Together with his wife Jo, Richard Bertinet runs The Bertinet Kitchen, a cookery school in the historic city of Bath, England where his bread making classes are fully booked for months in advance — thanks to his best-selling books, Dough and Crust which have been translated into many languages.
Richard has been a big inspiration for my baking, so I was honored to interview him for our first issue. We talked about bread, baking, and a bit about going from home baker to doing it for a living.
Jarkko: In your book, Dough, you say that you have been crazy for bread ever since you were a child. Can you share a bit of the story of how you became a baker?
Richard: I think it started with going to the bakery every day. Today, we see bread as a kind of pleasure, but on those days when I was young, you could never sit down at the table in my house without a piece of bread. So, I used to go to the bakery every morning, on the way back from school.
The back door was slightly open, and I could see the young bakers work. There was something fascinating about that. The T-shirts covered with flour, and that pride in their eyes. Every time they looked through the door, they saw customers looking at them, and you could see that kind of a gleam in their eyes — the pride of being a baker.
And one day, I found myself behind that door, working there.
That’s when I understood what it meant. When I put my foot through that door, it was too late; I could never come back. I was about thirteen-fourteen, and I knew school wasn’t for me. I had to do something with my hands. So I started working — this was before apprenticeship. I did two weeks at school, and then two weeks at work, but I also worked after school and every weekend.
In the early age, you learn very quickly to behave yourself and to respect — and to work hard. By the time I did my apprenticeship, I knew the job. I was running the oven by myself when I was fifteen-sixteen.
Jarkko: That’s impressive! You were a real baker already at that age.
Richard: I knew the basics. When a new person is starting, he tries to show off anyway, working harder and harder. It’s a psychological war: you can never tell anybody that you don’t know your job, so you work harder to prove that you can do it.
Jarkko: How about today, do you think a route like this to becoming a baker would still be possible in France?
Richard: I think the bakery industry is much more regulated now; you can’t work the hours you used to do twenty, thirty years ago. But there are some small bakeries where they still work the old style, so if you are young and ambitious, and you want to work hard, I’m sure it’s possible.
When you grow up, you always think that when you were in your days, everything was better. When I was young, I remember the old people saying “well in my days it was better.” (laughs)
So, I think it’s evolution, you know. We do things in different ways, we adapt. Everything changes.
But I think the thing with bread is that it’s still three or four ingredients. The skill of the baker is still quite primitive and something you work with your hands. You get to create something from nothing, and that is — with all the machines in the world — the real skill of a baker.
It’s something you practice; it’s something you refine with years. The more I teach, the more I learn about the dough: the way it feels, the way it behaves. I always describe it a bit like making pottery. If you get some clay to make a nice pottery, in the beginning, you will be a disaster. The more you work with it, the more you understand the material you’re working with, and the better you become. Same as painting. The experience of a craftsman develops over years and years and years.
You can give a kilo of flour to ten different bakers, and they will make something unique, each one of them. And that’s the beauty of the job.
Jarkko: Yes, baking is a craft. So, what is the most important thing for a baker to master?
Richard: I think — if you do it for business — it’s money. But money can only be achieved by pleasing people. For me, that’s when people come to my shop, and their eyes lighten when they come in. They fall in love with bread again. It’s a kind of a rediscovering of the senses we used to have, and we still got but have hidden away somewhere.
The main concern for any good baker is pleasing the customers. And for me, it’s when people say to me: “Oh, I love your bread.” That’s the best compliment you can get.
We opened a new shop three days ago — it’s not finished yet, but we’re getting there. People come and say, “Oh, I have just been running this morning,” and they treat themselves with a croissant. It just shows that instead of buying crap from the supermarket or crap from anywhere, people will buy the right thing and treat themselves and appreciate it.
Instead of spending money on something they don’t appreciate, they will and buy a good almond croissant and will come back and say “This is the best almond croissant I’ve ever had.”
When they buy it, they don’t waste it, they appreciate it. They rediscover the pleasure of eating good food.
Jarkko: So, it’s more than just fuel for the body.
Richard: Exactly! Let me take a few examples. It took me two years to convince some of our best friends in Bath that a good sourdough is worth more than sliced bread. They could never understand why my sourdough, a 1.2-kilo sourdough, cost five pounds while they could buy a two pound fifty loaf of bread from the supermarket. Because “bread is bread.”
Today, they will never never never again eat white sliced bread or cheap nasty bread, because they realize that when they cut a slice of sourdough and eat it, there’s something satisfying about it. When you understand that satisfaction, there’s no price for it. It’s more than money; it’s one of the little pleasures in life you can get.
That’s what bread does in society: it unites people a bit together. When you put a big loaf of bread on the table, you make people happy.
Jarkko: Let’s go back to your story or a while. What brought you to the UK and Bath — and finally to running your cookery school and bakery?
Richard: I came here for a two week holiday, and I have stayed for 25 years.
The first job I applied for when I arrived in England was in a supermarket bakery as that was the only job I could apply for and the only thing I knew — I couldn’t find a small bakery. And they turned me down because I didn’t speak English well enough!
So I went to work in a hotel and worked in kitchens and so on. But my baking was still there in the back of my head. I just couldn’t find anywhere to do it.
I came back to baking probably back in the late nineties. The idea for the book (Dough) came to my head, and it all started from there really.
Then, as I was writing the book, the idea of teaching started growing in my mind. I taught a few classes in London, and people loved the style and the techniques I was using, which for me was just natural. I didn’t want to open a restaurant again, so I thought… My wife’s been a lawyer, and we wanted to combine our skills and do something together, so the cooking school idea came up.
After that, we had to find the right place in the UK to open it. Bath was the right place.
That was six and a half years ago, and the rest is — like they say — history. The cooking school opened at the same time as the book launched. The book was, and still is, a great success worldwide, so we’re still teaching and still excited. It feels like we opened yesterday, and it’s been six years already! And book number four is coming out in May.
Jarkko: Your first two books were about bread. Book number three was about cooking. And now, the next one is Pastry. Does this mean that you have you said all there is to say about bread or do you have plans for a new book on bread at some point?
Richard: I don’t know. To write down more recipes for a new book, I just don’t see the need for it; the recipes I’ve got are the ones I use. But I would love to make a traveling book, following on the trail of Dough.
Dough has been published in fifteen countries now. We just published in Russia. And Japan as well. So, there are fifteen countries where the book has been translated into a language. And for me, dough is like a language: if you understand the dough, then the bread will follow.
So, I would love to visit those countries and see the culture behind the bread and then put everything into one book. Because I spend my life teaching people, I would love to go to those countries and learn from people about their bread and then be able to translate those recipes into a language that people could do at home.
Jarkko: Your bread-making classes are very popular — I think I saw that they are all sold out until April, already…
Richard: They are. And that still amazes me. This week, I have been teaching bread for two days. Next week, I’m teaching five days of bread. I’ve got pastry and croissant this week too. And I’ve got somebody from Texas, and I’ve got somebody from Spain. And every week, I’m just amazed by the amount of effort people will take to come to learn from me.
So, I try to cram so much in one day with them for them to understand the technique and… it’s like a boot camp.
Jarkko: So, what do you teach people in your bread making classes?
Richard: Introduction to bread making is me. It’s all about understanding the dough. You know, I don’t believe in schools that teach you a lot in one day… They teach you brioche; they teach you sourdough, basic bread, naan bread, so many breads in one day. No way! You can’t learn them. They can show you, but you won’t learn it.
So, the first thing I teach is that water and flour stick. You don’t see that in books. It’s obvious, but when you have the dough, and it sticks, you will fight it. If you are baker or boulanger, working in France, you got to master the dough. The dough shouldn’t stick to you. You have to show the dough who the boss is, and learn to handle the dough.
So, I try to make my students understand the dough: how it feels and how to handle it. That’s why we do everything by hand. We mix all the dough by hand. Then, once you understand what the hand can do, you can use a mixer.
Some people will never get the technique. Some people, they just refuse to understand, and they fight with the dough. So they rather put more flour into it. But if you are ready to accept that you communicate with the dough, then the dough will come off the table and fly, and be smooth and beautiful, and you can work with it. You are kind of taming the dough.
Jarkko: Yeah, actually, I think I first found out about you through a video on handling dough that you did for Gourmet magazine. I had never seen it done that way before!
Richard: This technique is nothing new. It has been done for hundreds of years. What I have done is only repeat what they used to do in the old days. This technique I’m using is described in the old baking books. The problem is that this is the professional way from the old days on how to do it, and somehow that’s been lost.
You know, it’s always been the dream for bakers to make a dough which was light and airy so that you can easily digest it. There is no recipe that I’ve seen where they want to make a very dense loaf. They all want to make a nice, light, crusty, and beautiful loaf. If you add more flour, you can’t do that! So, for me it’s natural.
That’s why I was very surprised when the book came out and it received the success it still has now. All I’ve done is that I’ve gone back to what we used to do in the old days — don’t change it.
There are plenty of bakers who always try to compromise. They will put oil on the table, and more flour. But you would never do that in a mixer. You never add flour or oil in the mixer. It’s only because they don’t know how to handle a sticky dough. So, if it sticks, they fight with it.
But you should be able to handle it with no flour, no oil, nothing. You need to work with the dough. You need understand the dough. The top and bottom of the dough, the smooth side. How to touch it in a way so that it doesn’t stick.
This is what we try to teach on day one at the school. So, usually, if you spend five days with us, you mix about 150 kilos of dough by hand. So you will get the technique right by it.
Jarkko: That’s a lot of dough! But that’s how you learn.
Richard: That’s how you learn. There is no messing around. You’ve got to do it. Learning is repetition. And when you get older, it’s harder to learn. When you are young, you learn very quickly. The older you get, the harder it is.
I still get email now from people who say they are still baking the same way with no problems. It’s all about understanding the dough.
Jarkko: You do classes with kids too — is it different with them?
Richard: Children have no fear.
It’s like skiing. You put me on the skis, and I go very slowly because I don’t know where I’m going. You put my children on the skis, and they fly downhill. They don’t care.
Same with bread. They put their hands in the dough, and they’re having fun. They’re not scared of the dough, and so, they’re learning the feel of it. They don’t care if it’s messy, they enjoy it.
So, for them, the most important thing is to enjoy the concept of baking, of cooking, and all this stuff that together have been part of the grain of world.
If you see your kids at home and tell them “Oh no, go away, I’m cooking,” they go. And then, you can’t ask them to come and eat the food — they will just feel like “You pushed me away one minute and now you want me to eat it?”
If you get your kids involved all the time, then they learn. As grown ups, it’s easy to get on with our own thing and forget that the young ones around us want to learn too.
We started doing a class for schools on Skype. When they want to do a bread project, they contact us, and we send them a box of books and scrapers and things like that.
They start a week before and then I spend an hour on Skype with them through a plasma screen in their school. We mix the dough together, and then they send me pictures of the bread when it’s baked. And it’s quite fun.
We did a class in America, one in France, two or three in England. And we are now trying to get a project going on to take it a bit further afield so we can do two or three classes at the same time around the world and to bring many kids to bread.
Jarkko: That’s very cool! So it’s like a video conference where you both see each other?
Richard: Yes, we do it live. We see each other. First, we talk about bread and everything else. Then, I get my flour, my water, and do it in front of them — with them. We do it together. It’s very interesting.
Jarkko: Is there anything else that you are experimenting with? What are you interested in right now? What is the big thing that takes most of your time at the moment?
Richard: My children take a lot of time. (laughs) That’s normal.
We just opened the new shop three days ago, so we are working to get the right products in there, and the right look for the shop. It’s teamwork, and my wife is working hard on designing things.
My new book is coming out in May, so we’re just finishing the final touches on this one.
And at the cooking school, it’s teaching. It’s every day — non-stop. The teaching takes a big part of my time, and it’s hard work. But it’s very enjoyable and very rewarding to teach people.
The next big thing after that is opening a new shop somewhere; I don’t know where… We’re looking at new options all the time.
Jarkko: So, can you tell a bit about your bakery? How much do you participate in its daily work yourself?
Richard: We have a production unit where I’ve got four bakers and a pastry chef working there — and a driver. They are people who have been baking with me, people I can trust.
They are working every night, every day. They’re running the bakery. I go there every day and check that everything is good and work a bit with them and give new recipes, but it’s their job. You got to be able to trust people around you and let them get on with it as well.
So usually if I don’t say anything it’s because everything’s good.
Jarkko: When someone has read your books and practiced the recipes and instructions in them, how would you recommend them to carry on with their “home baker’s” training”?
Richard: It’s always the same. A lot of people come to us who have baked from my books for a couple of years. They know the recipes, have done it, and they are itching to do something different. And it’s always the home baker who wants to become a professional baker. You know, to make a living out of it.
It’s because when you make your bread at home for your friends and your family, you get good feedback. You get a nice buzz out of it. So people want to multiply that buzz by hundred and get a bakery.
And that’s where the problem is with a lot of people. Baking at home, making ten loaves of bread, is one thing. Starting to make a hundred of them is another thing. The pleasure becomes a job, and the job becomes a problem — because of all the little problems that got to go with it.
Trying to make a living out of bread is much harder than getting pleasure out of it. If people like baking for the pleasure of it, then there’s plenty of books they can explore. They can explore different recipes. They can try different flours. They can explore what’s going on a bit more.
Jarkko: You mentioned the dream of opening a bakery. How often does the question come up? And how often does it actually work out in the end?
Richard: At least once a week, we’ve got somebody who wants to “ditch the job” and become a baker. Very often, when we do the five-day class, on Monday, someone will say, “I’m a lawyer, and I want to open a bakery. That’s it.” And they expect to learn in one week enough for them to open a bakery.
I always make sure that within the week, I give them very much hard work so they’ll understand what’s going to wait for them when they make the jump. That making bread will be every day — not just once a week. It’s every single day. You got to get up, and there is nobody else who will do it for you. You got to get up. You got to get it right. It’s not an easy job. It is not for everybody.
And I’ll say, if you want to build a bakery, you’ve got to specialize in something. Find the right niche, find the right bread. If it’s just one bread, it doesn’t matter. But do the right one.
Don’t try to do 35 different breads. I’ve seen so many bakeries who tell me “This is our brochure and we’re doing 17 types of different breads.” Why? I just don’t get that.
If you go to a local bakery in any country, they don’t do that.
They just do good bread for the local people. Every day the same. That’s the beauty of it. If you look at a good restaurant or a good shop, or anything, they’re consistent. Being consistent is the key for a bakery.
It’s the same with the class we’re doing: If one day my class was bad, and the other day was good, I’d be empty. So, I need to be consistently good all the time when I teach people.
The more we teach, the more people expect, because the more people talk. So people come to us and say “Oh, I heard it was very good.” Just with that already, they put my game up all the time, so I got to push harder all the time. So, when they leave, they had a better time — until I can’t give anymore. (laughs)
It’s the same as with every job: if you do it because you love it, it’s not about the money. You feed on people’s pleasure: the more pleasure you give to people, the more satisfaction you get for yourself.
Bread On Twitter
If you are on Twitter, look up the tag #realbread and you’ll find a vibrant discussion bread—and a lot of photos.
Richard Bertinet is also an active Twitter user (@BertinetKitchen). Here’s what he told me about it:
“Twitter is such a good medium for a baker. Bread is a kind of a language and people understand each other just by looking at a loaf of bread or a piece of dough.
It’s fascinating that people are watching what’s going on and the media is moving at a pace now. You can bake a loaf of bread and send me a picture within ten seconds. You get feedback on it and everything.”
Join the discussion, share your loaf of bread, and follow Richard (and BREAD). It’s a whole world out there.