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Seven Questions: Meet Ferdinand Doumic, Baker and Teacher

More seven questions interviews:

You’ve been a baker here for over two years, can you introduce yourself to us?
I’m Ferdinand (34), I was born in Paris, raised in Angoulême, a small city between Bordeaux and Cognac in the south of France. Before going into baking I had the luxury to explore many different paths: I studied literature, music and digital project management, one after the other. I spent 6 years in corporate life, working in Paris and then Amsterdam. Then I studied acting with Steven Ditmyer, an American director training actors with the Meisner Technique. This brought me to act in a few plays, performances and movies. It was a very important part of my life, a journey of self-introspection you could say. You would think acting is all about wearing a mask, but it’s actually mostly about dropping all masks. 

And then Baking Lab entered my life in 2019. I’m saying Baking Lab and not baking itself because I do many other things here: teaching, experimenting, learning about entrepreneurship, project management to name a few. It’s a place where I can somehow connect the dots with many things I’ve done in the past. Of course, baking, cooking, and working with food is a big part of my job. I love how it opens all of my senses, it forces a tandem between the body and the head. But I’m also glad there is diversity in what I do, it keeps me sane!

The connection to your senses, is that the reason why you decided to become a baker?
Partly yes. It started with a simple idea. Five years ago I thought “why not make my own bread?” It looked like a magical process from the outside. Something that requires patience, focus, intelligence, but also involves using your hands and all of your senses indeed. I’m someone who needs to experience things with my body, get in touch with it physically to know if I like it or not, so soon enough I started at home and made a few loaves. Then I felt the need to learn more and maybe even become a baker. I emailed a number of bakeries in Amsterdam applying for a job, but most of them were looking for experienced bakers only. Thankfully, Baking Lab invited me to visit. They offered me a volunteering position, and for four months I worked with Elise, the head baker at the time as well as Ruchi, another volunteer who needed a break from her corporate life. The diversity of people, the space where everything is hanging, the crazy projects, all of it seemed so open and creative at Baking Lab. I felt at ease right very quickly. It was a clear sign that something at Baking Lab worked for me.

So I stayed, I learned a lot from Elise as a volunteer, until one day I told her I needed to find a job, and preferably as a baker. I said I would love to stay at Baking Lab, but otherwise I would apply to other bakeries now that I had some basic skills. Elise said “It’s good timing” and now I’ve been working full time at Baking Lab for over two years.

I never really thought I would work in the horeca industry actually. But somehow I can still connect the dots. Once in high school, when I was a music major, a classical music professor told us “jazz music is like cooking, you just put things together and hope it works”. He was rather critical of it, and said it as if it wasn’t a real art form… But I loved jazz music you know. I loved the improvisation, the freedom in it. You can really get to express yourself and be in the moment. Well now I cook all day, and just like with music I love the improvisational part of it. So maybe he was right in some ways. Though I think he was wrong about it not being an art form, both jazz and cooking.

So the creative process is what you like about baking?
Yes, that’s a big part of it. I’m actually not sure I would like to work in a conventional bakery that focuses exclusively on production. I think I would get bored relatively quickly. At Baking Lab everyone has a great diversity of tasks. Throughout the week I will spend time teaching, designing a workshop, exploring a new bread procedure, coordinating our volunteering team, and finding ways to minimise food waste. It is a challenging environment, routine generally doesn’t last, but also a very rewarding one. 

 But yeah, am I actually really a bread baker in the traditional sense? I’m not sure. But as long as people like the products we make, that’s fine with me.

How would you describe Baking lab?
Baking lab is such a difficult place to describe in words. It’s of course a cafe and bakery. But also a strange ecosystem, with a dynamic of its own. Some people are waiters, teachers, some are punctual workshop participants, some are regular customers to our shop and cafe, and some are volunteers for a few months. You have to be there to experience it. 

And even though we are neither a school nor a university, learning is, through our workshops and volunteering baking program, a key component of Baking Lab. Jechiam, the founder of the bakery, is an avid learner and a very innovative autodidact. And I think part of his goal is to empower the rest of us to learn by doing, so we can express ourselves through what we do. Obviously, whatever we come up with still has to make sense within the context of the bakery, as well as socially and financially, but we do get that autonomy to take our own path, as long as it’s heading in the right direction. 

That being said, having such freedom can be challenging! The French school system, as I experienced it, was very focused on accumulating and regurgitating knowledge. Creativity was a very small part of the equation. One thing I understood here at Baking Lab is that any learning process is a creative process. If you really want to understand something, it cannot be a linear path, you have to take risks and make mistakes first. Baking Lab provides exactly the kind of space where learning takes many different forms and rhythms, so you can eventually really look at a problem from different perspectives. I think there is this myth that when you learn something, you know it and then you can move on to the next thing. Obviously, that’s not how it works. To understand something you have to look at it from different angles, at different times, refine your judgement, try things out, make mistakes, and then maybe you eventually understand something fundamental. 

I know that personally, I often understand what went right in a baking process once I’ve understood a lot of the things that can go wrong. And so mistakes are welcome here. I know it is a trend to say that “one learns through mistakes” etc. but Jechiam actually gets excited and lively when mistakes happen. As far as I know, it’s very rare to find this quality in people. It really changed my attitude. I don’t feel I need to correct mistakes, but rather look at them as an opportunity to learn and maybe even come up with something new. 

You also give workshops, is that something you are part of?
Yes, this is a significant part of my week. Part of the learning process is actually to teach what we’ve learned. And I can do that through teaching bread workshops. If I teach something, I’ll need to adapt to my audience, I’ll get questions, and by doing so I’ll know if I actually understand what I’m talking about.

At the moment, we have students, artists, musicians, brewers who are all involved in teaching bread workshops at Baking Lab. I think the mix between science, creativity and autonomy draws creative minds to this place. They want to try new things, learn in their own way and teach in their own style. We are all somehow generalists, and we have the best time bridging gaps between disciplines.

You see, it’s hard to describe! I guess the best way to put it would be to say that we’re all teachers and students, at the same time. As students we’re allowed to fail and learn, and as teachers we’re allowed to empower and create. Sounds like a good mix to me.

So Baking Lab is a bakery, cafe and an educational place?
Yes, but it is also a social place. I wouldn’t call it a community, but it comes close. Almost every week a little story is baked here.

The volunteering program is very special in that sense. Each day, one or two volunteers will come and spend a day baking with me. Bread is what we do with our bodies, but we can be talking about anything. Shaping or mixing is like an anchor in these moments. We can address the deepest, most metaphysical and dramatic subjects, knowing that bread will bring us back to the earth. 

And of course, people bring their own culture. We have two wonderful Turkish women as volunteers at the moment, and together we designed a simit recipe (Turkish bagel) that works for the bakery. Another volunteer from Iran showed me a barbari (Persian flat bread) on Instagram, and said “we need to make this”. After two weeks of tests he said “Now it tastes like a real barbari from Iran!”. There are many other examples and many different profiles: artists, scientists, nurses, psychologists, people coming out of a burn out, retired people. Everyone is coming together in this sort of sanctuary that is Baking Lab, to make this essential staple food that is bread. And I’m lucky to be a part of it.

What would be the next step for you, after Baking Lab?
I see myself living in France or Spain, in the countryside. As a kid I loved playing outside. My jeans always had holes. I would be climbing trees, come back with my hands full of mud, leaves in my hair. Making bread brings back very similar sensations. My hands and jeans are covered with flour, dough is like mud, the heat of the ovens has something exciting and dangerous… So I think in many ways being a baker is a way back to something very simple I enjoyed as a child. But I also know that the diversity of what I do here is very valuable to me.

Maybe I would start my own thing. It could be something similar to Baking Lab, or completely different. Time will tell. Our model here shows that it is possible to blend different disciplines into one place, and still remain coherent. Personal freedom, responsibility, space to explore and learn are some of the core values that I will take with me. Then it’s like a soil. You have to nurture it with water and sunlight, things will start growing, attracting new living organisms, which in turn will attract more species and find some natural balance. That’s a kind of metaphor for what is happening in our micro bakery. 

#Design thinking #Social innovation #complexity #placemaking

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