ICE alum Tim Healea first came to NYC in pursuit of a dynamic career in journalism and publishing. Yet his love of books took his career in a completely different direction when he encountered Chef Nancy Silverton’s Breads from La Brea Bakery. Today, Tim is among the country’s most celebrated bakers, with numerous honors under his belt—including a spot among Food & Wine’s “35 Tastemakers Under the Age of 35” and a medal from the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. We caught up with Tim to hear more about his company, Little T Baker, and his dynamic 17-year career in the emerging field of bread baking.
Since you got into the bread industry in 1998, what are the major changes you’ve seen, and how have they created new opportunities for professional bread bakers?
The rise of artisanal bread has paralleled this country’s increasing interest in eating good food and cooking with quality ingredients. It was already happening in 1998, but now the reach is much greater. What I’ve learned about the bakery business is that it’s intensely local. Every neighborhood needs a bakery; it’s where the community meets every morning to say good morning and hear the latest gossip. When people travel and experience quality bakeries, they are thrilled when one opens close to their homes, so there’s still an enormous amount of opportunity for new growth as neighborhoods evolve and change. As a professional baker, the biggest change I’ve seen is the increased availability and variety of quality flours available to bakers—especially whole-grain flours. As we learn more about the health benefits of whole grains, heritage wheat and stone milling, there are more and more flour options for bread bakers to use in their daily production. It’s an exciting time to be baking.
You often mention that you were influenced to start a career in bread by Nancy Silverton’s Breads from La Brea Bakery. Are there any other texts or mentors who have shaped your bread philosophy?
Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes and Michel Suas’ Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach are both essential reading for professional bread bakers. Craig Ponsford, who owns Ponsford’s Place in San Rafael, California, has had a significant influence on my perspective as a baker, especially in the area of whole-grain baking. And early on, Didier Rosada and Philippe LeCorre at the National Baking Center in Minneapolis (now closed, unfortunately) taught me an incredible amount about baking technology and technique. It goes without saying that the Bread Bakers Guild of America, the organization of artisan bakers based in Sonoma, California, has also been an essential resource for me.
What role have competitions like the Coupe du Monde played in your personal development?
The Coupe was crucial to my early development as a baker for many reasons. First, we trained for more than a year in all types of bakeries and kitchens with different equipment, so it built my confidence to deal with any issues that might come up during a production shift and made me very resourceful. Second, the repetition of making the same thing over and over again under time and pressure dramatically increased my speed and accuracy in the bakeshop. Third, the competition pushed me to develop a creative point of view, which is essential when developing new products. Finally, it opened me up to the community of bread bakers around the world; it’s always great to be able to consult friends who might have gone through the same problems you’re having in your own bakery.
How would you describe your “culinary voice”?
Primarily, my culinary voice is in collaboration with and in support of the six bakers at Little T. In my professional experience, teams work better together when each member feels like he or she is contributing. So most of the new ideas and products come directly from the front-line production bakers. Oftentimes, I act more as an editor, refining a concept or providing feedback. The collaborative process makes the bakery—which sometimes resembles a bread laboratory, with buckets of yeasts, malts, starters and soakers bubbling away—a more exciting place to work and to visit. In general, we take basic ideas of fermentation and experiment with incorporating various grains and liquids, trying to push breads further and develop new flavor profiles. Some of our latest breads have been made with earl grey tea, candy cap mushrooms, rhubarb syrup, red popcorn and potato chips (not all at once!). It’s fun for the bakers, and it keeps the bakery’s offerings fresh for our regular customers.
What do you think it takes to launch a sustainable career in the bread industry?
We have a sign above our shop’s counter that says, “Flour, Science, Hands & Heart.” For me, these are the essential requirements for a baker: to use basic ingredients, to have an understanding of fermentation and baking technology, to have the hand skills to shape effectively and efficiently, and to love baking. The last one might be most important. Baking isn’t a glamorous job. The hours are pretty rough; it’s hot and sweaty; there’s a lot of lifting, and it’s not especially lucrative. But if you can’t imagine not baking and it’s the way you express yourself, then it’s the right thing for you to do.
Eager to launch a career in bread baking? Click here to learn about ICE’s Techniques and Art of Professional Bread Baking Program.