Longtime head baker at Portland’s well-known Pearl Bakery and member of 2002 Baking Team USA, Healea is more than a year into owning his own bakery in the Oregon city.
Longtime head baker at Portland's well-known Pearl Bakery and member of 2002 Baking Team USA, Healea is more than a year into owning his own bakery in the Oregon city.
You spent a good portion of the summer outside of the country. Where and why?
I was teaching baking seminars to home bakers in Japan. It was very rewarding because they're so excited about baking and about learning new ideas and techniques. My approach is a little different from what they're used to learning, too; normally they're shown only how to produce a recipe, and I like to share more baking theory and why we use certain ingredients and processes.
It's always interesting to visit Japan because Japanese bakeries are exceptional at creating artistic, beautiful breads and pastries. They also have great ideas for bakery designs and packaging. Whenever I'm in Tokyo, I go to the Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku and load up on Japanese baking books, especially the ones with lots of pictures.
What did you learn as head baker at the well-known Pearl Bakery?
I spent almost a decade at Pearl, [Portland, Ore.] so I learned a lot there. Of course, I had the opportunity to learn all of the intricacies of the bread making process and the opportunity to manage a large production. But what I really appreciated was learning how to run a successful bakery business, from working with vendors to managing employees to customer service to basic accounting.
You were a silver medalist for the Bread Bakers Guild 2002 Baking Team USA in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. What did you learn from international competition?
The Coupe du Monde is a very unique learning experience, and I think it really taught me how to work through any stressful situation. It's pretty easy for me to stay calm now. The competition expanded my toolbox, so now I'm comfortable with baking anytime anywhere, no matter the equipment or the ingredients. I just use my knowledge and experience to adapt. When I originally tried out for the team, I thought that I could do a good job because I had some experience in making viennoiserie. I had no idea the huge commitment it would take or that the experience would ultimately be so rewarding.
Describe your bakery, little t american baker. What's the concept, and what differentiates it from Pearl Bakery?
Little t was really influenced by my experience with Baking Team USA. At the Coupe du Monde, you get to see great baking from around the world, and I decided I didn't want to stick with just a European tradition. The “American” in the name comes from the fact that I'm American, and it's a showcase of my perspective as an artisan baker. We still make a baguette, but we're also doing a German pretzel, an Indian naan and an American/English Sally Lunn — we have a lot of freedom to play with new ideas and make things that taste good to us.
The concept, though, is simply a quality neighborhood bakery café with a modern twist. I think the most striking difference about little t is the bakery design. It's very contemporary, with floor-to-ceiling windows, white walls, and enormous fir [wood] and glass display cases. I think for some customers it takes a little getting used to, and we're still working on the best ways to serve customers efficiently. The plan and the flow keeps evolving as we get busier.
We don't start work until 5 a.m., so our first baked products are still warm from the oven when we open at 7, and then we continue to bake fresh throughout the day.
What's new at your bakery?
When I was in Japan, I bought some really cool tart and bread moulds on Kappabashi Street (the restaurant supply district in Tokyo), so we're working on how to use those. Right now, I'm focusing on viennoiserie, since most of our business is around breakfast and lunch. Since we're only a year old, we're always playing with the product mix a bit, especially on the pastry side.
You are teaching a pastry class for the Guild in October. What's the advantage for a professional artisan baker to be involved with the Guild?
The Guild is undoubtedly the best resource for artisan bakers in the United States. It's a great resource not only for the latest trends and new ideas, but also for connecting and networking with other bakers. I like being a part of the Guild because I continue to learn so much from my colleagues around the country. Seeing what other Guild members are doing to evolve the creativity and quality of American breadmaking pushes me to stay relevant as a baker.
What makes Portland unique, and a destination food city?
Portland has a great combination of affordability and proximity to amazing locally grown produce and locally produced foods and wine. You can visit Portland and inexpensively eat very well. Also, consumers here in Portland are pretty educated about food, so there's a strong awareness of the restaurant and bakery community here. Nowhere is that more evident than in the farmer's markets; I think farmer's markets have grown all over the country, but Portland's market on Saturdays is so crowded you can barely move.
What trends do you see in baking, particularly artisan bread and pastry, and how are you addressing them?
I think one of the main trends is that bakers also really must be baristas and chefs in order to stay competitive. Customers expect to be able to have a quality coffee drink and a housemade sandwich or soup when they come through the doors. In Portland, coffee is a religion, so we are strongly focused on continuing training for making top-notch and artistic espresso drinks.
In terms of products, we continue to see interest in alternative grains, and our 100% whole grain spelt bread is very popular. Savory pastries seem to be big now, too. I don't know if it's a trend, but I think quality baking is inextricably linked to freshness, so that's one of our main concerns.
Where do you see yourself in five years? 15?
At this point, I don't really know what direction I'd like to go in next. I know for the next couple of years, little t will keep me very busy. When I decided to take the risk and open my own bakery, I resisted taking on any investors; I wanted to call the shots, and ultimately be responsible for the success or failure of the business. To do that, I had to take out a SBA loan, so my first priority is to pay that off before I tackle a new project.
Also, I'm 37 and I'm in love, so I have my partner's career and happiness to consider. I don't know what's going to happen, which is a little exciting and a little scary.
How many games will the Wildcats win in the Big Ten this year?
Uh, like many NU grads, I know absolutely nothing about sports. I never even attended a football game when I was at Northwestern. I heard our own fans throw marshmallows at our teams, but that's about it.