This is part two of my interview with Caitlin Mandigo, bread baker at City Bakery; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
There are all sorts of romantic notions about what it's like to bake bread. What's it really like? Baking bread is hard work, but definitely very rewarding. I'm at the bakery at 2 a.m. five days a week, and for the first hour, I'm by myself, which means that if anything goes wrong it's up to me -- and only me -- to figure it out. There's also quite a bit of stress in getting the deliveries out on time, especially when there are chaotic situations, like if the cooler breaks and we have to redo all of our bread, or if it's so cold outside that the bread won't rise, even if it's in the proofer. It's a job that's hard on your body, too. I'm always lifting heavy stuff, mainly fifty-pound bags of flour, which, when added up, is about 1,000 pounds a day. I've watched many people come and go. It's physically and mentally demanding, so you have to come in every day well rested and ready to face the grind.
What's the best part about being in the bakery business? The passion you share for baking with the other team members. Whoever can wake up this early to go to work isn't doing it because it's a job; they're doing it because they love it. We have a great team, and it's so great working with people who share a passion for baking and want to expand their culinary horizons.
Which bakers have had the most influence on you? I've been with City Bakery for about a year and a half now, and I've seen many people come and go, which is understandable because of the intense physical demand. But we have such a great team here, where everyone helps each other and really, truly cares about the bread and each other. Having such an amazing team is a great foundation for making our bread so extraordinary.
Best bakeries in Denver/Boulder other than your own: I haven't been to many bakeries, mainly because I tend to be attracted to the savory side of food, but I recently had a couple of pastries -- a dulce de leche napoleon and an apricot linzer tart -- at Azucar Bakery on South Broadway, and I was satisfied with both. The napoleon was very flaky, with a delicious dulce de leche cream filling, and the linzer tarts were little cutout cookies filled with an apricot jelly and dusted with powdered sugar. They had a buttery and nutty flavor -- really delicious. It's definitely a bakery to check out when you need something sweet to eat.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: I got engaged last year at the end of June, and after the engagement, my boss set us up at Ocean Prime, one of the nicest restaurants I've been to in Denver. It was a beautiful evening, with champagne and an over-the-top meal, but the best part of the night for me was when we sat down at our table and they presented us with City Bakery's sour bread. I never thought I would consider bread beautiful, but I can definitely say that about our sour bread. It not only tastes wonderful, but it's covered with these beautifully dark, glossy blisters.
Who would you most like to walk into your store and buy bread from you? My biggest fans are my parents, and it would make me so happy to have them come to Denver and taste all the great bread I bake. We're opening a new cafe soon, so hopefully they can come and check out all the new, exciting things we're expanding on.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a baker? It's hard to name just one. The impact it's had on my personal life has made it difficult to have a normal, healthy relationship because of the lack of sleep and bizarre hours, and I've had to give up a lot of time with my fiancé to make sure that I can get enough sleep. Finding someone who supports my career choice and understands the sacrifices that come with the territory is amazing. It's also impossible to have any sort of life at night, which was really hard for me to get used to at first, but I love what I do, so it's worth it.
If you had the opportunity your to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I've always thought it would be great to open a small bistro right on the ocean. I'd serve sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, fresh-caught seafood, and even have an oyster bar. I'd have mostly covered outside seating so my guests could feel the nice breeze from the ocean. And for a delicious end to their meal, I would serve small bite-size pastries.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Just to appreciate the people who are preparing your food. I speak from experience when I say this is an extremely tough industry. I love when I see someone really enjoying my bread; it's an amazing feeling and makes the early hours and heavy lifting all worth it.
What was the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I've been given a lot of very nice gifts over the years, and I love them all. For Christmas, my manager gave me a stainless-steel cookbook stand with a glass shield, which was a great gift, because I live in a small apartment and it saves me so much space in my kitchen.
What's your fantasy splurge? Chinese food. I know it's horrible for me, but when I was in high school my best friend and I would always go and get Chinese food after school. Now when I eat Chinese, it brings me back to my earlier years.
If you could go anywhere for the perfect croissant, where would it be? The Universal has great croissants, and I know this because we make them at City Bakery. They're a beautiful dark golden brown with a delicious buttery, flaky crust.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? Ithaa Undersea, an all-glass, undersea restaurant in the Conrad Maldives. It's a restaurant that sits five meters below the waves of the Indian Ocean, and there's also a reef that attracts rays, sharks and many beautiful, colorful fish. Because I love the ocean so much, this would be the perfect place to enjoy dinner. The cuisine is Western with a Maldivian flavor, which, to my knowledge, represents Indian spices.
Which of your breads do you find most comforting? What are you pulling from the case on a snowy, cold Denver morning? Our multigrain is always a first choice, because it's so rich in flavor and texture. My second choice is our rosemary focaccia; on a cold winter day, focaccia is wonderful with a nice hot bowl of chili.
Biggest bread fail: When I first started working at City Bakery, I made the mistake of forgetting the yeast in a 186-pound batch of hamburger rolls. It was toward the end of an insane day, and I was exhausted, and just I was just about to leave, everyone realized there was no yeast in the dough. We had to throw it all away and restart the process all over again.
Weirdest customer request: Because we're a wholesale bakery and don't sell to the public, we don't get too many weird requests. We did have a weird request for a cake: The customer wanted us to do molded babies out of fondant.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Working with people who don't pull their own weight. There's nothing worse than having to do not only your job but also someone else's just because they're lazy.
Your best traits: I'm honest, responsible and patient, and I own up to my mistakes. I try and be patient because I want others to feel comfortable asking me for help.
Your worst traits: I'm quiet and a bit shy. This is a tough industry, and you have to be able to speak up and express your thoughts. It's something that I try and work on every day, although it sometimes takes me a little while to open up.
What's the one thing that keeps you up at night? Knowing that I have to be up in only a couple of hours, especially if I lose track of time. I feel like I continually wake up and look at the alarm clock, just waiting for it to go off. I've woken up in a delirious panic, worried that I either forgot to set my alarm or just didn't hear it go off, which is why I now have about five different alarms going off at all different times.
What's always lurking in your pantry? Chicken bouillon. I love making homemade soups when I have the time, especially during the winter. My favorite soup to make is a good old-fashioned chicken noodle.
Do you ever skip the bread basket? No way! The bread baskets are one of the best parts of the meal, especially when it's served warm and fresh out of the oven with a little butter.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: The greatest feeling is when, at the end of my shift, everything has gone smoothly and there were no major issues. It's not very often that I can go through my day and not run into some sort of problem, whether it's the deliveries not getting out in time, or the bread is taking too long to proof, so on the days that are perfect, it's such a wonderful feeling.
Craziest moment in the kitchen: When I first started at City Bakery, the machine that we use to cut our ciabatta broke. It was during the summer, and because of the heat, the dough proofs extremely fast, even out of the proofer. There were 250 pounds of ciabatta on the bench just over-proofing, and I had to cut it all into 1.25-pound [loaves] by hand. I had to think on my feet, but it was a great learning experience. Then there was the time when our walk-in cooler broke down during the night and all of our bread was entirely over-proofed, so we had to trash it all.
Greatest accomplishment as a baker: Seeing my finished product. I love taking the sour out of the oven and having a sense of pride knowing that I made it.
When you look at the Denver food scene, what impresses you, and what disappoints you? I love how diverse we are here; there are so many restaurants to choose from on every block, and there are so many great chefs in Denver experimenting with new ideas. The only thing that disappoints me is that there aren't more frozen-yogurt shops.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? Eating healthier and the continuing trend of gluten-free products.