I arrived at the bakery at 8:00. Chef K was there along with a guy they affectionally call “dough boy.” He had been there since 4. The baking part of the bakery produces all of the breads sold in the bakery as well as a bunch of the bread used by a number of the local restaurants. They also produce the rolls for the French Laundry. In other words, they are incredibly busy. I thought I knew about working hard as a cook but the interesting thing about baking is that all the dough is on a clock and virtually the entire day has been mapped out to the point where you really don’t have much time to come up for air.
The first real task of the day was prepping some small loaves for proofing. The steps sound pretty easy. Fold the bottom third up then the top third down. Then fold the new top down to the bottom and seal with the heel of your hand in such a way that you create tension in the top of the bread. If you watch a baker’s hands perform this task they are a blur of motion and it looks easy but if you apply your own clumsy hands to the process you soon learn you have a long way to go.
I didn’t really have time to write notes down during the day and a lot of it has now blurred together. I know I worked on Brioche loaves that required a rather intricate braid which is not so easy to get the hang of. We also worked on pretzels and, of course, hundreds of baguettes. The nice thing about the baguettes is that I half knew what I was doing by this point! There were also sour baguettes which required a special tapered end that should have been easy but wasn’t. I learned an awful lot about how to work with dough and how to take care in all aspects of what I was doing. A spilled tray of bread or rolls can turn the entire day into a tailspin. Care is definitely called for.
At one point in the afternoon Chef K took me into the oven room. The bakery has a massive four deck oven that has to be ten feet deep and two loads wide. I tried to do everything I could to help by grabbing the next board of baguettes and moving things out of the way as best as I could figure but it was obvious that Chef K knew how to do it all by herself. Wow. The goal is to fill the entire oven before the first load is finished baking. The loaves are placed on to a conveyor belt like apparatus, scored, and shoved into the oven something like twenty loaves at a time. After she had me watch she let me try to score a few loaves. Given the way the loaves come out you would expect large gashes but instead six surgical slashes mostly “vertical” and in the center third of the loaf are all that are called for. Trust me, this is much easier said than done. Later it was on to the epi loaf which I got to try as well. This involves expert use of a pair of scissors and a soft touch of the fingers. I had neither. By the fifth time it wasn’t a tragedy anymore but my internal desires to exceed expectations were definitely put to the test!
One of the things I worked on throughout the day was one of the French Laundry rolls almost from start to finish. Rolls start as large pieces of dough which are rolled out and put on these special plates that then go into this jukebox sized machine. A large lever gets pulled down and cuts the dough into evenly sized pieces. If you release the lever part way up the machine “jiggles” and if you have done your job correctly the pieces get rolled into nice balls. They actually let me work this contraption which I was definitely intimated by but I had resolved to seize the day and try it all and by golly I did it!
Tiny cubes of butter are then pressed into the bottoms of the rolls and then they need to be rolled just right so the dough covers up the butter. Next comes the scoring. You confidently slice four scores horizontally in just the right places on each ball. Then you spin the tray 180 degrees and repeat with the four new scores overlapping just right. Then comes the first egg wash. Where the wash is applied to just the top of the roll and isn’t allowed to flow into the cracks.
Three egg washes are applied in various states of the bun. When you are doing something like this the uninitiated tends to try and be careful. They need to be perfect after all! Chef M watched me briefly and encouraged me to find a second gear which, it turns out, I have! After the final wash comes a pinch of salt in the center. The results are amazing.
At the end of my day Chef M called over to me. He had a large tower of rolls on a cart and was headed to the ovens. “It’s time to bake the rolls for The French Laundry, one of the ten best restaurants in the world, no pressure!” No pressure indeed as he handed me a razor blade to help score the rolls as they head into the oven! Scoring the rolls not only makes them beautiful but can influence their final shape as they expand in the oven. Chef M explained how he was working on different kinds of rolls for TFL and we talked about the upcoming Bouchon Bakery cookbook and my own home endeavors to make bread. I have never gotten quite the “oven spring” I have hoped for and he recommended a Super Soaker for flooding the oven with steam in the overly dry home oven. Of course the deck oven has a button for it!
Would you believe these are the rejects? I can assure you, they still taste amazing! That time, crafting the perfect rolls with a master baker, was definitely a highlight of my week. I will not soon forget it. After that I started to pack up. I needed to get back to the hotel to wash up before my family arrived for dinner. Chef M pointed to a large bag on the bench and said don’t forget your stuff. “Oh, that’s not mine I said naively, the baguette is but I don’t know who the bag belongs to.” “No, that’s yours too” was his reply…
The family ate like kings and queens for a week from this bag. Wow, I’ve never sampled so many treats from the bakery. Each one better than the last!