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.

sim5Seventeen 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. 

sim1

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.

Balthazar Bakery's signature miche, emblazoned with a B. (Photo Credit: NJ.com)

Balthazar Bakery’s signature miche, emblazoned with a B. (Photo Credit: NJ.com)

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.

 

sim4Twenty-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.

Ever wonder what’s cooking at ICE? Five-Course Friday gives you a snapshot of what we are whipping up weekly. Whether you pop in to a recreational class, catch a professional demo or watch the transformation from student to chef, there is something scrumptious happening daily.


Bread baked by Sim Cass, one of the founding bakers of Balthazar


Delicious Focaccia baked in the same bread class as above


Bolognese from Culinary Arts students


Panna Cotta from California Wine Country recreational cooking class


Cake Pops to celebrate graduating Pastry Arts class

Have a delicious weekend!

Whew. ServSafe is now under my belt. My Culinary Management class took the exam early this month and we just got our scores back a few days ago. I’m happy to report that I passed. The refresher course has actually come at an ideal time as I just started a new job at Smith Canteen. My first few days involved trying to figure out how to arrange storage so that we were in compliance with health codes.

In the past weeks, Steve taught us about the restaurant experience for guests and opportunities for us to be great. He included ideas like having the chef visit all of the tables in the restaurant. He said that many people find being able to chat with the chef and be able to convey all of their ideas and concerns directly to the person in charge of the food is a great touch. However, he warned that the chef shouldn’t stand and hover creepily over diners without saying anything, because that becomes a negative experience. Last year, at Le Bernardin, I saw Eric Ripert glide out of the kitchen and come and visit one of the tables. Even though he didn’t visit my table, I remember how the entire dining room atmosphere changed and how thrilled I was to see that he was in the kitchen. More…

In my youth, when life was without obligations, like kids and a mortgage, I would find myself in Paris with nothing but a pocketful of francs and the desire to try every pastry shop I passed. Those were glorious days, with every morning spent searching for the perfect pain au chocolat, each afternoon sitting in the parlor at Ladurée and the evenings devoted to the shops of Hermé and Hévin. I ate my way through Paris and try as I might to enjoy the elegant, intricate creations that each shop presented, I found myself drawn back to the classic French patisserie. The simple elegance of the perfect brioche, millefeuille or Paris-Brest. I didn’t need those chocolate and sugar garnishes, the layers of pâte de fruit and mousse au chocolat. Just give me simple but perfect, and I am happy. Of course I had my favorites and one little guy stood out among the rest. The religieuse, a double decker of pâte à choux, (cream puff dough), filled with crème patissiere (custard), dipped in fondant and piped with buttercream, all in a single flavor, traditionally chocolate or coffee although violet, rose and pistachio are excellent as well. It’s named after its shape, which is said to resemble a nun’s habit. For me, it was like finding a little piece of god.

It’s been many years since I have had the pleasure of enjoying one as they seem to be elusive here in the Big Apple. Now suddenly, out of the blue, they seem to be everywhere. My husband surprised me for our wedding anniversary and we had an elegant if somewhat strange dinner at La Grenouille. The room itself was timeless — I could have been anywhere in Paris, with the gilded ceilings and the gorgeous flowers. The food was classic French, heavy cream sauces and the lesser-known body parts. Truth be told, I could have done without the stuffy service and the waitstaff who kept trying to duck under our table, between our legs to plug in the table lamps that constantly unplugged themselves. (Unbelievably, this was true and it was happening not just at our table but all around us.) But dessert was a lovely surprise, a delicious chocolate soufflé and a near perfect coffee religieuse. I say near perfect because, as a purist, I was disappointed by the vanilla buttercream used to garnish it. I felt it should have been coffee. Still, it was great and we fought over the last bites. More…