In 2007, Steve Barnhart became the nation’s youngest CMB, and he hasn’t stopped there. As the R&D specialist at Highland Baking Co., Northbrook, Ill. he is surprising and impressing some of baking’s elder statesmen.
In 2007, Steve Barnhart became the nation's youngest CMB, and he hasn't stopped there. As the R&D specialist at Highland Baking Co., Northbrook, Ill. he is surprising and impressing some of baking's elder statesmen.
I'm particularly interested in the science and math of the formulations. Just one small change in a formula can have a totally different end result — desired or not. I enjoy being a baker because I can take pride in my work. I enjoy being elbow-deep in cake batter. Being a baker is more than operating a machine — you really have to pay attention and know what's going on throughout the whole process for the end result to be satisfactory.
And if you had to do something other than baking?
Carpentry. I enjoy working with my hands. I love building and fixing things. I can appreciate very nice furniture. I view varieties of wood like varieties of flour — the essential building blocks for the respective trades. Bakers use flour as a main ingredient to achieve their desired result in bread and pastries. Different flours have different effects on the dough. Carpenters use different wood to create furniture and select the wood for its functionality.
How has this rough economy affected your business?
Everybody is facing rising ingredient and freight costs and, unfortunately, these costs have to pass on to customers. Nobody likes to, but it has to be done. We continue to produce the best bread possible without sacrificing quality because of ingredient costs. We don't like to cut corners; it's just not right.
How is baking evolving?
I've noticed, over the last five to seven years especially, an increasing demand for quality. Consumers are more knowledgeable and are eating healthier than ever. It's no longer just white bread and donuts. Consumers are looking for new flavors, healthy options and freshness.
Why did you decide to take the CMB test at age 25?
The primary reason was because I've always been a competitor. I've always strived towards the next step in anything I have ever done. It started with my CJB (Certified Journeyman Baker) while still in culinary school. Then I earned the Certified Baker (CB) a few years later. Immediately afterwards, with encouragement from Jory Downer, I put in my application for the Certified Master Baker (CMB) test. I felt confident about my skill level after working with and being trained by some of the best in the industry. I also pursued the CMB for respect. I've always looked young for my age, so I have always been mistaken as a student or apprentice everywhere I go.
What's next after becoming a CMB?
I am pursuing Certified Baker in Breads and Rolls through AIB International, hopefully I'll be finished with that by early 2009. I'd eventually like to go for a Certified Research Chef credential. The certifications are not just a piece of paper on the wall and an “alphabet soup” of letters after my name; they are a continual assessment of my skills and knowledge, helping me stay on top of my game. The industry is always changing — trends, recipes/formulas, ingredients, sanitation, management skills, etc. Being up-to-date with all of them makes me better at my job, and ultimately, my passion.
How do other bakers react to you?
Recently, I was one of the judges at SkillsUSA in Kansas City, Mo. The first day of the competition, I tried to enter the judges area, but a security guard stopped me and told me students couldn't enter yet. After convincing him that I was a judge, I finally entered the Commercial Baking section. To no surprise, the other judges asked me what I was doing there and how I got in earlier than other students. After a few days of hands-on judging and getting to know one another, I think I won their confidence. I have been around a lot of people in this industry, some of whom won't even shake my hand because they think I'm an apprentice. Others get to know me and the things that I have done, the certifications that I have earned and the experiences I share with them. I get a lot of those same people telling me that there should be more young people like myself in the industry.
What sets your style apart from other bakers?
I know that I've won someone over when they take two bites. I love creating new items and constantly improving the ones that are made daily. I don't believe that there is ever a “perfect” baked good; everything can be improved. Sometimes I lose sleep at night from anticipation because I'm still thinking about the new products I get to make the next day. I love learning new tricks, ingredients, flavors, and formulas. I try to stay on top of my game. The day I stop learning will be the day I stop trying.
How did you get your start in the industry?
Since I was a child, I've been in the kitchen helping my mother and my grandmother. I even took a few baking classes at the park district when I was young. When I was old enough, I started culinary school at Kendall College with dreams of becoming a chef. I discovered industry-style baking there. I enjoyed making the products and I felt more comfortable using my hands for kneading and shaping than cutting vegetables all day. I enjoyed it so much that I worked toward becoming a teaching assistant for the Baking and Pastry Department. Jory Downer at Bennison's Bakery recruited me, and with his help, I was able to achieve the Certified Master Baker status and really fine-tune my skills for breadmaking.
If you had advice to give to new bakers opening businesses, what would it be?
Stay focused on what you make, and execute your menu to the best of your abilities. Try your hardest to make your customers happy, but be aware of what is profitable and what is wasting time. Also, invest a good amount of money in tools — 1/2 the time at the bakery is spent as a mechanic.
What does the future hold for you and Highland Bakery? Short term? Long term?
I'm expecting a long, healthy relationship with Highland Baking. The company is growing in number of employees, number of customers, number of products, and overall quality. Highland Baking takes wonderful care of their employees and does everything in its ability to boost morale. We have a great team of bakers who come to work every day, ready to give their all. Who could ask for more?