Photos 1, 2, 4 by Max Cooper. Photo 3 by Yeager St. John
At 3 a.m., downtown is Eric Bridges’ kingdom.
The bars have closed, and the revelers have gone home to bed. Bridges has just finished breakfast, and he’s on his way to work. “It’s nice to be able to walk downtown when it’s completely quiet and completely deserted,” he says. “Before I started doing this, [3 a.m.] was night. And now it’s morning.”
Bridges is the morning baker at City Bakery on Biltmore Avenue — or maybe he’s the night baker. That’s the tricky thing about the bakery: its operations are so cyclical, so steady and repetitive, that time stops making sense. It’s like a wormhole where fermenting dough, rising loaves and romantic aromas take on their own rhythm and defy business hours.
“There’s no beginning and no end to the day,” says Brian Dennehy, who manages the business. “It never ends.” The bakery has been around since 1999, when Dennehy’s uncle, Joe Eckert, started making bread in Jack of the Wood. Since then, it’s risen like dough, a slow and steady expansion. Today, it has three locations, employs about 50 people and produces between 1,000 and 1,600 pounds of dough per day (in addition to sundry pastries, cookies and sandwiches).
Around the clock
When Bridges gets to work at 3 a.m., he isn’t always the first person in the kitchen. During busy times, he might pass the night baker, Beth Sollars, on her way out the door. When the demand for bread is lower, Beth leaves a few hours before Eric gets in, so he might spend an hour or two in solitude working the ovens before his coworkers arrive.
He bakes the French-style dough that will go to restaurants and bakery shelves later that morning: baguettes and boules, mostly. He loads the triple-decker oven with a flat, wooden spatula called a peel. The design of the instrument is simple and functional, as if it were an artifact from the early days of baking. It’s easy to imagine a Roman baker in 5 B.C. brandishing such an instrument.
Shuffling the bread into the ovens, Bridges looks like he’s rowing; the motion requires squared shoulders, extended arms and a bend at the waist. “It’s a muscle set that you don’t use in everyday life,” Bridges says. But it’s not hard work, he adds; it simply requires steadiness.
On the wall, near the oven, hang several worn-out peels. The friction that’s created when the bakers rub them across the oven’s stone shelves, and the heat of the baking, have worn them nearly down to their handles. The bakers are proud of the display; it’s their trophy case. One reads playfully in magic marker, “ye olde peel.”
By 5 a.m., Bridges has plenty of company. A couple of pastry workers prepare the day’s cookies and cupcakes on the other side of the kitchen. The delivery drivers ready to leave with a load of bread for the Waynesville location of City Bakery (the baking for all three stores happens on Biltmore Avenue). Dennehy comes in to set the drivers on their way, and head baker Jesse Bardyn arrives to start work on the dough for the following day.
By 6 a.m., Bardyn has the industrial mixer churning. Over the course of the day, that dough will rise, undergo shaping and rise again before it lands in Bridges’ oven about 24 hours after it was born. (All of this, of course, depends on the particular kind of bread.)
Even though they work at the same time, Bridges and Bardyn occupy opposite ends of the bread-making process. “On any given day, I’m finishing the work Jesse started yesterday, and Jesse’s starting what I’m going to finish tomorrow,” Bridges says.
“The goal is to be as consistent as possible,” Bardyn says. “That’s sort of the dance of it.” The balance between quantity and quality proves tricky, especially when the weather changes rapidly. The rising of the dough depends on the temperature of the room. When the weather swings from 30 degrees to 60 degrees in the course of a week, Bardyn has to make carefully calibrated adjustments to the dough. Inside, a person might not feel the few degrees’ difference that results from weather fluctuations, but the microorganisms that make up the yeast sure can, Bardyn explains.
At 7 a.m., when the café opens, Bridges is looking forward to lunch — or second breakfast, as he calls it. His unconventional sleep schedule means he eats four small meals throughout the day.
As the day rolls on, the bake continues. Bridges could get off as early as 8 a.m. or as late as 12:30 p.m., depending on the amount of bread required. During the slow season, he signs up for delivery shifts that keep him busy until mid-afternoon.
At noon, Bardyn continues to mix the dough. When it’s been through the mixer, he maneuvers it into large buckets and puts it in the refrigerator to rise. He transfers the mass of dough, which resembles a gelatinous pillow, from the mixer to the bucket in an impressive balancing act. It’s like he’s cupping water in his hands, only the dough is much heavier.
By 2 p.m., the shapers have arrived. They form an assembly line around the massive kitchen table and portion out the dough for bagels, bread and rolls. Daniel Rosener weighs out the proper portions on a mechanical scale. Each of his hands remains busy with an entirely different action: one tends the scale while the other pinches and pulls dough from the main mass to add to the weighted portion.
Rosener slings the weighed portion to Naomi Talmer, who deftly negotiates it into a loaf shape. Her hands read the surface of the dough; she likely could do this work in the dark. Her fingers respond to the dough’s ripples and bulges with careful guidance and rhythm. As the dough comes together, she shuffles it in faster and faster circles until, suddenly, the blob she received from Rosener is a perfect, balanced, loaf shape.
Every ounce of the dough is shaped by hand. On busy days, that means the shapers handle almost 2 tons of the stuff.
Around 5 p.m., Sollars, the night baker, returns to work. Bardyn and Dennehy have made a mad dash for home. The bakery has a way of pulling people in, Bardyn explains. Even on his off days, he stops by to see how the bake is coming along. “When I take vacations and stuff, I try to relax as much as possible because I know when I’m here, I’m right in the middle of it,” he says.
Sollars begins her shift with sandwich loaves, which — unlike the boules, baguettes and ciabatta — bake in pans. She pulls them from the refrigerator and lets them warm up to room temperature before she loads them into the oven.
She fills the oven one shelf at a time, so by the time she loads it, only a few minutes remain before she begins checking on the progress of the loaves she put in first. In her down time, she organizes the remaining dough and packages rolls for the 5 a.m. delivery.
Her workday could end as early as 10 p.m., or it could last until the wee hours of the morning, when she passes the peel back to Bridges, who keeps the bake going.
The bake goes on
Bridges, Bardyn and Dennehy say the bakery transformed them from night to morning people. Its gravity pulled them. Even though it demands relentless consistency, it offers a certain kind of solace. As the bakers labor to produce the bread, they have a dreamy look about them, like they’re swimming downriver.
Bardyn explains that the bakery appeals to his personal work ethic. “I enjoy that at the end of the day I have something that I can show that this is what I did today,” he says. “That’s very gratifying for me.”
For Bridges, the kitchen is a kind of community. “It’s definitely like clockwork,” he says. “Everybody is a cog.”
Bridges says he’s never resented his work, even when his four alarm clocks ring at 2:30 a.m. “Everyone knows this is what it takes to do what we do,” he says. “So we just do it.”