September 26, 2007
Robert Holland, Head Baker, Grand Central Bakery
Robert Holland caught the baking bug at an early age. As a fresh-faced teen, he landed a job making bread by hand at the family-run Sanchioli Brothers Bakery in Pittsburgh, Pa., an 85-year-old cornerstone of the city's Little Italy district. Today he's head baker at the wholesale location of Seattle's Grand Central Bakery, where he manages the production of thousands of artisan breads each day, overseeing a staff of two dozen who shape each loaf by hand.
Q: How did you get started as a baker?
A: Baking bread was my first job out of high school. I worked for a third-generation Italian baker in Pittsburgh – that's where I grew up – and I fell in love with baking bread. After about six years I decided to go to culinary school, a two-year program. Now [colleges] have baking programs; when I went, I learned about carrots and peas and how to cook a vegetable. I really didn't care about cooking vegetables. I just wanted to bake bread.
After that I worked for hotels in Orlando, Florida, and Aspen, Colorado, doing pastry work, and I realized I missed baking bread. The hotels are so corporate. Then after moving to Seattle I took a job as a graveyard [shift] baker at Grand Central Bakery in 1995. I only made 60 loaves a night, and I worked by myself. In 1998, I became assistant head baker, and I was promoted to head baker in 2003.
Q: Did you get any on-the-job training during your early baking years?
A: At the Italian bakery [in Pittsburgh], I asked the boss, who was 75, "Izzy, how do you know when the bread's done?" And he said, "When it's brown, it's done. When it's black, you're done." So that was my training.
At Grand Central Bakery, they wanted someone who knew their product well and could sustain their standards. What we do is so unique that you need someone who knows the process. They trusted that I could do it: "Here's some flour, there are the aprons over there..."
On romancing the dough:
"It's a physically demanding job. It's tough. People get in here, especially Americans, and they want to romanticize the perfect loaf of bread – they want to caress it. And I'm like, 'We've got another 2,000 loaves to go today.' Quick ballpark, we make about 3,000 loaves a day. This is production. You're not going to fall in love with one loaf of bread here. You're going to see thousands."
Q: What's a typical workday like for you?
A: A typical day consists of getting to the bakery by 8 a.m. That's late for a bakery, but, hey, I'm the boss now. First thing I do is check all the bread from last night for quality. And the next couple hours are usually spent in the office doing paperwork, which consists of reviews of people's performance, scheduling, ordering baking supplies like flours, and hands-on training. The paperwork takes about four hours a day. I try to keep it minimal. If I can stay out of the office I'm happier.
The last half of the day I usually [create] one of the mixes, and then I work an hour forming breads – shaping them, scoring them – and then I work the ovens for an hour or two. A loaf takes 30 to 50 minutes to bake depending on the size. That's my favorite part. I like working the ovens, loading and unloading the breads. Raymond Carver uses this line: "Endlessly empty and endlessly full." It's just constant, constant.
Q: What are some of the challenges of supervising a 24-person production team?
Supervising consists of keeping all lines of communication as clear as possible. It's orchestrating what needs to happen when. With the techniques we use here, it takes three days to make a loaf of bread. It's all by hand. So everything that happens is critical – mixing, forming, scaling – and keeping this consistent is one of my biggest challenges. One guy might think the dough's ready, and the next guy might not.
Q: How often do you work on creating new breads?
A: Not as much as I would like. There doesn't seem to be enough time in the day. I did one in the last six months. We started doing a brioche – a sweet dough. It has eggs and it was a customer request. All of our breads are flour, water, salt and yeast, so this is earth-shattering. This gives me paperwork to do. I have to order eggs.
Q: When is your crunch time?
A: There are occasions where I will schedule someone to work six days [a week], like the holidays. That week from Christmas to New Year's is usually our busiest week of the year. And we [recently] had extra orders for the Jewish holidays. We made 560 [loaves of] challah for Rosh Hashanah, all by hand.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring bakers?
A: My biggest advice would be to join the Bread Bakers Guild of America. It's a huge resource for aspiring bakers – home bakers and professionals. There is such a strong tie that we bakers have for each other, and it's nice to feel a part of something, a common goal, to eat and bake good bread. I go on their Web site every day. There's always someone saying, "Hey, I'm going to be in Portland next week. Can I come visit your bakery?"
Classes work, but I don't think you have to go to a culinary program. The process is so long. You could save yourself some money by working in a bakery and seeing if that's what you like first. Nothing replaces experience, experience, experience. If you could apprentice in a bakery, I think that would be the best.
Q: Does Grand Central offer apprenticeships or internships to aspiring bakers?
A: I always take interns, and an internship is usually for one to three months.
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