Trailblazing at the Ovens

Breaking into a world closed to women, in France, in the 70's, brimmed with challenges, frustrations and eventually lifelong friends and colleagues.

 

I began as a cook, going through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", page by page. The family would eat chicken for two weeks while I worked through that chapter, then pork for two weeks, then beef, etc. After 2 volumes of this training, I had learned the techniques and the methods of applying heat to food, and could use them as I wished, without needing a recipe. But I wanted some professional experience. I knew that my organization and work habits were not professional or even efficient. Three years of requests to restaurants in France for an internship or apprenticeship did not yield a chef who wanted an American, or was it a woman, in his kitchen.

This is 1973. The baker on the ground floor of our building in Paris said I could come and watch. I had tried French bread (from Vol. 2 of "Mastering"). I had also tried croissants, which my husband, when he saw them come out of the oven, mistook for pretzels.

Nothing the baker did that night was remotely familiar to what I had picked up from books. So that one night in the bakery led to many workdays in my own kitchen, and the subsequent request for another night at Paul's ovens. Then I didn't speak much, actually any, French. So, I understood the Paul when he said "Yes, I could come back," but I didn't understand his qualifier: "but not tonight because we are so busy". Sunday a.m. is market day and he produces eight times the weekday amounts. So, when I showed up at 3 a.m., there really wasn't any room for me. He was far too polite to ask me to leave (and I was far too interested to offer).

Fourteen hours later I tackled the wash up: bowls stacked shoulder high. That was one job I could do without ruining anything and might show a bit of appreciation for being in his way all day. He, in turn, was appreciative and said to come back any time, which I understood, and did, beginning with the very next workday. It was soon clear that the combination of the hand processes and the mysteries of the fermentation were seductive and appealing to me.

Not too many months later I asked him if I could have a formal apprenticeship and he told me he considered my apprenticeship period nearly over. I was then allowed, under supervision, to do the work rather than help. My last duty of the day was to make a tournée of croissants entirely by hand. He had little risk with that small amount, and I had invaluable experience doing the same thing each day, and seeing the results from the oven that my fingers had experienced the previous day.

The other experience that was so valuable was to be working next to his 'retired' father. The baker now moved on to other chores and left me alone with his father to do the daily bread productions. He father had begun his apprenticeship before WWI and had a wealth of hands on experience.

His father was true to form for his countrymen and not at all happy about my presence in the bakery. My place would have been behind the counter if at all. So we worked elbow to elbow, month and month, never saying more than "Good morning" and "Good night" Any question from me: "why do we shape today with three folds, rather than two as we did yesterday", was met with the response "C'est comme ca." ("It's like that.") Except for mixing, we did the whole process by hand: dividing, shaping, loading and unloading the oven.

Two years of this were very good training but I really needed to know the answer to some of my questions. By now I was envisioning a bakery in Santa Barbara and becoming concerned about my ability to produce from American flours and solve problems on the floor.

Next came a fight to get into the Brevet de Maîtrise program, for certification as a master baker. As an American, as a woman, or maybe as a trailblazer, my story is familiar to any of a woman breaking into a 'man's world'. I approached the resistance with an outright challenge that my applications were rejected due to gender. The retort was that I could not be cut any slack on the language skills necessary. Indeed there was cause to worry: I was so angry during the interview that my newly learned elementary French was spoken very brokenly. Finally, the decision was that I would be allowed to follow the two-year course - if my employer would attest in writing that my verbal and written French language skills were adequate, which of course he did.

I then had 30 days to learn to read and write French (not yet a part of my repertory)!

The program was rigorous, a 2 year night course after days of working from 3:00 am to 6:00 p.m. Of the twelve who began the course, eight continued into the second year and four passed the final two day written and practical exam. The program included panification theory, practical work in the bakery, flour quality control and dough rheology, leading to the Maître Boulanger certification, Master Baker.

The program gave me all I sought, and returning to the U.S., I began a bakery that was to become known for the quality and authenticity of its product. At first we made 300 loaves per day; it was discouraging to bake all night, open at 7am, then close 2 hours later as we were out of product.

The bakery grew in recognition, receiving plaudits from everywhere. It broke even in 5 days, paid back an SBA capitalization loan at 5 months. Five years later, with a few more employees, we were producing 3000 baguettes an hours. Problems were nearly always people problems, not bread or dough problems. In 1982, at the burgeoning of hearth bread bakeries, I dissolved the little business and began trouble-shooting production problems in other bakers' shops. The appeal of solving dough problems has proven much more satisfying than the day to day personnel issues in a bakery and has also allowed me many extended learning opportunities in cereal chemistry and dough rheology. The opportunity to run the U.S. arm a flour quality control lab afforded an extensive education I would not have had the ability to gain in a bakery. This combination of production with a technical background is probably unique in our field.