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A version of this story was published in Edible Toronto (Summer 2015)
In all the years I worked in the food industry, I never saw customers pour into a space, like the steady-voluptuous stream that cascades into the Blackbird Bakery Company. For the last few weeks I’ve stood voyeurist-private eye studying how the world reacts to the Baldwin Street bakery. There are caravans of regulars who bow in, like young Monks entering temple. There the potpourri of wanderers: small mobs of international tourists; trios of hipsters; and business casual office types too. The wanderers stroll by, their grins and shoulders, soft, their relaxed-mode breaks into a delighted skip, as they are lured into the bread sanctuary, nose first. Mostly, though, there’s the eagle-eyed, two breaths short of desperate bread lovers finding their way to the-brick-and-mortar shop for the first time. Their eyes melt in quiet ecstasy when they finally spot the minimalist exterior of the chalk-black building, and its chalk black awning punctuated with the neon white custom lettering that reads ‘Blackbird Baking Co.’
When I describe the different herds I’ve observed entering his bakery, Simon Blackwell’s Blue Jays capped head tips back, as he exhales a gracious sigh of relief, ‘yes, we have lots of regulars’ he acknowledges in his charming borderline drawl. He says regulars in a way that elevates them beyond mere customers. I will later learn that he doesn’t for a moment take their faithfulness for granted.
We are sitting on sleek gun metal Tolix stools at the bakery’s sandwich wide marble lunch counter. Simon has just returned from deliveries, just one of many duties he’s fulfilled since his day began at 3am. Instead of diving straight into our Q&A I pull out an unmarked brown bagged ‘competitors’ baguette, and ask him to play a sommelier-esque game I dub ‘who baked this’? Simon lets out a soft belly laugh, looks at the baguette, pats it, guesses twice, shrugs, and admits he doesn’t know. He doesn’t get ruffled, he has an uncanny child-like ability to appreciate it was just a game. This quality bleeds out of his relaxed and peaceful temperament, an essential ingredient required for the methodical labour of a master baker.
This whole time the cascade of hungry midday customers thickens around us, leaving me frazzled. Simon on the other hand is his usual lounge-lizard diplomat: calm, attentive, able to juggle interruptions effortlessly. A practice he’s been perfecting for over 30 years.
I first discovered the Blackbird Baking Co. on a curating excursion I took with Kim Antonius-Peabody with whom I co-founded the Fairmount Park Farmers’ Market. There were holes to fill in the market vendor line-up, a key one was bread. We ambled through Kensington Market, with the wide-eyed wonder of tourists. As a vegetarian I was reluctant to step into Sanagan’s Meat Locker, but, curiosity to visit the landmark butchery with the giant buzz eased my hesitation. When we stepped through the doors I, the Argentinian, raised on beef , was shocked! It didn’t smell like the meat shops I’d grown up around. It was urban boutique-ish, a spa cleanliness to it. Yet I felt uncomfortable looking at cuts of meat, so I hung around the check out counter where I noticed some very good looking loaves bursting out out of brown paper bags, each hand stamped with velvety-handsome industrial branding. We both bought loaves, and were immediately hooked by the exceptional taste.
By the spring of 2013 we’d coaxed Simon east, east, to our new-born farmers market at Fairmount Park, nestled behind a public school that borders the neighbourhoods of Little India and the Upper Beach. Polaroid-instant, Blackbird Baking Co.’s tent was swarmed. Week after week, rain or shine, through blistering heat or temperamental cold streak, the artisanal hand made bread flew off the market tables. Simon along with one other rotating staff member hawked sourdough loaves, focaccia, baguettes and pastries. Line ups were long, but quick. The customer service was excellent in spite of the minimal infrastructure. Most weeks there was at least a few people who left the open air bakery shop stifling tantrums because all the bread, every last loaf had sold out.
Simon Thomas Blackwell was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, on May 14, 1969. The son of a baker mother and baker father, Simon’s journey to becoming a member of Toronto’s bread baking elite is no surprise. His maternal grandfather Jack , and his great-grandfather Joseph were both British master bakers. Joseph worked at Ditchfield Bakery which was located on Ablewell Street, in Wolsoll, which is deeply nestled in the West Midlands of England. Eventually in 1901, Joseph purchased the bakery, the first brick-and-mortar bakery owned by the Blackwell clan. It was in Ditchfield Bakery where Simon’s mom, her two sisters and their older brother learned to bake bread.
Simon describes his parents as ‘the brilliant Sylvia and Brian Blackwell of Sechelt, British Columbia’. Together his folks baked hand made breads, which they sold via Clayton’s Heritage Market in Sechelt. With baking already in his marrow, Simon set his sights on choppier pastures, he wanted to become a chef. As early as the 8th grade he began working in the Vancouver kitchen scene of the early 80s. For the next few years his intense work life was made more intense by researching culinary programs. By 1987 he’d chosen “the” school, and enrolled himself in Malaspina College’s Culinary Arts Program because it was notorious for staffing exceptional European chefs .
Simon graduated in 1988 and immediately began his cooking career moving through many a distinguished kitchen. He began in Vancouver, then headed east to Montreal ‘s then, CP Queen Elizabeth Hotel, the across the Atlantic to London’s Grosvenor House on Park Lane, then back westward to Vancouver where he moved his knives around French dining establishments. In 1998 he headed back to the UK for three years, which included stints as a sous chef at Kensington Place under the tutelage of chef/owner Rowley Leigh. As well, Simon worked at the River Café under the hospitality of Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. The two women, along with Chef Rowley Leigh and Chef Simon Hopkinson are just a few of his mentors he speaks so highly of.
When I ask him if he misses working in restaurants there’s no pause, it’s simply ‘yes’, but, he clarifies that he does not miss working all day, all night, all weekend. Given that he is now a family man, he now concedes to crack of dawn 12 hour shifts so that he can enjoy dinner, every night of the week with his wife Kelsey, their two children, and Lucinda their cat named after Lucinda Williams the legendary rock-folk-country chanteuse.
Simon bows his head in reverence when he says, in near secrecy, ‘Kelsey is incredibly supportive.’ His respect and love for the mother of their two children bleeds out in near tears. I don’t pry for details about their relationship because from the little he’s disclosed it is obvious they live in tandem. Although not an obvious part of the day-to-day retail business, Kelsey’s touch is everywhere, as she lent the bakery her Creative Design talents to create the bakery’s signature custom typeface logo which is either hand stamped or stickered on every baked good.
During its first three years of business, the Blackbird Baking Company baked out of the back end of Soma Chocolate’s King & Spadina location. Then, his main wholesale client was Peter Sanagan’s Meat Locker shop, whose customers were buying upwards 80 plus loaves a day. After three years wholesaling Simon began to look for a bakery with retail potential. As serendipity would have it, his real estate agent came across a listing for the empty former home of Cobbs Bread in Kensington Market. Simon jumped at the chance to move his business to this neighbourhood he loves for its vibrancy. Fast forward a few months into 2014 to the birth of Blackbird Baking Co.’s brick-and-mortar home, a coming to life which was assisted by the unwavering support of friend-investors British Chef April Bloomfield, Ken Friedman [April and Ken co-own Michelin Starred ‘The Spotted Pig’ in New York City], and Soma Chocolatemaker founders David Castellan and Cynthia Leung.
Amazing small world micro movements would have it, that Sanagan’s Meat Locker and the Blackbird Baking Company are now Baldwin Street neighbours, merely separated by one store. Do you know what that store’s called I ask Simon. He looks at me innocently, like he had no idea he was supposed to study for an exam. It’s called the ‘Good Luck Shop’ I tell him. Simon’s entire being lights up, his mouth opens wide making room for a teenage-like smile swallowing a juicy secret.
Capitalizing that we’ve touched on the topic of luck, magic and serendipity, I finally find enough elbow room to squeeze in the question that’s burning at the end of my tongue: can we talk about your sourdough culture I ask. I’m braced for a grimace, a kind rejection and explanation about proprietary intelligence. Instead Simon proudly blurts out ‘his name is Murray, and he’s four years old. We feed him every day, twice a day, 7 days a week. It’s all about consistency, so he’s fed at the same time, every single day.’ ‘Murray’ got his name from Allan Murray, one of Simon’s many mentors. ‘He was a pleasure to be in the kitchen with. Strict, but fair’. Murray was interested in artisanal bread making, and it is from him that Simon caught the bread making bug that had laid dormant since his exposure to it from birth.
Currently the bakery uses certified organic flour from CIPM Farms who custom stone-mill the grain to the Blackbird Baking kitchen’s specifics. The result is a whole grain, un-sivved flour that Simon describes as nutrient-lively.
I want to be very clear at this point that Simon is mostly a quiet, arms crossed philosopher type. Asking him to dissect his alchemy feels intrusive, downright rude. Although he and his staff make their craft look effortless, I’ve watched and listened inside the inner sanctum of their kitchen, and I have seen how everything is measured, controlled and monitored. What they are doing with flour, water, temperature and time is not magic, its pure reverence to the art of bread making. I dislike best of lists, and I sense by the respect he has for fellow bread makers that Simon would rather not be asked to deconstruct and defend his methods against those of his peers. So I distil many curiosities into a question about what makes Blackbird Bread so unique? ‘It’s in the care we take to make our bread, to mix everything by hand, developing the dough’s strength by stretching it and pulling it. Hand dividing, hand shaping. Our fermentation process takes 2 days, and then it’s hearth baked right on the stone.’ For now, they bake in a Moffat Rotel 2 which was bought from he previous tenant, but come late June it will be replaced by two stone hearth deck ovens made by Miwe in Germany. The bakery’s scoring style is old-school European, a ‘single slash’.
As far as dealing with professional crisis, the only example that Simon has is when the A/C has gone, and those days require ‘diligent, constant adjustments’. What about mantras, shield-like tattoos, prayer beads, how do you deal with the intense stress I ask? For now, or maybe for always his strategy is black & white: focus on one day at a time. Not surprising given that that’s the pace that good bread is made.
That same graceful philosophy permeates how he runs his shop. There are no proprietary contracts with his 23 staff members, 16 who work back of house including bakers, pastry chefs, sous chefs and dishwashers. The day I was invited into the Blackbird Baking Company’s inner sanctum was like a family reunion, Simon introduced me to each and every staff member whose attention could be distracted. He pronounced each person’s name with Den Mother pride.
I ask about his Head Baker, ‘his name is Brenan Clarke, he’s incredible’, beams Simon. ‘He’s a trained chef who’s worked as a baker. His enthusiasm for bread is incredible, remarkable for someone as young as he is, in his early twenties.’ I peak at @brenanclarke’s instagram gallery, and sure enough, of the 387 photos uploaded, more than half feature dough rising, loaves baking, slices of bread, close-ups of flours and grains, and hand scribbled calculations. The intimate photos are of a baker in love.
Blackbird Baking Co’s breads are now available at the bakery, 7 days a week; wholesale, throughout the city; and at the Fairmount Park Farmers’ Market in the east end of Toronto, the only market they sell at. In early June the bakery broke new ground, Pusateri’s the elite grocer had come a knockin’, and now the sourdoughs are available at all three of their locations. Circling back to his respect for the bakery’s regulars he tells me about opening day, on May 1, 2014. ‘There were 4 bakers, including myself, and 3 counter staff. I really had no idea what would happen. If anyone would come, but they came, and they’ve never stopped coming’. By now we’re nearly an hour into our chat. his soft chestnut brown eyes are a glossy, sure he’s tired now nearly 12 hours into the work day, but the acknowledgement of what his regulars mean to the business has washed over him. He launched his first business into the large universe of stark uncertainty. His only glimmer of insight came from the rock solid loyalty of the bakery’s loyal fans via the Sanagan’s Meat Locker gateway. But from the moment the doors opened at 174 Baldwin Street, the returning boomerang he shot into the dark, came back with a cult following for his bread temple. In real life, and online the devotees are numerous, currently, the Blackbird Baking Company has 15.3K followers on Instagram.
Toronto’s food culture can come across, dare I say intense, extravagant and grossly decadent. It is hard to believe that a city pulsing with so many food crazes, is also a city where the forgotten sleep on our sidewalks. My jaded heart swells hopeful when Simon explains how his bakery [and so many other food producers] share their abundance. The Blackbird Baking Company’s leftovers are quietly donated to three charities, including the Good Shepherd Ministries, helping to feed the city’s growing number of homeless and vulnerable. Just as quietly as the in-kind donations of bread and gift certificates for charitable events are generously donated.
Our love for great sourdough is a craze though, but more than just filling our bellies, it is a hand holding gesture, a nudge towards a slower gear. Educating us about the exceptional crafting it takes from field to table before we break bread.