The Fresh Batch: Jon McDonald
Name: Jon McDonald
Current City: Carrboro, NC
Current Job: Lead Bread Baker, Weaver Street Market
What is your background in baking and how did you get to where you are today?
Weaver Street Market is a food co-op in downtown Carrboro, one town over from UNC-Chapel Hill. When I was a student at UNC, I worked in kitchens to earn some supplemental income and became interested in baking. The summer before I graduated, I baked mornings at Weaver Street and read submissions for a publisher in the afternoons. I soon discovered that I far preferred the bakery to the nine-to-five life, so after I finished school I returned to Weaver Street and I’ve been working here for the last six years.
What do you love about your job?
While I love bread and experimenting and learning and all that, what I love most about my job is our superb team. We’re lucky to have a relatively low turnover rate, so of our team of 12 or so bakers, most have been around for a while, and we have a lot of fun. Everyone is incredibly talented in unique ways, and it’s exciting to work in such a supportive and collaborative environment.
What are your favorite products to make?
We make a miche with both rye and wheat starters. We bake it at the end of the day, and standing in front of the oven, waiting for the crust to darken to a deep mahogany, an earthy aroma like fresh coffee filling the bakery, is one of the highlights of my week.
What do you consider to be the biggest food trends impacting your business, and how are you responding?
Probably the most exciting trend in bread baking is the movement away from commodity wheat toward local grain economies. We’ve begun using more grains grown in North Carolina, and it has been a fun challenge figuring out ways to convert our customers from baguettes to more interesting rye breads and other whole grains. Also, there isn’t a lot of North Carolina flour around, so the grain varies from harvest to harvest, so it’s a puzzle getting to know the unique characteristics of each batch.
What is the best advice you have received from other bakers?
When I was learning how to shape baguettes, my fellow bakers told me to think less and listen more to my body, my hands. I knew the technique, they said. I just had to listen to my muscles, let them do their thing. This is the most important skill in baking: listening. To your intuitions, the dough, the environment, your body, your team.
Who would you would like to collaborate with in the kitchen?
Jeffery Hamelman, to hopefully gain through osmosis some small measure of his Zen-like baker’s wizardry and knowledge. I was able to take a class with him a few years ago, and his profound respect for history and tradition, innovation and education left a great impression on me.
What is the best thing you’ve eaten lately?
I was recently in Charleston and ate appetizers one evening at Two Boroughs Larder. My wife and I ate a bunch of delicious innovative small plates, but weirdly enough the most satisfying was a bag of Anson Mills popcorn seasoned with crushed seaweed and nutritional yeast.
When you are not in the bakery, where can you be found?
When I’m not drinking martinis in the backyard with my wonderful wife, I’m either playing basketball or smoking brisket.
In terms of innovation, what do you think your generation brings to the table?
Well it seems like everywhere you turn there’s a new bakery with a stone mill in house and baking with fresh flour. Just down the road from us in Raleigh, the guys at Boulted Bread actually designed and built their mill, and I think they were just commissioned to build another one for Farm and Sparrow in Asheville. It seems like our generation has no problem adding more complexity to the process in order to achieve greater flavor.
What is something you would like to achieve that you have not done already?
Because we are part of a food co-op, we make a lot of different styles of bread, from hearth breads to sandwich breads, things as varied as bagels and miche and pain de mie. We’ve begun introducing stone-ground North Carolina flour where we can, but it can be challenging since North Carolina isn’t the best place to grow certain varieties of grain that are good for bread baking. Most bakeries using local grains are on the small end. It’s a goal of mine to find a way to use 100% NC grain in a bakery of our scale.