Flour. Yeast. Salt. Water.
Culinary alchemy transforms these humble ingredients into bread — glorious bread.
That process is at the heart of Brandon Roderick’s endeavor at The Baker in downtown New Bedford, though his offerings go far beyond crusty loaves. On a recent Friday morning, the glass case displayed enticing chocolate croissants, strawberry danish, individual quiches, “everything” bagels, and cinnamon rolls slathered with vanilla frosting, to name just a few. Placards on the wall list the sandwiches and tartines that fuel the firefighters, business people, students, and moms who were waiting to place their orders.
After graduating from New Bedford High School, Roderick was studying biology/pre-med at Tufts University on a full scholarship when he decided to follow his heart into culinary studies. The decision shocked his adviser and fellow students, but the career direction he was headed in “just wasn’t the right fit,” he recalled.
With an associate of arts and sciences degree from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts-Cambridge and years of experience in restaurants and cafes under his belt, the baker struck out on his own. From his opening at 562 Pleasant St. in late December 2016, when he began with three employees, Roderick now has a crew of 15, including a team of four bakers headed by Hannah Herdeen.
Now he stands among a swirl of black T-shirted employees, directing service during the Friday morning rush and jumping in as needed, his orange baseball cap worn backward and his confident air making it clear who’s in charge.
Here, Roderick talks to The Light about his professional journey and his downtown business only blocks from where he grew up.
New Bedford Light: What do you find most satisfying about this profession?
Brandon Roderick: I think right now, I’m just still driven by technique. And I think I’m still in awe that when you follow the technique — and these are classical techniques — the product works. Sure, there are shortcuts and ways to get there other than the classical techniques, but I just have an appreciation for the classics.
Recently I took a class through the Bread Bakers Guild of America, and it was taught by Craig Ponsford, who was the first American to win the Bread Olympics in France, back in 1993, I think, or ’96. He was such a professional and perfectionist in the way he handles dough.
We only made baguettes, diving into everything to do with bread and baguettes and, you know, if you put one finger in the dough more than you should, you can see that in the final dough. It was incredible to work with somebody on that level. And I think that kind of inspired me to go back to technique-driven and science-driven, because that’s really what it is.
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NBL: Did your biology education at Tufts University contribute in any way to your success in this profession?
BR: I think having the science background made me gravitate right to the pastry and bread section [of cooking], because it’s the most chemistry-driven. … you’re working with something alive, so you’ve got biology there. I notice when I talk to other bakers, a lot of them know “how,” but they don’t know the “why.” I try to share my “whys” with them. You know, they don’t have to care, which is fine because as bakers, you don’t need to care. You need to put out a great product. But I’m more interested in the why. What drives me nuts is when something goes wrong, and I can’t figure out the why. So that’s the scientist background coming out. Absolutely.
NBL: Baking is considered more chemistry than is cooking. There are hard-and-fast rules to follow. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like you really observe the rules — for example, the peach-blueberry cobbler flaky doughnut offered on a recent weekend. So what’s your view about rule-keeping vs. rule-breaking?
BR: I think I go back and forth, but you hit it right on the head. Sometimes I follow the rules very strictly. There’s a bread decree of France where the baguette dough can’t be mixed the day before. It has to be mixed the day of, and baked on site, and not contain any additives. So it can only have flour, water, yeast, and salt. And that’s the only thing you can call a baguette in France. So I want to stay very true to that when we do our baguette.
But then we have, I call it like a creative license or pastry-chef freedom, to kind of go rogue and do something that is trendy but also rooted in science and artisanry. Because even though we’re covering that doughnut with a blueberry glaze and filling it with two different fillings, and rolling it in sugar, the lamination [layering of pastry dough with butter] on that doughnut still has to be technically correct. The dough mixing still has to be technically correct and the butter and the dough have to be the same temperature in order to get the perfect lamination. So there’s still a lot of technicality in what we do there. But we’re taking a little bit of creative license to do some fun stuff.
NBL: Do you come up with all of those ideas, or do your bakers contribute?
BR: We’re a very team-oriented kitchen. We’ll throw out an idea and kind of process through it, with flavor profiles or what we think would work, or what we have to use up, or something like that. So it’s very much a team effort.
We’ve been open for five years now, so some of [the doughnuts] are repeats that we now do very well, and we like those flavor profiles. So it works. But some are brand-new, like the peach one was brand new. And that came from scrolling on Instagram, and everyone’s talking about peaches right now because they’re in season … and my kids love peaches and blueberries. We were like, “Oh, we can use the crumb [topping] that we used the other week. That recipe worked out well.” So it just kind of happened.
NBL: Did you have a lot of culinary experiences growing up?
BR: I was raised by my great grandmother, who was an avid baker. I can remember her putting out her pie mat for Thanksgiving and rolling out her pie dough. But as I got older, she also got older, so the cooking kind of ceased. I do have very fond memories of making pie dough with her and her adding a tablespoon of ice water at a time until the dough was just right. So I do feel very blessed to have those experiences … of being in the kitchen with family. And you know, we were the type of family that she made dinner every day so there was always that cooking and good food involved, which was great.
But I think going to Boston and being in the restaurant scene up there and going to culinary school changes your palate a little bit to maybe some of the fancier things or things that people might not enjoy had they not tried or been exposed to it. … I think the dawn of the Food Network opened up the culinary world for a lot of people, which was great.
But actually my first job was right down here at where DNB Burgers used to be [on Elm Street], Ristorante Divino. First job, [table] busser, new to the world. And what an experience that was. Actually the headwaiter there still comes into this place. He taught me a lot. So it’s always like, ‘What’s up, kid?’ It’s nice to see the evolution, I think.
NBL: Everyone knows inflation is hitting Americans hard at the grocery store. How is it affecting your business?
BR: We’re all feeling it, right? And I think more so in a bakery setting, where you’re used to certain staple ingredients being on the cheaper side, you know, flour, sugar, things like that. And now we’re seeing almost double the price from two years ago for flour bags. Being a small bakery, we can’t bring in pallets of flour to get a bulk discount. We don’t have room to store it, and we don’t go through pallets of flour. So we get it delivered weekly, and we pay a premium price to have the bags of flour brought in.
Yeah, it’s up there. I think across the board, the cost of goods is up by 30 to 35 percent. And when you talk about thin margins on the bottom line, that’s a big number.
NBL: Have you had to go up on your prices? How have your customers reacted to that?
BR: Yeah, we did. We had to. There was no way to survive and make it through that. I think we held off as long as we could, which every financial expert says that’s a bad idea, to try to hold on. And you just gotta do it. I’m in a business group with several other business owners. And we all had the same revelation of like, we gotta do it.
I’ve been working the front a little bit more because of some staffing issues. And I do notice people are noticing it now. They’re like, “Oh, OK.” So there’s that pause, and then that quick calculation in their head, and then they pay their bill. I haven’t noticed a decline in customer count, so I think people are still coming here. I also haven’t noticed a decline in ticket average. So people are hopefully ordering the same amount.
But I have gotten those few raised eyebrows, of like, “It’s how much?” and I’m sorry, but it’s a business and the numbers tell me where I need to be. If you ignore them, it just gets worse.
NBL: I went to a cafe the other day and a “fair wage fee” was added. There was no tip jar on the counter. What’s your viewpoint on this approach?
BR: I’ve been a restaurant manager. I’ve been in a cafe setting, a bakery setting. And I don’t know if the East Coast is ready for that yet. I know it’s pretty big on the West Coast, and I see these fees kind of coming into places more and I don’t like that word “fee.” If I can, I’m going to build it into my food cost.
We’re not at that point yet. And I totally get what they’re trying to do and I applaud them for their effort. … Basically, because Massachusetts says that you can’t split tips with people who don’t have direct customer service interaction. It means that you can’t give a portion of the tips or gratuity to your kitchen staff if they don’t have direct interaction, or to your bakers, who don’t interact with the customer.
So that way, you have that big wage discrimination, which is classic in restaurants, where if you are front of the house [servers], if you’re busy, you make a ton of money, but the back of the house stays the same. So it kind of bridges that gap a little bit.
I think there might be a more creative way to do it. I just haven’t thought about it.
NBL: Bakers have notoriously demanding hours, the “early to rise” thing. Have you found a way to balance that with the rest of your life?
BR: Right now I have a great crew, and like I said, Hannah is my head baker. So I am not in super early unless there’s a problem or unless it’s a holiday or a big, big weekend. Because my life with three little kids and a fiancee who doesn’t work in the restaurant industry or bakery industry, it doesn’t really fit well with that schedule any more. Although if I would go to bed the same time as the kids, maybe it would work.
I have a great crew and they start at 2:30 or 3 a.m. And my phone is always on, so sometimes [I get] those unpleasant phone calls at 3 a.m. It’s not fun, but I’m very thankful that they are dedicated and show up.
NBL: The parking issue has been a thorn in the side of downtown merchants as far back as I can recall, and you’ve spoken out against the recent increases. On the flip side, what do you value most about downtown?
BR: I think the mix of customers that we get is such a great variety. … Everyone’s like, “What’s your target demographic? What’s your ideal customer?” Sit in my shop for an hour and see a range of ages and creeds. It’s just amazing. And I love that downtown is kind of a hub for that. That’s why I’m kind of so adamant about the parking thing, because I want my downtown of the city I grew up in and I’m a part of to be welcoming for everyone. And when you start raising those things [parking fines] 100 percent and less time for your money in the meter — that was a couple of months ago. … Who are we trying to get in here now? Why is downtown not for everyone? As a business owner, I want everybody to come to my place and feel welcome, and unfortunately I don’t think the parking meters do that, but City Hall and I disagree on that aspect. We’ll continue to agree to disagree I guess. …
We’re open Wednesday through Sunday, and Wednesday through Friday, we get our downtown people, who we know and love, and we know their names and where they work and everything. And then Saturday and Sunday, the rest of the city comes to see us, which is great too.
But yeah, I love being downtown. It’s amazing, and I credit that to a lot of the hard work what we call “the originals” put in: the Craig Paivas [No Problemo], the Devyns [Byrnes, Destination Soups] who were here before anything else was really here. And then it kind of became the hub of the city and it’s beautiful, and we’re welcoming people and it’s great. And I don’t want it to go back the other way because of stuff that’s happening.
NBL: Tell me a bit about the business community of downtown. Is there great camaraderie amongst you all?
BR: The community of business owners downtown is one of mutual respect and friendship. As a restaurant, when I run out of something, I can call one of five restaurants downtown to quickly borrow it, and vice versa. We all kind of feel the same pressures of business ownership and being downtown. I think we just share in the mission to do the best we can, and provide for our families and our staff.
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.