The integrity of bread

Russell Sacks uses his intuition and experience among some of the world’s master bakers (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
Russell Sacks uses his intuition and experience among some of the world’s master bakers
(photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
Flour, water, yeast, salt – these are the four simple ingredients that go into making bread. But being an artisanal baker in today’s post-industrialized world, is not as simple as this.
With many consumers tending toward products that are cheap, fast and familiar, it takes deep dedication to introduce a quality product that requires time to make and does not come with a ready-made jingle. It also takes a measure of integrity.
“Baking is an occupation that absorbs and engulfs a person almost totally,” says Russell Sacks, 49, owner of Russell’s Bakery on 2 Hadekel Street in Mahaneh Yehuda. “A baker in the old sense is a craftsman, like a carpenter.”
But Sacks doesn’t like to paint an overly romantic picture of what it means to be an artisanal baker.
“I don’t like to drag the conversation backwards into a time when there was no electricity,” he says. “It’s more about doing something with respect to tradition in the modern world – about finding one’s place in life.”
Sacks has done much searching for his place in life.
Born in South Africa, he made aliya as part of Bnei Akiva in 1983. After his IDF service, he lived in Jerusalem, studying international relations at the Hebrew University and working as a copy editor at The Jerusalem Report. In the early 1990s he moved to Boston to study photography, and in the mid-’90s – after a stint documenting the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baku, Azerbaijan – lived in London as a freelance photographer.
In the late ’90s Sacks moved back to South Africa, where he worked as head of security for the South African Jewish community until 2003 – when he again began to consider what he had done, and what he wanted to do. And though by his own account he had never been an especially culinary person – “I’m not someone who loves to cook” – he understood that what he desired to do was bake bread.
“For me, to fulfill myself, I was fortunate to find baking.
It fulfills me in a way that’s creative, physical and not boring.”
He admits there is something counterintuitive in this, since there’s an amazing amount of repetition: “Every day you mix dough and bake it, but there are many nuances.”
The first nuance is what Sacks calls the “human element” – the baker’s own state of being at the moment of making bread. If the dough is pushed too hard or too soft, that moves directly into the dough. “You can’t prevent this,” he says, “it’s the way you feel.” That means he has to get into a “zone” and find his space, using different tools such as music or radio shows to create a certain atmosphere.
The second nuance is raw material. He compares the consistency of dough to oil paint, which can be thick or thin, and points out that it’s not the same every day. This is because wheat is naturally produced, grown all over the world in different seasons, and only then brought to Israel to be milled – making it a little different each time. The mill workers do their best to create consistency using the equipment they have, but the specifics are never the same.
“It’s like having a lover,” Sacks explains. “You have to sense their mood. You get the dough and you have to feel what it’s like. You have to sense the dough; it may need more rest. At this level of baking, it’s intuition.”
At the same time, he warns against thinking of baking as some kind of new age emotional experience – a sort of hocus pocus or witchcraft.
“It’s not that we don’t eat the flour because it has feelings,” he says. “It’s about intuition and experience. It’s like the joke – someone says to a golfer that he’s very lucky, and he responds: the more I practice, the luckier I get.”
TO GAIN the necessary experience and develop his sense of intuition, Sacks set off on a long journey that took him all over the world – a series of haphazard self-initiated apprenticeships that he pieced together from the few contacts he had.
Having decided to become a baker, he remembered that a friend from reserve duty had a bakery in Netanya where he made rugelach and cake. He worked there for six weeks before signing up for a baking course administered by the then-state-owned Tadmor School for Hotel Management.
The course focused on sweets, but also included a section on bread – yet the learning environment was not conducive to the kind of craft Sacks was looking to learn.
“It was the kind of course you were sent on by the unemployment agency to reinvent yourself and find a job,” he recalls. “People saw it as a way of passing time and fulfilling the requirements. They did it because they had to – both the students and the teachers.”
Sacks continued to work at his friend’s bakery in Netanya during the course, but also understood that what he needed was a real apprenticeship with a real baker. He sent emails out to friends all over the world, saying he was looking for an old-time baker from whom he could learn.
He received a reply from friends in Cape Town who managed a chain of stores called Vida e Caffè, saying they had just the opportunity for him.
Sacks didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to meet a character who was larger than life. The lessons he was to learn from this first apprenticeship had little to do with how to bake artisanal bread, and more to do with the way a baker’s personality defines his business – and his life.
SACKS WAS brought to Cape Town for a very specific purpose – to learn how to make bread rolls from an Italian supplier named Alessio.
These bread rolls were major sellers for Vida e Caffè, and when Alessio – whose last name Sacks never knew – informed the chain he was going to retire, the managers went to every baker in town asking whether they could reproduce the rolls at his prices. When it became clear that no one could do so, they offered to buy out Alessio – his business, equipment and know-how. All he had to do was commit to teaching someone his secrets.
“That was my break,” explains Sacks. “I didn’t know much; I just got on a plane and went there.”
Alessio’s place didn’t look anything like a bakery – it was just a big warehouse with equipment from which the serial numbers had been scratched off, suggesting they were stolen. When Sacks came on his first day, Alessio looked at him and said, “Yaffanculo” – an Italian curse telling him to go to hell. Alessio then asked Sacks what he knew, and after Sacks told him where he’d worked and studied, Alessio added: “No chance.”
But the deal had been made. The coffee chain had no choice, Sacks had no choice – and neither did Alessio.
“I was thankful to learn and be paid,” says Sacks. “But he wasn’t keen on teaching me and kept saying he wasn’t a teacher.”
For the first month, Alessio didn’t let Sacks do anything except watch. Sacks thinks this is partly because Alessio had an interest in the venture failing: he’d sell the business, it would collapse, then the coffee chain would offer even more money to bring him back.
This possibility fit well with Alessio’s vague background: Born in Naples after World War II, he didn’t go to school, started working as a baker at age 10, and under unclear circumstances moved to Cape Town. He was in his 60s, married with two children – both of whom ran local Italian restaurants. All of this suggested business smarts that went beyond flour and water.
What impressed Sacks most was that after sleeping most of the day, Alessio worked most of the night – and that he did everything alone. He would start at 11 p.m., make all the dough, scale it into rolls, bake them, pack the orders, then get into a beat-up VW van to deliver them himself in the dawn hours before there was traffic. Aside from Vida e Caffè, all his customers were Italian and all his business was conducted in cash.
On the way back to the bakery, he’d stop and buy ingredients for the next day. The only people who ever came to the warehouse-bakery were those who delivered flour.
Then he’d go home and, as his wife went off to work, he’d go to sleep.
“No one liked Alessio,” says Sacks. “He was always grumpy, tired, rushing off to the bakery. Every year he took two months off and went on vacation alone to South America.”
Even within the context of flour and water, Alessio increased his yield – by mixing dough that had a higher water content. This produced more rolls per kilo of flour and made the bread tastier. But it also made the dough more difficult to work with.
“People don’t like to work with watery dough because it’s difficult,” explains Sacks. “But he’d been working this way for 50 years; he had the skill to work with liquid dough.”
At some point, Sacks managed to break the ice with Alessio – when he brought in fresh-ground coffee that he had prepared in a finjan. Alessio asked Sacks to make him a cup and when Sacks washed out the used grinds from the finjan, the old baker started cursing. As it turned out, Alessio had come from a place of poverty and where he was from, you used coffee grinds two or three times.
“He taught me the lesson of being frugal and economical,” Sacks says. “Not to be wasteful, to be careful, to inculcate an awareness of preciousness.”
The biggest lesson Sacks learned from Alessio was that he was irreplaceable. After the coffee scene, Alessio began to let Sacks work – but Sacks soon realized that he was in over his head. “There was no way I was going to learn in a few months what this guy had learned over an entire lifetime.”
THE MANAGEMENT asked Sacks what he needed and his response was simple: more people. They hired two experienced bakers, two assistants and two drivers – and Sacks oversaw them all.
“We had six people, plus me, and we could barely do what this guy did alone,” he recounts. “The management understood that there was no way this was going to be profitable. Toward the end, Alessio would come in and sit back and laugh at us while we tried to do what he did.
“At some point, I resigned – I’d learned what I needed and didn’t need to manage these other people.”
After a year of studying with Alessio and managing his bakery, Sacks was out of a job again.
Again he got lucky when, answering a newspaper advertisement, he went to work in the restaurant of a wine estate in Cape Town under a seasoned French chef named Christophe Dehosse.
“I was fortunate to learn from a man with qualifications, who had old-school European training, came up through the ranks, worked in hotels all over the world,” explains Sacks. “When he accepted me for the job, he said: ‘Look – I run a kitchen with 30 staff members. When I shout orders, I only want to hear two words: Oui, chef.’” Sacks worked for the Dehosse for six months before coming back to Israel and looking for work at the best bakery he could find. This turned out to be the famed Tel Aviv bakery Lehamim, one of the first to popularize artisanal baking in Israel. He lasted six months.
“The pitfall there was the staff, who weren’t always trained or motivated,” he laments. “With traditional bakeries, there’s a huge reliance on the human element. And there are generally two kinds of people who come to work at bakeries. One kind is romantic – but with time they realize it’s hard work, the dream goes sour, and they become disillusioned and don’t contribute to the product. The other kind is people who can’t find work anywhere else – these are like mercenaries, they don’t care, they make things suit them and the quality goes down.”
During this period, Sacks got a book on traditional bakers throughout the world and emailed Johan Sorberg – a celebrity baker with an exclusive shop who supplied the Swedish royal family. At the same time, Sacks looked for another bakery where he could work and was hired by Teller, which brought artisanal baking to Mahaneh Yehuda.
After six weeks working for Teller, Sorberg invited Sacks to come for a three-month training period, and Sacks, taking a leave of absence from Teller, once again packed his bags.
In Sweden, he began training in Sorberg’s bakery and was also introduced to other master bakers, each of whom ran a different kind of operation.
“[Sorberg’s] bakery was ultra-modern, the changing room downstairs was as clean as a museum,” recalls Sacks.
“The second bakery, in Rosendal’s Garden, had a handbuilt stone wood-fired oven. The third, which was opened by the oven builder, was on Gotland Island, where the baker used local wheat and local wood.” In each of these places, the bakers were generous with their time and knowledge – even giving Sacks their recipes.
Upon his return to Israel, Sacks went back to Teller Bakery, where he worked for a little more than a year before being let go because of cutbacks in the operation. “I was unemployed again,” says Sacks, “but I had enough experience to start my own business.” This created a dilemma – on the one hand he wanted to continue traveling and learning, and on the other felt it was time to settle down and open a bakery.
At this juncture, he was helped by some more good fortune: his brother-in-law was willing to invest and, with his encouragement, the decision was made to open a bakery.
“I believed enough in myself that, if I opened a bakery, it would break even,” he explains.
This was in 2009, during the global recession, but Jerusalem was enjoying a period of renaissance. Tomer Bakery had been the first artisanal bakery in the city until Teller entered the market. With time, Tomer refocused its energies from supplying restaurants to opening their own cafes – a vacuum filled by Teller.
WHEN SACKS first opened Russell’s Bakery on Hadekel St., he had only a handful of accounts around Mahaneh Yehuda – Cafe Mizrahi, Topolino Italian trattoria, Machneyuda and Basher fromagerie. This kept his business afloat, while his reputation grew among shoppers in the open market.
It took nearly six months before he opened a stand next to Cafe Mizrahi – a simple shop with white-painted shelves and baskets full of bread.
“At some point I was blamed for taking recipes from Teller,” he recounts. “But Teller had done a basic course in baking and then gone to Lehamin [in Tel Aviv], hiring them as consultants to learn. He used the same system he’d learned there. I’d worked for Lehamim, so I already knew that system.”
Sacks contrasts this experience with the ones he had abroad – where everyone he met was generous with their knowledge and recipes. He says bakers form a brotherhood; every piece of information he has, he learned from someone else.
“There’s a whole discussion in the baker’s world about what it means to be an artisanal baker,” he says.
“It’s not about shunning modern equipment. I’m not a fundamentalist. What we really mean is baking within a tradition.”
Unlike industrial baking, which uses ingredients that have been genetically modified to the specifications of giant machines, traditional bakers have less control over the raw ingredients and try to adapt during the preparation.
This is what Sacks says allows for creativity in the process – and it means that all his senses have to be on.
“You can’t work like a robot,” he explains. “If there are only four ingredients, then each one makes a huge difference.”
He says that what really differentiates good bread from lesser bread is the amount of time it is given. Every loaf from Russell’s Bakery goes through two 24-hour periods of slow rising – except baguettes and hallot, which only rise for a single 24-hour period. As he puts it: There’s no cutting corners with time.
Taking time also means limiting production. Sacks’s operations have grown since he first opened his bakery nearly five years ago – but not by much. He still arrives every day at 3 a.m. and spends the first three hours alone. Except for a few customers around the shuk, he makes almost no deliveries, and is not looking for more restaurants and other clients. He says that on its busiest days, the bakery functions at about 80-percent capacity – and even then, he can sense the effect on the bread.
“Wear and tear on the staff kills a bakery,” he says.
“The objective here is to make good things at a low quantity – to preserve your integrity, and the integrity of the bread.”