met and worked for Phil, a tall, bearded man with a heavy Yorkshire accent and a lot of opinions about what makes a good loaf of bread.
Phil had more kinds of flour in his bakery than I had ever seen. No mixes, just lots of flour. Flour from local millers; flour from King Arthur; flour from other small companies or local farmers that had different extraction rates and were different varieties of grains. Organic was king.
When the flour would arrive, we would all chip in to carry the flour upstairs. Did I mention that Phil also had the smallest bakery I had ever worked out of? A fair bit of the stock was carried up a rickety flight of stairs and kept on the second floor. Working at Haxby felt right. My baking career to date hadn’t been easy and this bakery might not have a wood-fired-oven but it fit the bill. It was a challenge every day. Need to mix a dough? There are no written recipes. The bakers memorized them, constantly doing the math and figuring out the mixes daily based on baker’s percentage alone. This way, if the flour needed a different hydration than yesterday, the person doing the mix was able to adapt quickly: no spreadsheets needed to be changed. There was no concept of “Well, this worked yesterday, it should work today.” Paying attention to the dough and the baked loaves was key. You needed to know what to look for in the mixer while it was mixing.
From there I moved to Scotland. The bakery I worked at in Scotland was in a repurposed World War 2 prisoner-of-war camp. The camp is still surrounded by tall barbed-wire fences and the majority of the huts look like someone cut a giant tin can in half lengthways and stuck it in the ground. My great-uncle John was excited to drive me up and has since then admitted he almost refused to leave me there.
One of these huts was now Wild Hearth Bakery. Owned by an Australian, operated mostly by an Italian couple with myself and a revolving door of international bakers who came in to work, stage and generally just glory in the craziness that was going on. This was the first time I worked on a wood-fired deck oven. The four-metre-deep, three-level Bassanina was shipped in pieces and assembled on site. We fired the oven with compressed wood blocks for even heat distribution and consistency. It has a full auto-loader, which made loading the oven literally the only simple thing we did in the bakery; challenges abounded here as well. Not only were we using several varieties of Scottish milled flour, but we also had a giant mixer – with a catch: there was no way to dump out your 100-kilogram batches of dough. We had to dig it out ourselves. The tubs were all weighed out to 20 kilograms and required three folds. Sometimes we would do four mixes of the sourdough alone, which meant you were in for 20 folds a day.
We also made a small selection of pastries. Although they might look like croissants, we actually made 100 per cent sourdough cornetto – an important distinction to any Italian baker – as well as bomboloni (Italian sourdough doughnuts). We made special starters for this dough that had sugar in them so as to condition the sourdough culture to work with the high levels of sugar. Osmotolerant sourdough, if you will. To know if the dough was properly fermented, you had to taste it and see if it had the essence of apricots (Italians, am I right?). To add to all of this, the pastries could only be retarded in the fridge, there was literally no freezer.
The entire walk-in-cooler was dedicated to pastries as every single loaf of bread went through ambient fermentation. Absolutely none of it was retarded. The owner and bakers chose to do this on purpose so that the taste of the Scottish wheat was more present than the flavour of the sour fermentation. I’ve never learned so much about food and flavour as I did in Comrie. I’ve also never had better staff meals (Italians, am I right?).
All of these people with all of this incredible knowledge finally culminated at the UK Grain Lab. This was a group of bakers, millers, farmers, land advocacy folks and wonderful volunteers. I was working at my final bakery in the U.K. at the time, Wooster’s, but the Grain Lab was like a reunion of all my previous bakeries. I ran into old friends from Australia who had visited the bakery in Saskatoon. I was hanging out with the “Scottish” Aussies and Italians. I was staying with a group of folks I’d worked or staged with during my travels. I also met new folks who had amazing ideas and were giving talks on everything from growing and using land race varieties of wheat to people who were explaining beautiful ways to make rye loaves. I learned about making corn masa from blue corn varieties. I had my brain overwhelmed by an American baker who has focused his life on understanding bread on every level including a molecular one. Saying I was inspired doesn’t even come close to describing those three days. I walked away from there realizing there was so much more to learn. I couldn’t stop now. My travels couldn’t be over.
As my visa expired, I got on a train and stayed on it for a month, travelling around Europe. I visited and staged at bakeries all over western Europe, anywhere my train pass could take me. Those stories are for another time, but let me just say, there is no group more hospitable than bakers.
What inspired me to be a baker?
This makes me think of a day I was sitting in the shaping room with Will and Tom, the two men I worked with at Wooster’s. It was the Christmas Eve bake and we had just finished making and baking more bread than the bakery had ever made before. There was bread stacked on every surface available. We were pausing for a moment before we had to pack all the orders. No one had slept more than four hours in the last two weeks and we all looked a bit like ghosts. We had pulled full days of extra time to make stollen, malt loaves and mince pies. Will, the owner and an absolute gem of a human being, looked up and asked, “Why on Earth do we do this?” We all looked at each other and laughed.
I guess everyone has their own reasons for starting their baking career. My inspiration was probably the desire to know where my food came from, to be part of every step of the process. I like to feed people because that’s how my family shows love.
The more interesting question, however, is “Why do you continue to be a baker?” Every bakery I’ve worked at had strived to nourish their communities with truly beautiful food. The unwavering belief through all of them has been that our communities deserve access to good food. Especially good bread. It doesn’t matter if it’s hard – you figure it out. It doesn’t matter if that means you need to add three steps to the process and a boatload of time and effort – you figure it out. You make the thing that you are truly proud of. None of the jobs I’ve had have been easy. I’ve never worked somewhere where I pull frozen loaves out of the freezer and pop them in the oven. No judgment on those places, but it’s just never been in my scope. Maybe that’s because I’ve been lucky enough to find amazing people to work hard for.
I seem to be incapable of meeting bakers who don’t inspire me. From my best friend, Hanna, a pastry cook whose passion and strength push me daily to do better; to the people I’ve worked with abroad; to my Scottish friend Rosie, who has converted a horse trailer into a functioning bakery in western Scotland. The people are what keep me baking. It’s being part of the club, even when you’re alone.
Finally, I’ve never gotten tired of opening the oven and seeing what my finished bread or pastries look like – it can still make or break my day. That’s why I do it. This job is difficult and backbreaking, but even on a bad day I’d rather be doing this than almost anything else.
Sheena Howdle is lead baker at Wild Flour Bakery in Banff, Alta., and a graduate of Vancouver Island Univerisity’s Professional Baking and Pastry Arts program and a Red Seal baker.
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