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The Night Kitchen: The Secret Lives of Early Morning Bakers

The Secret Lives of Bakers
The idea of a baker's life has always been quietly romantic to me: waking up before dawn, firing up the ovens, and living some sort of secret life that goes on while most of us are still sleeping. As an avid sweet-seeker it's always a strange yet compelling thought to me that by the time I go in to a bakery in the morning, there have already been hours invested in stocking the case from which I am choosing between scones, biscuits and cakes.

So when Dan, the lead baker at the Eastlake Grand Central Bakery, invited me to bake alongside him one Sunday morning, I jumped enthusiastically at the chance.  A few days before our planned baking rendez-vous he sent me a list of what we'd be baking that day, along with a note that he would see me at 4.30 a.m.  Was he joking? No, he was not joking. And so I went to bed early with sweet dreams of the baking adventures ahead.
So, are you curious about the life of a baker? Here's a peek of the experience, with apologies if my times are slightly off in some cases--it was, after all, very early.

3:47 a.m. The alarm goes off. I had set it for 3.47 because it seemed slightly less cruel than 3.45. I turn it off and promptly fall back asleep.

3:49 a.m. The backup alarm I'd set, in case I went back to sleep, goes off. I get up and shower, pin back my hair and put on my apron.
4.15 am
4.15 a.m. I drive over to Grand Central's Eastlake location. It's raining, and there are few other cars on the road. Along the way, I see a couple walking into an apartment building, wearing last night's clothes. It's strange to witness this unique pocket of time where late and early overlap.

4:30 a.m. I arrive right on time, and Dan's already there. He rode his bike, bless his soul. He makes me a latte (double bless his soul!) and shows me around. I ask if it is nerdy that I brought my own apron; he casually pulls out his chef hat. Clearly, I am in good company.

Croissant TimeIrish Soda Bread
4:50 a.m. We get to work. Now, here's where things get tricky. You see, Grand Central offers a variety of different types of baked goods, which require various attentions and prepping. Some things, like the biscuits and scones, are mixed and made directly before baking; some items have been handmade in advance and come from the freezer to be baked; yet other items, like the cinnamon rolls, will have been left in the "proofer" so that the dough can develop to a perfect, ready-to-bake consistency. Is your brain full yet? Mine was. 

Big mixerBaking area
Now, if it were me alone, baking all of these things would take me far longer than one morning. Luckily Baker Dan knows what he is doing, and set to alternately mixing, turning trays in the oven, applying egg washes, letting fruit soak, and a bevy of other tasks. I get to choose the scone flavor of the day. I choose cherry-almond. Boring? Maybe. But boring in a delicious way.

Thumbprints in JammersJammers
At one point I am allowed to indent and fill with jam my favorite Grand Central baked good, the lovely biscuit which they call a Jammer. I wonder idly when bakers pause to eat breakfast.

I lose track of time for a while. There is a lot going on, but it seems a controlled chaos. We talk comfortably about a variety of subjects while doing the morning bake, ranging from bakeries to East vs. West coast culture (we're both from the East Coast originally) to architecture (Dan is a designer) to music (I boast about Mr. Spy's band)--but it seems like more than anything, the conversation comes back to all facets of baking, from our favorite bakeries and baked goods to methods and thoughts on all manner of sweet stuff. 

I am Small, Mixer is Big
5:45 a.m. Every now and again, I hear a timer go off, but I cannot keep track of what's what. Baker Dan admits that sometimes he doesn't know what timer goes to which project either, but that when they go off they serve as reminders that something must be done. 

Sticky Buns
6:00 a.m. Baked goods are starting to come out of the oven. They smell very, very good. As nothing is burnt, the timer trick must work!

Hand Pies!
6:30 a.m. More trays are being put in the oven and yet others are coming out, bearing steaming, golden, delicious-looking pastries. I wonder, not as idly this time, what time bakers take a break for breakfast. 

Sexy bread pudding
7:00 a.m. Birds are singing and the morning bake seems to be winding down. The trays of baked goods are making their way to the cooling racks, and the cinnamon rolls have been put out front, the first item in an otherwise still-bare pastry case. As the final few items are being put in the oven, we glaze and put finishing touches on the pastries; I especially love applying powdered sugar to the individual bread puddings (made with leftover cinnamon rolls, yum), which Dan says should look "snowy". Delicious snow.
Hazelnut danish
The talk turns to the baked goods we've been working on. Dan is excited about one of Grand Central's newest pastries, the hazelnut danish, which has an orange-infused glaze which tastes vaguely of creamsicle (shown above).

Coffee Cake being slicedCoffee cake


Stocked bakery racksBaked goods ready to go out on the shelves

7:30 a.m. By now, some of the other employees have started to arrive, and there is a flurry of activity as the cases are loaded, coffee is made, and the first customers are starting to walk by (I think one even tried the door--eager to join the party I guess). 

Dan the baker, and me, his little elf helperThe bakery
8:00 a.m. We take a break (so this is when bakers eat breakfast). Even having seen it all made, I am not as much tempted to try a new baked good as I am to try my old favorite, the Jammer--after all, while I've had them before, I've never had a jammer I made (or helped make) myself. We talk over baked goods for a while, and get Sam to take a picture of us. It is at this point that I realize that had an outside viewer been looking in, they might have thought I was a little baker elf assistant to the real baker--such is our height difference.



8:30 a.m. Baker Dan is back to work, starting to make cookies for the later customers and prep work for tomorrow's bake. I have a full day so am not able to stay on, but thank them all for having indulged me this time baking. Before I leave, they load me up with a box roughly the size of Rhode Island full of baked goods. 

The case is full now!
8:35 a.m. I part ways with Grand Central, entering into the sunshine and feeling like I've lived an entire secret life before the rest of the world was even awake. Having done so, do I feel like it might be the life for me? Well, as much as I love baking, I can honestly say no. Is it the hours? I suppose that is a factor, but if I am to be completely candid, I am aware that when you actually work at something professionally, it does change how you look at it--and though I adored the experience of playing the role for a day, I don't think I'd ever want to give up that magical feeling--as consumer--of walking into a bakery and seeing all of the choices, the result of someone's hard work starting long before I was even awake, just waiting for me.

Grand Central is open for business
8:36 a.m. I call Mr. Spy, who answers sleepily after about five rings. "Have you eaten breakfast?" I inquire. "No" he says. Have I woken the dear boy up? "Don't!" I say, and eagerly rush home with my box of sweetness.

The booty!


A most sincere thanks to Dan and the rest of the lovely staff at Grand Central Baking Company for letting me have a peek of what goes on behind the scenes at their bakery! For locations and more, please visit grandcentralbakery.com.

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Reader Comments (71)

thanks for sharing this
:) so cool!

April 7 | Unregistered Commenterisi

That's so cool you got to do that for a morning!

When I was the baker for a cafe, I had to be in most mornings at 6, sometimes as early as 5 and that is LATE for most bakers. I hated waking up so early, but I loved being the only person in the whole cafe for that first hour or two. It was so calm and relaxing just me and my baking.

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterTanya

Wow really interesting. I would love to make such an experience :) All those baked goodies look delicious :)

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterSnooky doodle

how cool! Sounds like you had a great morning, Jessie :)
I certainly don't think I'd be up for the challenge! Apart from the fact that I can't bake, the hours would be a bit much for me to handle! :P
thanks so much for giving us this insight into the 'secret world' that professional bakers live in. :)

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterLiv

Wow - What an incredible experience. Thanks so much for sharing with us.

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterEliana

Oooooo my mouth is watering! Now I'll have to stop at the bakery this morning! YUM.

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterShandi

And this is one of the reasons why I'm hesitating to open a storefront...those 3am wakeup calls are just tooo much!

April 8 | Unregistered Commenterveron

OMG! It's my song! http://www.flickr.com/photos/dogfaceboy/3059476251/" REL="nofollow">Bakery

I loved the early morning baking in my brief stint at a bakery... once I got there, anyway. The waking up part was definitely the hardest. I would also do pre-opening deliveries to the coffee shop across the street.

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

How fun...for a day! Love the 3:47! :)

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterBridget

What a fun experience....thanks for sharing it with us!


April 8 | Unregistered CommenterSimplySweeter

WOW Jessie, thanks for sharing everythign by the second...3.47 onwards. PHEW, I always knew bakers have a tough life, but your post makes my 'brain really full', & look at them with renewed admiration. *BOW* to those wonderful folk.Am sure Mr Spy enjoyed the brekky!

That was a blast to read! Thanks for showing us inside the eyes of a baker! Cool!

Thanks for the behind the scenes look at a bakers life. I would love to do that but I am so not a morning wake up early person.

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

What a great field trip! I'm so jealous.

April 8 | Unregistered Commenterandrea jean

I am a lurker, but I have to say this: Thank you for showing this post, you have given me a pretty good idea of what I woudl have to do to be a baker in my city.
Thanks again!

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterDeana

oooooh yes. i remember those early mornings well. great post! looooove it!

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterJoy the Baker

I love that you're wearing your OWL apron!

Your adventure makes me somewhat sad that the closest thing to a cinnamon roll I have at hand is a bowl of instant Quaker oatmeal in that flavor.

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterOwl Chick

Super cool! I've always wanted to know the timeline of how the early morning bakery process works. You're so lucky to have seen it first hand. What an amazing field trip :)

I absolutely loved this! you are too too adorable! xo

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterMandy Kay

What an excellent post, Jessie! Reminds me of my bakery days, when I used to work 5am - 1pm, or sometimes earlier. It does seem romantic, doesn't it? I was never a morning person (haha) but I learned to love the early mornings and those quiet times when you glimpse things going on in the world you never would at any other time of the day.

The baker where I worked had a horrible shift - 2am - 10am. And there are lots of places that have bakers doing all-out night shifts, too. You have to really love it to put up with the hours.

Wow what a great morning!! So great to experience this and get a nice haul of goodies to take home.

April 8 | Unregistered Commenterkickpleat

Fabulous post! One of my favorites you've done. Being able to see behind the scenes is great, especially for those of us without the opportunity (or the morning stamina) to do it ourselves. Thank you!!

Great post! This looks like such a fun day... except that whole part about waking up at such an ungodly hour. ;)

Thank you so much for that post. The photos made me salivate! It also reminded me way I left baking. 4:45, Oy!

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterMarch 8th
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