Interview by Sharon DeYoung
The Montford Walk-In Bakery is on the rise! And Jennifer Thomas is loving it. “I had no idea I would ever be baking bread for a living. It is very creative process even when the ingredients are so basic; flour, water, and salt. And I love baking for my neighbors and friends.”
Jennifer grew up in Boston surrounded by a variety of ethnic foods. Her dad was an artist for the Christian Science Monitor and her mom was a writer for the same paper. Both parents wrote restaurant reviews from time to time and Jennifer and her sisters got to tag along. “We were treated like queens in the restaurants.”
Jennifer followed in her father’s footsteps studying art, but she had her mother’s temperament who loved reading and storytelling. Jennifer has shared these interests with her two daughters who still love to hear and tell stories about “Tomten” and a host of other special elfin-folks with very special talents. Cooking and baking is just another part of that story telling process, especially during ginger bread cookie-making sessions! By the way, her girls are also great cooks.
The leap from studio art to bread-baking was not difficult for Jennifer. Both are creative, problem-solving exercises. This recipe requires a little more perspective here, a little more color there, and the patience to allow the work to sit overnight undisturbed! There is a considerable amount of essential science in bread-making but creating a special flavor, texture or shape is an art.
Jennifer has dabbled in the food industry most of her life. As many Ashevillian’s know, waiting on tables is a great way to support your artistic habits. Jennifer paid her dues in places like the Kennebunkport Inn in Maine, and the Tamarind Restaurant in Albuquerque in the mid to late 1970s. These experiences opened her palette and inspired experimentation in her home kitchen.
When her children were born Jennifer made an effort to keep an eye on them by working in their preschools, camps and schools. One summer Jennifer jumped out of the frying pan into the fire to manage a camp kitchen near Asheville in trade for camp tuition. Early to bed and very early to rise! Her husband would often drive down to help with a variety of kitchen tasks. On a few occasions Jennifer would awake early and head straight to the grocery to buy 30 gallons of milk because the cooler had broken down in the night. “These kids have to eat three meals a day! Every meal is another performance.”
Soon after recovering from camp, Jennifer was managing a small chocolate company in downtown Asheville. She was the chief chocolatier and bottle washer. Her husband loved bringing his clients over to the kitchen to taste the chocolate “seconds.” His business increased substantially that year. Saturated with chocolate, Jennifer could hardly look at (or smell) chocolate for many years following. With time, she now has her hands back into the chocolate, and produces chocolates occasionally as a compliment to her bread offerings.
As her daughters grew older Jennifer decided to go back to college in Baking and Pastry Arts at AB Technical College. She found it stimulating to be back in school as an older student. The baking and pastry program is a very demanding program mentally and physically. There was the math to be re-taken, public speaking, and the kitchen classes included a lot of physical effort. It was a little intimidating initially, but with new knowledge came new confidence.
The culinary program at AB Tech is nationally recognized with numerous accolades. Jennifer recalls that her instructors were top-notch, and very helpful. This was a perfect fit. From food science, to sanitation to the plethora of baking classes, Jennifer was in baking heaven. Her academics at AB Tech culminated in an internship with Steve Bardwell of Wake Robin Farm Bakery.
Wake Robin Bakery is not your typical bakery. It is located at the end of a mile-long dirt road in the far reaches of Madison County. Steve bakes his bread in a wood-fired oven. He has no storefront, so after a long day/evening/morning of baking, he loads his van and heads off for one of several tailgate markets. This experience has been a major influence on Jennifer’s appreciation of artisan breads and her understanding of the bread scene in Asheville.
Jennifer realized through her tenure at Wake Robin that there is a revival of artisan bread-baking taking place in the USA. Asheville is a major vortex of this revival as witnessed on March 24th, 2012 at the Asheville Artisan Bread Festival. This event brought to Asheville some of the very best bread bakers in the world. Among those was Peter Reinhart, author/baker/teacher and an annual lecturer at the Asheville Bread Festival. Reinhart states that “with a very small population, Asheville and environs supports more artisan bakeries than most entire states. The bakeries are all small but truly artisan in the purest sense of the word.” Jennifer fondly notes that “the bread bakers in and around Asheville are a great family and very supportive of each other.”
So with a new set of tools, Jennifer opened The Montford Walk-In Bakery in 2009. She made a few improvements to her home kitchen, invited the NC Department of Agriculture to come inspect her facility, sent emails out to her friends and neighbors in Montford and has never looked back. Her husband, with a lot of community help, built a wood-fired oven on their patio, and wonderful bread is produced each week from her bakery.
The bakery, like a lot of other phenomena in Asheville is non-traditional. The bakery functions more as a baking club or a CSB (community supported bakery). There is no storefront, no bread items stocked on shelves, and everything is pre-order. Once you are on the mailing list, you will receive and respond to an email each week with a selection of breads. On baking days you walk over and pick up your fresh bread. Production is limited by the size of the bakery, but for those people on the email list, they have their own personal baker. And the bread is good in Montford!
You can find out more about her bakery at www.montfordwibakery.com/ and contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.