By Carly DeFilippo
The British baker who shaped the future of New York City’s bread
When UK-born Chef Sim Cass first arrived in New York City, the craft of artisanal bread was just beginning to take shape in America. As the founding baker of Balthazar Bakery, Sim’s deeply toasted, crusty loaves earned him the nickname “prince of darkness” and introduced a new benchmark for the city’s aspiring bakers.
Seventeen years later, Balthazar Bakery continues to inspire our nation’s now widespread passion for hand-crafted, naturally fermented loaves, and Sim serves as a bread consultant for some of the world’s most respected restaurants and bakeries. He has been featured in such outlets as the New York Times, Food Arts magazine and the Martha Stewart show. Most recently, he developed the curriculum for ICE’s exclusive Techniques and Art of Professional Bread Baking program, which launched in 2013.
Yet at the mere age of 13, Sim was not unlike our young ICE students—eager to leave school and work with his hands. His first job was at a butcher’s shop in London, and by age 16 he had enrolled in a full-time baker’s apprenticeship program. After training in the 5-star kitchens of the Carlton Tower and Park Lane hotels, Sim took a job on board the cruise ship SS Arcadia, working the overnight shift. At sea, Sim’s passion for bread rose to the forefront, and upon his return to London, he found work at the then famous Maison Bouquillon, crafting breads, pastries, laminates and viennoiserie. His skill also began to be recognized by his peers in the industry, earning a silver medal in the Hotel Olympia International Culinary Competition.
Having caught the eye of fellow Londoner Keith McNally—deemed “The Man Who Invented Downtown” by the New York Times—Sim launched his New York City career in the kitchen of Lucky Strike. From 1989 through 2006—when he joined the staff at ICE—Sim remained McNally’s prizewinning baker, crafting the signature loaves that helped cement the restaurateur among the industry’s most influential tastemakers.
Of McNally’s many properties, it was at Balthazar that Sim’s work really shined. Though there were naysayers who claimed, “You won’t be able to sell that bread because it’s too dark,” Sim and his colleague Paula Oland proudly pushed back with their carefully caramelized loaves and found themselves at the center of a true restaurant phenomenon. To this day, Balthazar reigns among the city’s most popular restaurants and was even featured in the New York Times magazine’s 2013 food and drink issue as a paragon of long-term success.
Twenty-five years after Sim’s arrival in New York, the state of bread has changed dramatically. Sim remarks that in France and Germany—long known as the epicenters for artisanal European bread—the mastery of hand-crafted loaves now competes with the mass production of supermarkets’ inferior products. At the same time, American micro-bakeries have raised the bar and gained recognition in international bread baking competitions, most notably for the naturally leavened style that Sim’s work has helped popularize.
When asked what it takes to succeed in the field of bread baking, Sim explains, “The Spanish bakers say that once you’ve touched and worked with the dough, you have to go back and touch it again, the feel of it. You’ve got to do the practice—the repetition—and the real joy is in the end result that comes from that repetition.”
He may be the “Prince of Darkness,” but judging by the legions of passionate ICE students who have studied under Sim, the future of bread has never looked so bright.
Click here to read an interview with Sim about ICE’s Techniques & Art of Bread Baking program.