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© Allison Usavage

Classes at Wide Awake Bakery

Bakers Stefan Senders and Hope Rainbow of Wide Awake Bakery offer intensive, one-day courses on baking with locally grown and milled wheat.

A Q&A with Stefan, the proprietor of Wide Awake Bakery:

© Allison Usavage
What do you do?

The baking classes are long, they’re intense, they run an entire day starting 8 in the morning sharp. They run until 6pm and you walk out of them just in the nick of time with forty-something loaves of bread. The goal is to have you move at least 4 times through the entire process, which is usually a 3-day process. You do small batches, you do bakery sized batches, you work on theory and classroom work. It’s a very very intense curriculum all packed into one day.

© Allison Usavage
Who is it good for?

We have a lot of home bakers who really want to up their game. There’s great baking books out there, so they’re inspired, they’re practiced, they’re ready to master techniques that are alluding them.

We also have quite a few professional bakers who are setting up bakeries. They’ve maybe been baking more standard breads or scones or something like this for years, and they think “I want to start making really nice bread.” So they come. I think we’ve got 3 bakeries that have started up after our classes so far.

© Allison Usavage
What change are you trying to make?

From a kind of philosophical perspective, there’s many parts of our lives that are basically mystified. Most people think that flour is a white powder that you buy in a bag. Every bag of white flour powder is like every other bag of white flour powder, but that’s simply not the case. These are seeds ground into powder by someone with skill. We’re trying to demystify that process and show how it is real and consequential. How it’s done and how well it’s done. From what and from where and from when.

Our food system is highly mystified, so to bring you in to the bakery and show you what actually goes into making bread… what goes in to making our bread… is also a way of teaching you about what goes in to making other bread. You learn a lot about factory bread by making hand bread. It’s a demystification project.

© Allison Usavage
What brought you to teaching classes?

I think what brought us to teaching classes was that people really want to learn. There’s a tremendous demand. We get calls all the time from people saying “I want to come and work in your bakery for nothing, please accept me as an intern!” and we can’t always do that. So we’re making classes that support that demand.

We also have worked really closely with OGRIN and with New York City Green Markets, and they have a mandate to bring organic local grains into Green Market. Bakers, traditionally, are very wary of trying new things. It’s a fairly sensitive process and you don’t want to disrupt your process just for the sake of change. In order to get more local flour into the stream you need to educate bakers. It provides a market for millers, otherwise the millers won’t mill. And the millers won’t mill if the farmers won’t grow. So, basically, we have to do this bootstrapping operation where Thor is out there changing farmers and teaching millers, then we’re doing the bread part. It’s the idea of getting the whole system off the ground.

For our own vainness, we want people to know what we do. We put a lot of effort into making our bread. People, I don’t think, have any idea what goes into it. They imagine, maybe, that you push a button and out pops a loaf of bread like it’s some time of big machine, or maybe its like at home where you’re grinding and kneading and slamming and whatnot. And it’s very much not like that! So we’re very interested in showing people what actually happens in our bakery, so they know what’s embedded and embodied in that loaf of bread.

© Allison Usavage
How does this impact Ithaca and the FLX?

If you were to look at a map of growth in New York State grains over the last 5 years it is quite astonishing. I’m not trying to take credit for that, but this is part of a movement of people starting to realize that they can bring back that agriculture and that they can use New York State flour, and so on. We want to support that change– it’s really important to us.

© Allison Usavage
What struggles have you encountered?

The classes are very challenging primarily because we get a range of skills. That’s a classic teacher’s challenge, there’s nothing new in that.

Mainly, the hard part is that bread is a really long process. It’s difficult to say to someone, “yeah, come for a class that’s going to last 3 1/2 days” and make that work. We have to do this compression of time and make sure everyone gets enough experience to work through it all.

© Allison Usavage
What inspires you, or what do you celebrate?

That’s kind of a big question… I was just teaching this little team of bakers. They want to move into production. They want to, as one of them said, hammer it out. So I had to say to them, “Look, if you’re going to get good at this, you have to drop that metaphor. Stop hammering. And somehow you have to find a way to befriend, or coax, or invite, or support… you have to find some other way to engage with this process.”

You’re working that contradiction because you have to work quickly and with decisive action. At the same time, you have to work very gently. You want to teach people, you want to teach yourself to be more sensitive. To do a better job. This loaf should be be better than the last loaf. I don’t know, it all sounds so trite. You have this moment where you can hammer it out or you can cultivate kindness by doing this thing. I know that’s overdrawn, but this is what you try to do. You have to bring people around to that. Especially when people are groping… most of them, many of them, have learned about bread-making as piece work production. So they’ve been hammering it out and that’s not our project.

© Allison Usavage
How can we take part?

It’s a beautiful gift. You give someone this experience, and that’s changed some people’s lives. When we first started the bakery I called this guy and asked him how he got into it. He said, “My wife gave me a baking class and I took and and I just thought ‘I really like this’!”. That little toehold really changed the shape of his life and moved him. Introducing people to a different way of being with things and with their environment and with people and with work… it’s a tremendous gift. It’s not like giving something a thing or an amusement. It’s really a transformative event. It basically undermines everything that we’ve ever known, to do that kind of work.

© Allison Usavage
Any final thoughts?

Every single thing you see was made by someone. Some person made all of this stuff. Someone’s hands smoothed those chairs. Someone’s hand did all that. It may be a machine but they took that machine and they used it. That’s a lot of labor. If you start learning directly about how all those things in your world are made and the people who make them, you’re just a wiser and more able person. You can make better choices. That supports people. Just learning supports people! The more you know, the better you do.


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