Editor’s note: Writer and photographer Robert Warren likes to tell stories. With pen and lens. In a new partnership with NolaVie, he will offer each month a bit of background on one of his in-depth photo stories about things that are quintessentially New Orleans. The column also will offer an excerpt from one of Robert’s pieces to whet your appetite for his photos and prose; by all means, click the link at the bottom of the story to enjoy the full offering. Today he visits young baker Kate Heller at her Bywater pop up Leo’s Bread.
I’m calling this the red-collared generation.
Those current twenty-somethings in the midst of that post-graduation, early career confusion have decided to quit the comfort and predictability of white or blue.
No, I don’t believe the banks will cease to exist or that mechanics will be hard to come by. Rather, I see a generational identity developing that, though not in its final form, will eventually come to define these bumbling twenty-somethings as red-collared thirty year olds. They are the generation of the entrepreneur, the creative and the passionate.
I returned to the nondescript kitchen in the Bywater where I first watched Kate Heller shuffle expertly prepared loaves of bread around an ancient oven to see how Leo’s Bread (the popup she runs out of Pagoda Café once a week) was getting along.
She smiles when she tells me how business has boomed.
She used to bake one day a week; now she’s up to three.
She recently purchased an industrial sized refrigerator; it’s necessary for the increase in her personal baking as well as the supply of bread she will deliver to the restaurant 1000 Figs.
Today Kate is finishing up an order of bread for a wedding tomorrow in the French Quarter.
She’s busy, which is exactly what she wants to be.
Kate won’t brag about it, but if you ask, she’ll tell you about her degree from the University of Michigan, how she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She’ll tell you how she built an oven from scratch and how she learned to really bake in a wood oven she loaded and fired alone.
She is the red-collared generation, those hardworking and intelligent young people in pursuit of meaning making over money making.
Inclined to risk without recklessness, the red-collared generation believe in the virtues of passion and thoughtfulness.
These thoughtful and passionate red-collared kids want to dance like their baby boomer parents at Woodstock, but they remember the temperance the middle school DARE Program taught them.
So they find themselves somewhere in the middle between reckless disregard and strict adherence.
Kate asks for no more than she has earned. There is a kind of cool patience to her demeanor that accepts the years of work that must follow in pursuit of her passion. She works comfortably in that middle.
For this, it is the small victory that earns the greatest celebration.
Today she has a refrigerator, tomorrow an oven.
Kate shows me a picture on her phone. It’s an adobe colored square, maybe twenty feet across and twenty feet deep. It looks twelve feet tall. I’m considering how the image of this massive oven compares to my own puny, square apartment when she shocks me; it’s wood fired. She would haul and load and stoke this behemoth the day before baking, trying to get it near the 500-550 degree range optimal for bread.
When she started, she might make an error and find it at 1000 degrees the next morning, a temperature better for finishing glazed pottery than cooking bread. It was so powerful she could cook for three days on one wood firing. When she was done it took two weeks to cool down completely. She’s making much less in this terrifying oven hidden somewhere in the Bywater, but she still imports the highest quality flour to her mid-city house by the pallet (around 700lbs at a time). I don’t doubt her skill; I see the oven here is impressive, but minuscule in comparison.
It’s a Blodgett, and it looks so old and worn in I’m surprised it isn’t wood fired; Kate says it’s gas. There used to be a Vietnamese bakery in the building, she tells me, but my first glance at the somber looking apparatus reminds me of the frightening furnace from the movie Home Alone. Maybe I am a bit scared; I don’t want one of those two-inch long reminders along my own forearm. The oven has been heating since four this morning, when the night baker for another small business fired it up for Kate. There are two burners and three racks, and Kate loves the challenge of the old style equipment, really designed for pizzas, not bread. The middle rack, she tells me, gives the best heat distribution and crust because the heating elements are above and below the dough. The top is tough to work with, the heat profile is too sharp and the right side is likely to burn your bread. She has to rotate the pans during baking for even cooking. But she doesn’t mind, she loves the challenge. I’m fascinated, but more concerned with not bumping into it as I walk by.
Now, Kate says, we bake.
There are rows of cast iron pans with lids already inside of the oven. They have been preheating while we have been waxing poetic about dough and heat profiles. She walks the tray containing the first of three batches to the face of the oven, then with the same expert motions she dusted with, she removes a pan from the oven, flips in 26 ounces of dough, scores the top with a razorblade, puts the blade in her mouth, and slides the ready dough back into the oven, snapping the lid on the cast iron. It’s one motion and she does it effortlessly. You forget that she’s working with 500-degree cast iron pans until you notice the mini-tray she places them on to keep the floor tiles from cracking.
Read the rest of the Leo’s Bread story in its entirety here.