I met Jeff Connell on the first day of the Spring 2010 Evergreen Brick Works Farmers’ Market. I was coordinating the opening of the season’s market and he was our baker. Each Saturday he brought with him wonderful loaves of bread from St. John’s Bakery. His recommendations for the best loaf for a fancy grilled cheese sandwich and French toast were always spot on, and we became fast friends. I fell in love with his Pain Brié and walnut-raisin loaf, and went on to write a review for the bakery/social enterprise during my stint at blogTO.
I was sad to hear he was leaving St. John’s Bakery at the end of last year but excited that it was so that he could devote time to the opening of Woodlot, complete with a beautiful wood oven. Jeff said farewell to the market team at EBW and made us promise to come and bake with him soon.
It’s been just three months since Woodlot opened on College and Palmerston, but already they’ve been getting some great attention. After a fabulous dinner date and some light reminding on Jeff’s end, we decided to take him up on his offer and join him in the restaurant at midnight last Wednesday. I went with fellow bread lovers and Evergreeners, Marina and Rebecca.
Starting a kitchen shift at midnight and ending at 5 am is a daunting task, but we had a marvelous time learning about the start of the dough-making process. It was so much fun that I returned early this morning to finish the tail end of a shift, see a full bake-off and get some snaps.
The Woodlot’s room is beautiful, rustic and cozy. The main floor holds a narrow kitchen and large, dinosaur-egg-shaped wood oven as well as a communal table that seats about ten. A step down from the main floor is a bar that seats seven, upstairs the dining room seats about forty.
On Sunday morning when I arrive, Kevin, the barista on duty whips me up a piping hot latte. Pastry Chef Stephanie Bishop’s spread of pastries, scones, croissants and Madeleines are all ready for the morning service. Jeff hands me a blueberry danish with a perfect puff pastry crust for dipping into my cup, and we get to work…
The white sourdough has been scaled and shaped and is waiting for the oven to come to temperature. Jeff uses unbleached, organic flours only, and wherever possible, from local farms like Patricia Hastings in Lanark County. I’m tasked with scaling out the multigrain dough while Jeff shapes. After he demonstrates one 60 gram round for me, I have my turn. My scaling technique is mediocre at best and starts off as a sticky affair with some clumsy scrapper action. By the time I get to the fourth or fifth loaf my confidence starts to bloom and it becomes easier. Jeff is patient, thank goodness.
We shape the dough into longish rounds and then some smaller ones for a demi baguette – these are covered in seeds and grains like red quinoa, sunflower, oats and more – “They’re little, so they get to get dressed up,” Jeff says as he turns each one in the mix.
“It’s almost as if you’re not even touching the dough,” he goes onto say, his hands moving quickly, transforming the sticky lumps into smooth rounds, “you’re merely waving at it…” I look down to my own misshapen oblong piece and back at Jeff’s perfectly plump strip and try try again, using an ineffective feather-touch… Practice, practice, is what it will take.
Jeff takes the oven’s temperature, and while it’s a bit too hot for his liking, the white sourdough loaves have risen and are ready, and so we must proceed. With just three months in this kitchen, Jeff remarks that each bake, each bout of weather, each new batch of flour, brings new lessons. But one thing is sure – bread waits for no baker.
Despite what seems like a lifetime of expertise, Jeff hasn’t always been a baker. He started in wine, and at Woodlot he not only bakes the bread but chooses the wine list as well. “So, you’re the baker and the sommelier,” I say, “No, no,” he gently corrects me with a grin, “I am the baker… who chooses the wine list.” I nod and studiously make a mental note. His interest in wine started when he was living in New York, in a field unrelated to bread or wine. His next step was to Prince Edward County where he owns a farm with grape vines. The County had no bakery, and his interest in bread led him to start working with St. John’s. He laments that he hasn’t had much time this past season to go down to the County, but some day he will, he says. So far his week is pretty full at Woodlot – he has Monday off with the rest of the shop and bakes from about midnight to noon the next day, every day. He’s had a couple folks come through for a training, and he’s confident that one of them might become an apprentice baker at Woodlot, which would help free up some of his time. After five years baking full-time, he thoughtful tells me that it’s only now that he would actually designate himself as a baker.
The oven can fit about twenty-four loaves on it’s long hearth, and Jeff uses an enormous paddle to place them in three at a time. He works quickly and seamlessly with the over-20-foot-thing, and I have to jump to get out of the way of a couple times. After the loaves are lined up, he fills the cavity of the oven with steam.
We then scale the Red Fife loaves – a beautiful dough to work with that is grainy and not at all sticky. Red Fife is a heritage varietal of bread wheat grown in Ontario.
The first rounds of white sourdough come out of the oven in just 15 minutes in the near-300°C (about 570°F!!) oven…
11 a.m. rolls around and a gaggle of young line cooks arrive to start prepping for dinner service. The whole room fills quickly with Neil Young crooning and the aroma of caramelized onions. The surface of the communal table becomes covered with boxes and bins of wonderful things like parpadelle and freshly scrubbed sunchokes…
After Jeff completes his daily bake, the cooks always keep the oven going and it is used mostly to finish some of the dishes on the Woodlot menu like chicken and smoked ham hock pie and baked caramelized onion soup.
After waiting over a cup of tea and a trip to the wood shed to fill three bins full of chopped and seasoned apple wood, we go on to the second bake our multigrain and Red Fife loaves.
Families and couples mill in and out of the shop for their Sunday morning coffee and pastries. A few pick up fresh hot loaves for Sunday roasts. Children crane their necks to catch a glimpse of Jeff working in the oven…
Jeff sends me home around noon but not before I put together two boxes of pastries and bag a loaf of white sourdough and demi-multigrain (my favourite little one). It’s easy to see how a people like me can easily spend upwards of 25-30% of my nonprofit salary on food – sure, that might mean an occasional night out for a bowl of Pho or a fancy (delicious) burger at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, but mostly it’s on things like Monforte’s goat cheese; Ewenity’s sheep milk yoghurt; Sosnicki Organic’s killer garlic; Scotch Mountain Meat’s pork belly; Bizjak Farm’s preserved apricots; Ted Thorpe’s heads of lettuce; Bruno’s King Oyster Mushrooms, and of course, marvelous, artisanal loaves of sourdough bread like Jeff’s. Some girls buy purses. I buy cheese. As Temra Costa says in “Farmer Jane,” her book about how modern women are changing the way we eat, it’s about how we can vote with our dollars and our forks, by supporting a subset of the food industry that we believe in. “Once I started questioning the integrity of something as essential as food, there was no turning back,” she writes.
I’m at a point in my food journey and career where I’m thirsty for new knowledge, new skills and ideas and outlets for creativity. I spend my extra time reading about CSA models in Pescadero, California, checking to see what articles Wayne Roberts is sharing, visiting organic farms in Norfolk County, watching YouTube videos on bee keeping, and taking midnight shifts at bakeries…
“Maybe I’ll be a baker,” I muse to Jeff, as if I’m saying maybe I’ll just comb my hair today. Jeff smiles. “You never know,” he says, “Sometimes it’s best not to decide on things like this, just start doing it.”
Woodlot Bakery & Restaurant is on Palmerston, just south of College in Little Italy. They are open for dinner service at 5 pm and have coffee and pastries all morning starting at 7 am on weekdays and 8 am on weekends. They are closed on Mondays. Lastly, I’d like to note that I love how Woodlot has a separate menu printed off with their vegetarian offerings… while I’m definitely an omnivore, I love that they took the time to get caught in the details.
Tags: Woodlot Restaurant