Working the bench at Tom Douglas Bread Bakery in Seattle. Photograph courtesy Tom Douglas restaurants

I'm a decent home cook, capable of rummaging through the pantry to throw together a quickie dinner or, on a quiet Sunday, searching my considerable cookbook collection for more elaborate recipes.

Yet when it comes to any combination of yeast and flour, I've always been a hopeless failure. Even when following the no-way-you-can-blow-it no-knead recipes, I flop.

So, I was nervous about working in the bread department of the Tom Douglas restaurants on my journey from critic to cook. Veteran baker Gwen LeBlanc seemed to sense my fear.

"Don't be scared," she said soothingly while showing me how to arrange ficelle on a loader, a contraption that looks a little like a hospital gurney, which deposits dough in the red-hot oven.

Like a baton-wielding maestro, Gwen waved a razor blade gracefully to demo the right way to score the perfectly formed lumps of dough: You want to go straight down the middle. Picture a rectangle and stay in the box. Cut smoothly and swiftly. Relax your wrist. Don't overthink it.

Great. Kind of reminded me why I gave up golf. So many little details to try and commit to sense memory.

Funny thing happened in front of that massive oven, though. After a few hours, it all began to jell. Like a rare drive straight down the fairway.

Maybe I could really do this. It helped that Gwen and her small crew - Wendy Scherer, Darren Morey, Devon Deardorf and Nikki Leigh - were so encouraging. Even when I screwed up. Like when I failed to click the dough loader into place and a batch of rolls tumbled into a row of baguettes. Oh man! Rookie mistake.

Wendy was nice about it. Sometimes, you just have to let it go, she consoled. Miraculously, the rolls weren't a total loss - just not as pretty as the others.

I felt bad because I had seen the Herculean effort involved in getting the rolls ready to bake, the measuring and mixing and shaping. I learned the importance of pre-shaping step to let the glutens relax, making it easier to get the proper tension in the final shaping. Pushing dough against the bench - the huge wooden worktable where all the shaping was done - was downright therapeutic.

I don't know why it has always freaked me out. If cooking on the line is one big adrenalin rush, baking bread seems like a brisk walk in the cool woods on a sultry summer afternoon. (Where I might find some of my errant golf balls, perhaps.)

I later learned that it's rare for cooks to cross over to baking. When one cook came to cross train in Gwen's flour-y world, he didn't last a day.

I was pleasantly shocked, though, to feel so much at home. I wasn't afraid anymore.
Anybody care to share their crossover success story or bakery battle scars?

About the author: Leslie Kelly is a Seattle-based freelance food writer whose work has appeared in the (now defunct) Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, and the Spokesman-Review. She's currently working in the kitchens of Tom Douglas restaurants and blogging at Whining & Dining.


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