Pandemic bakers go pro
Before the pandemic, Max Kumangai spent his Saturdays singing and dancing through back-to-back performances of âJagged Little Pill,â a rock musical on Broadway.
Saturday remains her busiest day. But while he started his workday by practicing lifting his co-workers over his head, he now starts by taking the sourdough breads out of the fridge and getting them ready for baking. (The oven in his Harlem apartment is so old that the numbers on the temperature dial faded a long time ago, but he knows which point to choose to get the perfect color and crust.)
Once the buns are baked, he places them in paper bags stamped with the logo of Humpday Dough, the business he now runs with his fiance, and heads to the subway to deliver them across New York City.
âI always come out of a day of childbirth feeling socially fulfilled,â he said from his home.
Many people discovered the love of baking during the pandemic. Mr. Kumangai was among those who realized that their newfound passion could be more than a hobby.
Culinary schools have been inundated with inquiries from aspiring bakers. The Institute of Culinary Education, which offers courses in Los Angeles and New York, received 85% more applications this year than in 2019. Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI, said its programs bakery and pastry shops have attracted much more interest. than other culinary programs.
While long-standing traditional bakeries have struggled to find skilled bakers, many hobbyists have become home bakers, selling bread from home or at farmers’ markets, according to Mitch Stamm, executive director of Bread Bakers. Guild of America. .
âIt’s a really exciting time,â he said. “Lots of small bakeries – one-person bakeries, two-person bakeries – are doing very well.”
Before the pandemic, Mr. Kumangai, 36, did not consider himself a breadman and even forbade his fiancÃ© from bringing high-carbohydrate breads into their home. But with âJagged Little Pillâ on indefinite hiatus, âI wanted something to work on,â he said.
This April, after baking enough chicken pies to survive for months if supermarkets ran out of food, he decided to try his hand at a sourdough starter.
“It smelled weird, and not in a good way,” he recalls recently. He threw it away. A few months later, “I thought, I’m not doing anything with my life,” so he gave it another chance.
The second time, it was the charm. To keep a healthy sourdough, it should be fed twice a day with flour and water. The process reminded him to take care of a Tamagotchi or a pet. He found it pleasantly therapeutic.
Lots of others too. Penny Stankiewicz, a pastry and baking professor at the Institute of Culinary Education, said it made sense to her for sourdough to become a star of pandemic-era kitchens.
âAt that time, we were all so unstable in our hearts and we couldn’t really count on anything, we had this thing that we could nurture,â she said. Mr. Kumangai also enjoyed other aspects of sourdough making: stretching and folding the dough, learning about the science of bubbles.
It was Mr. Kumangai’s fiance, Michael Lowney, another Broadway actor sidelined by the pandemic, which prompted Mr Kumangai to make baking a job. (Mr. Lowney is now her business partner.)
Last summer, they were driving home from a Black Lives Matter protest. Mr. Kumangai, who is black and Pacific Islander, felt a surge of emotions: desperation and rage, but also the exhilaration of emerging from a pandemic of physical isolation to connect with other people so intensely.
Daily business briefing
âHe noticed that I needed something to continue this connection,â Mr. Kumangai said of his partner. Baking and delivering bread has become the solution.
Over the next few months, they went from selling the occasional sourdough bread to a friend to delivering dozens of breads a week – along with pancakes, crackers and focaccia – many subscribers who found Humpday. Dough via social media. Last month, the couple received 150 orders.
With the help of a Brooklyn couple who had also started a pandemic bread operation, Mr. Lowney figured out how to become an LLC, meet health requirements, and set up an online ordering system.
âI realized that I love creating Google spreadsheets,â Mr. Lowney said. It was a shock.
All over the world, others were also seeing the potential of turning dough into dough.
While living with her parents in Boston, 23-year-old Leah Kahane began cooking as an antidote to pandemic isolation. âDitching the cinnamon rolls for my siblings was a way to feel connected to them,â she said.
It also reminded her that there was something she loved more than recruiting executives for healthcare companies. She resigned and enrolled in the baking and pastry arts program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
Bakers who had long specialized in publishing photos and videos of their creations also found a new, potentially lucrative audience. The self-taught Norwegian baker behind the sourdough-centric Instagram account @breadbyelise said she had grown from 10,000 to 67,000 followers during the pandemic.
The attention prompted her to start a blog. When readers click on a link and purchase a product that she recommends, they earn a commission. The woman, who goes by the name of Elise, said she hopes she will soon earn enough to quit her other job. âThis is what I am working towards,â she said.
This is not the first time that a recession has sparked a new wave of bakers, said Mr Stamm of the Bakers Guild.
âWe saw a big jump in the early 2000s when the markets failed and a lot of people who had big 401 (k) lost their jobs,â he said. âWe have seen a lot of them enter the pastry shop; many are still there.
Ms. Stankiewicz was among those who discovered pastry at the time. âFor sure there was a feeling, ‘I hate my job, I hate my life, I’m going to wake up and follow my heart,'” she said. “I think the same thing happened here.”
Jason Evans, dean of the College of Food Innovation & Technology at Johnson & Wales University, said the 2007-9 recession also spurred “a bit of a renaissance” in the culinary arts.
But as the pandemic has sparked enthusiasm among new bakers, it has worn out old ones as well.
âIt’s been a roller coaster ride,â said CÃ©line Underwood, founding pastry chef of Brickmaiden Bakery in Point Reyes Station, Calif.
Many bakery owners have had to find a way to stay afloat without allowing customers in. Profits have plummeted. Staff members fled.
âThen business suddenly exploded, even more than before, but with a fraction of the staff available,â she said. “Those we tried to bring in during the pandemic have been unreliable, have experienced personal chaos, or just don’t seem to be fully stable or know what they want.”
Now, it’s virtually impossible to get a qualified baker to respond to a wanted ad, she said with others.
Cottage bakers like Mr. Kumangai don’t have to deal with such staffing issues. Except as life progresses towards normal, they are faced with the temptations of jobs that they knew before.
For months, Mr. Kumangai placed a cast iron skillet with lava rocks and a cup of water in his oven, among other tricks to make it work like a professional steam oven. Just as he started looking for rental space in a commercial kitchen, he learned that âJagged Little Pillâ wanted him to come back in the fall.
He convinced himself he could do both: cook in the morning and perform on Broadway at night. He and Mr. Lowney will postpone the escalation of the operation for now, however.