Were I allowed one word and one word only to describe Mel Darbyshire, head baker at The Grand Central Baking Company in Seattle, I would pick “excellence” and still I wouldn’t be doing her justice. What about the determination which, back in 1997, propelled the young UK-born chef to join Grand Central in Portland, Oregon, as a dishwasher because “a friend worked there”? What about the willpower that had her washing dishes during working hours then doing prep and maintenance? What about the passion that kept her watching the bakers all the time? What about the love of learning that made her apply for a basic pastry position when a spot opened up unexpectedly? What about the energy that drove her to work fast so that she could help the bakers with the baguettes after she was done with her own tasks? I could go on and on but from talking to Mel and watching her work, another word comes to mind: “integrity.” Here is a baker who won’t settle for half-way measures: she clearly feels her job is to get both doughs and bakers to be the best they can be. If I owned a bakery, and Mel was my head-baker, I know I would sleep sur mes deux oreilles, literally “on both my ears” (French for soundly) at night.
Within a year of securing the entry-level pastry position at Grand Central, Mel was promoted to Jeff Smalley’s assistant (Smalley was the head baker). When Jeff himself moved to a higher position, Mel was recruited to replace him. But she “had no science” (her words), a problem when you are expected to lead a team of old timers. So Grand Central sent her to the National Baking Center in Minneapolis where she took a weeklong class with Didier Rosada. She came back with knowledge and it gave her authority. Still she was a woman replacing a man, the team was mostly male. It was a rough learning curve but she pulled it off.
Two years later, she moved to Seattle and got a job with Leslie Mackie at Macrina Bakery. She was head baker there for a year and a half. Mel recalls these eighteen months as a most formative experience: she was called upon to apply all that she had learned to new products and a new environment. “Everything was different. At Grand Central, we relied on long fermentations, mostly cold and in bulk. Leslie’s doughs were a little wetter and they were warm. I had to learn to shape them. New processes, new recipes… But Leslie is a great instructor, very talented and ‘old school’. She played a pivotal role in my development as a baker.”
Mel moved back to Portland, took some time off and was recruited again by Grand Central, this time as an on-call baker for it organic line: high hydration doughs, lots of different flavors. On her free time, she played rugby, soccer, went snowboarding. Then a full-time position as night-crew manager opened up at the bakery and she took the job. She wasn’t happy about working nights but it was an opportunity. She soon found out that the nightshift attracted a different type of people, many of them hard-core rockers and musicians. It was a definitely a culture shock compared to her other experiences. She held the job for two years, learning valuable lessons about managing along the way. Then as Grand Central grew, the head baker moved on and Mel was made co-head baker with Tom Clark. When he in turn moved on in 2003-2004 (he is now at Blackbird Baking Company in Lakewood, Ohio), she become head-baker herself (wholesale and retail). In 2007, it was decided that, for the sake of consistency, all the bread should be produced under one roof. Mel’s greatest source of pride is that she moved production across town in one single night with no hitch. She remembers loaves proofing in the back of trucks and making it to the ovens on the nick of time but she didn’t lose a single one…
Meanwhile the bread scene was evolving back in Seattle: Macrina, Essential, Larsen’s, Columbia City, all were competing for retail and wholesale and Grand Central was plateau-ing. In the spring of 2011, management asked Mel if she would be interested in moving back to the Emerald City to give the bakery more spark and help put it back on the map. Mel took the job for six months on a trial basis and realized it was a really big and challenging one. But she had old friends in the city, she loved living there, her partner agreed to the move and, let’s be frank, Mel has yet to resist a big project or a challenge! She’s now been there for over three years.
The way Mel sees it, today Grand Central is very much back where it wants to be in Seattle. The challenge is no longer the competition but consistency and quality at volume: making not only ten but a thousand beautiful baguettes. That requires high standards of training, education and accountability. Mel’s team is truly multinational -Ukraine, Cambodia, Vietnam, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, United States- a situation that requires a delicate touch and a high level of cultural empathy. Before Mel took over, the focus was on getting things done. Her first priority was to retrain the bakers and impress upon them that what they made was important. They needed to be proud of their work and product. It took a while. The first six months were rough: some people left because they couldn’t embrace the change. Mel needed the bakers to buy into her and her passion. She spent a lot of time on the floor, eating the bread so that people would get the message that theirs wasn’t just a job, that they were making something precious. She gave a lot of positive feedback: every beautiful loaf was shown back to the crew.
If in Mel’s words, “bread is like a canvas,” then the lame or knife is the baker’s brush. When scoring the Como bread, the baker tries to keep the girth of the loaf very consistent, so that the slices are all similar and well suited to sandwich-making.
The crew is a mix of men and women. When Mel started, only one woman on the crew had been trained to mix or bake, all the others were shapers. Mel endeavored to train everyone to mix, shape and bake. She picked the tiniest woman – who was very talented and hard working – and started with her. It took a year to get everyone cross-trained but to Mel’s way of thinking, if a baker doesn’t do all this, if he or she doesn’t understand about fermentation and proofing and how it impacts the final bake, then the job becomes a mindless task. “Now we bake when the dough is ready. That’s what improved quality and consistency: the crew is making decisions based on dough and not schedule and order: if a dough has been mixed warmer, you shape that batch first for instance.” What Mel considers her biggest achievement is training the shift managers to do more: learning to work on the computer and use spreadsheets while running the crew and keeping up the quality.
The team consists of thirty-five bakers in two shifts and the bakery runs twenty-one hours a day. Communication between crews is very important. Mel likes to recruit from within (other departments at Grand Central) or to hire friends or family of team members. She sees it as essential to create a good structure so that everybody is well supported from the dishwasher to the head baker. She loves to see how things have evolved in three years, with people now lifting dough and smelling it and a more open floor plan. “There was no light in the facility before: the walk-ins covered the windows. Redesigning the place was a priority: we built new walk-ins, took down the old ones. People were happier and stood taller with natural light. We redesigned the mixing space, making it more efficient: mix, ferment, shape, proof, retard, bake, now the flow makes sense. We also put in inside windows: now you can see and hear each other. Everyone is part of the bakery.”
Work in a large production bakery is exciting. “Volume plays such a role: it is a dance. I love the multitasking, my internal time goes off, and I thrive on that energy.” A bigger part of Mel’s role over the past four or five years has been to do research and development. Grand Central is now doing more seasonal items. Seattle and Portland take turns coming up with new products, which leaves some room for creativity. Mel meets regularly and often (in person every couple of months and via video conference weekly) with the production management team which includes Piper Davis, daughter of Grand Central founder and the driving force behind the bakery’s commitment to work with local ingredients and responsible producers, and Brian Denning, head baker in Portland, to discuss issues relating to production quality, consistency and goals.
Such an issue was what to do with Grand Central’s signature potato buns. They were tasty and popular but the recipe wasn’t designed for volume: it called for buttermilk and sour starter, so the fermentation went fast (lots of enzymes) and it was a challenge to maintain consistency in size and weight. The bakers had a sixty-minute window when they needed two hours. What wouldn’t have been a problem for two hundred buns was another story for one thousand.What to do to add stability to the formula without compromising flavor and quality?
Once a solution was found though, Seattle couldn’t just move forward and adopt it. Portland had to be on board. To maintain consistency and insure quality would not be an issue in Portland if they modified the formula, the buns could not be too different from the existing ones. In other words Mel had to find a way to get the result she was looking for within the challenges of working in a large company with two locations. I suspect that the constraints can be frustrating at times but that the challenge carries its own reward and that Mel is exactly the right person to take it on.