Meet – Michael Kalanty Baker
Michael is a baking instructor and author. But before his baking days, Michael Kalanty was in school for Architecture in Philadelphia. He traveled to France to study gothic cathedrals but ended up falling in love with baking. Every day he would walk past bakeries and soon he started to spend a lot of time chatting with the bakers.
Michael eventually had to go back to Philadelphia to finish his degree but he knew where his heart was and returned to France to find a job in a Parisian restaurant. One thing led to another, and Michael ended up assisting a one-man baker named Pierre Menier in his bakery called Pomme d’Ati in Chambly, France. It was here that Michael learned the craft of baking and he stayed for 3 years before returning to Philadelphia.
At Philadelphia, Michael became the Head Pastry Chef at a restaurant school and wrote the curriculum for their baking program. From there, he became the Executive Director for California Culinary Academy, creating their baking programs for locations in San Francisco, Monterey, San Diego and New Orleans. The California Culinary Academy later became part of Cordon Bleu.
But greater adventures were calling and Michael moved on to a private school in Sao Paolo, Brazil and taught there for 3 years. He returned to California to teach at the California Culinary Academy and at The Art Institute in San Francisco. Michael also spent a few years teaching at cooking schools like Kitchen on Fire in Berkeley.
Michael is the author of How To Bake Bread: The Five Families of Bread®, which was selected by Publishers Weekly spotlight on the top books of the year. His book was nominated as a finalist for “Best Professional Cookbook” by the International Association of Culinary Professionals and won the top honor as “Best Bread Book in the World” at the Paris Cookbook Fair. His newest book, How to Bake More Bread®, came out in May 2016.
Today, Michael teaches classes at SF Cooking School, San Mateo Draeger’s cooking school, and Ramekins Culinary School in Sonoma. Michael also teaches online classes at Craftsy where kids can learn to bake bread. To learn more about Chef Mike or sign up for his classes, please visit his website at http://www.michaelkalanty.com/
Why did you decide to go into this profession?
I didn’t really decide to become a baker. Instead, wild yeast found me.
I was working in a business office: doing my job, having fun, and being a good employee. There was a bakery down the street and each day I would walk by and look inside at the stacks of beautiful breads lining the store shelves. The bakers were always smiling, laughing, shaping dough and pulling shiny loaves from the big ovens.
When I walked past the bakery in the evening, I saw empty shelves, the lights were turned off, and the floors had been swept and mopped. Everything was quiet, still and shiny. You could tell everything was resting after a hard day’s work and couldn’t wait for the bakers to return the next day and put everything into action once again.
The bakery needed the bakers. Without them, it was a sad and lonely shop. It needed the bakers to fill the air with flour, with laughter, and with wonderful aromas. That’s when I knew I was going to become a baker.
Can you describe a typical day?
A young baker needs to be flexible. Sometimes you’ll work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., sometimes 4 p.m. to midnight. Depending on how the bakery is set up, sometimes you’ll work from midnight until 8 a.m. This is the GraveYard Shift.
Everybody should work GraveYard Shift for three or four months when starting out as a baker. It gives you perspective and helps you realize how important each of the steps to making bread really is.
During GraveYard Shift, there’s not very much interference from phone calls, customers, or even supervisors. Bakers focus on their jobs and do quick and precise work. It’s almost like meditation, or doing yoga. The work is methodical, calming, and it becomes instinctive after a while. The best part is what’s called muscle memory. This is when your hands know just what to do and you can turn your brain off.
When a baker trusts his hands enough that he doesn’t have to watch every step, that’s when the magic starts to happen. Your muscles actually learn and have better reaction when the dough is sometimes sticky, or sometimes a little dry. Your hands will know how to use more pressure or less. It’s almost as if you can take a step back from what you’re doing and just watch your hands doing their job.
On the typical shift you’ll mix several batches of dough– Challah, Sticky Buns, Whole Wheat Rolls, and even Wild Yeast Dough– that’s the cool hip baker term for sourdough breads. We don’t call them sourdough anymore because they don’t have to be really sour. But the yeast IS wild– it’s the white cloudy coating you see on red grapes.
This is wild yeast.
You’ll need to feed your wild yeast culture every day, too. Half of the one-gallon tub will get used to make breads. Then you need to put more flour and water back in the tub, mix it together, and let the wild yeast eat the new flour all night long. Tomorrow, the mixture will be filled with air bubbles and ready to make more bread.
You’ll spend time working “on the bench” too. The bench is what hip bakers call the work area or table where breads are shaped. You’ll make long loaves, short loaves, big rounds, and tiny rolls. Pretzels, swirl breads, knots, and monkey bread. A good head baker will make sure to save some dough so you can shape and bake some pizzas–and eat them for lunch!
What part of your work brings you the most joy?
I love to make things, especially with my hands. At the end of a day’s work, I am just more satisfied when I can point to things and say, “Look. I made those things”.
When I worked in a business office, at the end of the day, I would have scheduled some meetings, planned an event, taught employees how to use a new software program. And though this was satisfying, I was sad that I couldn’t really touch what it was I had spent my whole day doing.
Holding warm loaves of yummy bread, slicing croissants to analyze the inside structure, seeing how shiny the chocolate glaze was on the cream puffs. These are real things that you can touch. This brings me the most joy.
Do you have a favorite food? What is it?
I learned to be a baker in France. I lived in a tiny room above the bakery, which sounds not so much fun but it was always the warmest room in the house. So people liked to hang out there. Plus, it smelled so good, butter, sugar, and chocolate aromas filled the air.
The big meal of the day was lunch– and it was usually a stew or some sort, like beef bourgignon, which is chunks of beef simmered with carrots and onions in brown gravy. It gets served on gratin potatoes–which means the potatoes are sliced super thin, layered in a pan, and then covered with cream and cheese. As they bake, the cheese on top gets brown and bubbly, kind of like the top of a crême brûlée, but with cheese instead of sugar.
This style of cooking is called rustic cuisine, or regional cooking, because each part of France has dishes that are specialties from that area. These are my favorite types of foods. They are easy to make, cook slowly for a long time, so you have time to do other things or even take a quick baker’s nap, and they aren’t fancy. They’re just good. And nutritious. And that’s the best.
What is the most important tool for you in the kitchen?
Your hands! Caveman didn’t have very sophisticated tools to work with. When he made the first bread, over 5,000 years ago, Caveman had only his hands to do the job. A real baker uses his hands to make loaves beautiful, even if the dough was mixed on a machine.
Your eyes! A real baker can SEE when breads are done baking. When buttercream icing is whipped and fluffy just enough. When it’s time to stir the custard and when it’s time to let it alone.
Your ears! When your breads are done baking, they sing to the baker. The same way that there are high-pitched sounds that people can’t hear but that dogs can! You can hear when your breads are ready to come out of the oven.
Your tongue! Taste everything!!!! Everything!!!!! Raw flour. Fresh butter. Even the salt. Each ingredient has its own personality. It’s the job of the baker to bring them together so they work as a team– no one ingredient can have the lead.
What is the funniest moment you remember while working in the restaurant?
I was making carrot cake for the PBS station in Philadelphia. This was supposed to be a big sheet cake that would serve about 75 people who’d volunteered to take pledges over the phones during a fundraising weekend.
To make enough cake batter, I had to multiply my formula by 5 in order to have enough. (Baker’s don’t say “recipe”, they say “formula”. It’s secret baker language.) I didn’t follow the rule of always writing down the weights of all the ingredients. I just did all the arithmetic in my head. Five times 1 pound of butter was 5 pounds. Five times 2 ounces of sugar was 10 ounces. Everything was going along just fine.
When I got to the 2 pounds of flour, my brain had already changed that to 10 pounds of flour. But then, my brain went and multiplied those TEN Pounds of Flour by 5 once again. So I had 50 pounds of flour!!
Instead of being soft and pourable, the cake batter was firm and stiff. It would be a horrible cake and so I had to compost everything. But then, I had a crazy idea that what if I shaped it into loaves and bread and baked them that way!! So I did.
When my chef came in to see how I was doing, I was quite scared. But he was amazed!!! “What beautiful breads, young baker! And very tasty!!! The PBS volunteers will LOVE these!”
I always remember that when my bakery students make a mistake in class. I remember how a mistake is the best chance for you to learn something new. It doesn’t always work out, but a lot of times it does. Some of the best creations from the kitchen have come about by mistakes. That’s pretty funny, when you think about it.
Any words of advice for kids thinking about growing up to do be a baker?
Play sports. Standing on your feet and using your body to get your job done is a lot harder than sitting at a desk in an office. You need to have a way to let loose at the end of the day. And playing soccer, baseball, swimming…these are all great ways to clear out your head and loosen up your muscles. The sooner you build an active routine into your day, the more stamina you’ll have when you become a baker.
Be part of a Team. Think about the SF Giants. They can’t just have Madison Bumgarner pitching all day. Sometimes the opposition is gonna hit off him. So you need a good first baseman. You need good fielders. And you need Posey to catch all the balls the opposition doesn’t hit.
Working in a bakeshop is like that. The best baking team has tall bakers who can reach the highest ovens and shorter people who can easily reach the lower ones. Fast workers to shape 1,000 loaves of bread all the same; and slower, methodical people who can make sure the mixers operate for the exact amount of time for each different bread. Different personalities work together to form a strong team.
When you go to a really good bakery, like Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, don’t focus on the beautiful pastries and cakes without taking a minute to look behind the glass wall and watch the bakers and pastry cooks work together. See how they hand tools to one another without even having to say anything. They just know. They work smoothly, in unison, and each baker knows what the others are doing and wants to make sure they get help when they need it.