IT'S VERY EARLY and SE Division is wet and deserted, with a promise (or a threat) of activity on the horizon. I splash through puddles and rain until I come upon the Little T American Bakery, nestled in the base of the Clinton Condominiums building.
The neighborhood is quiet, but by the time I approach the huge plate-glass doors, Little T is anything but. Through a door in the still-dim dining room, I can see bakers working beneath a fluorescent wash. No one seems to mind that I'm sopping wet.
The kitchen is what you'd expect to see in the back of any restaurant, save for the extremely high ceiling and the shiny, delivery van-sized German oven. Tim Healea, the owner, is right smack in the middle of it all, separating dough at a wooden counter. Like his kitchen staff, he's wearing a T-shirt—but his is green and says "Little T" in plain text, near the right shoulder. It's also supernaturally clean, considering he works with flour.
I ask him what kind of dough he's working with.
"This is our baguette dough. It's modeled on what the French call an 'ancient baguette.'"
He's folding the dough while he talks. He moves quickly, but with a practiced grace and tenderness, preparing and packing away each little future loaf as if it's a baby. Though the kitchen is full of loud machinery and bustling with the activity of the other bakers, there's an odd calm in the room. Everyone goes about their work quickly, but they don't appear rushed. At the risk of getting metaphysical, it's a very different energy than the sort one would find behind a busy bar or in most restaurant kitchens.
Healea is a baker, but he's also a scientist. The breadth of his knowledge is somewhat staggering. He knows every little thing about what he calls "the microcosm of the dough," and exactly what kind of party all the itty bitty enzymes, yeasts, bacteria, and proteins are going to throw. But it's not all cold logic.
"It's also about humility and simplicity," Healea says. "You're working with something that's alive. You have to give it respect. If you're grumpy, you'll get grumpy bread."
When 7 am rolls around, the bakery opens. The dining room is soon full of happy, chatty customers. Healea shares one of the baguettes from the first batch with me.
"For me, eating a good baguette is just as satisfying as a four star meal," he says. It's a sentiment I find easy to understand. The baguette is tasty, with a thin crust that crunches just enough before yielding to the soft center.
Though Healea exudes self-confidence, he's also humble and a bit hesitant to talk too much about himself. Every once in a while, he squints one eye at me, as if I just asked him to give me his bank account number.
He eventually does tell me that he, along with a team of two other bakers, won the silver medal for America in 2002 at the Coup De Monde de la Boulangerie (World Bakery Cup). In fact, that's where he got his nickname, and the name of the bakery.
"One of the other guys on the team was also named Tim," he says. "We called him Big T, because he was older, and eventually they started calling me Little T."
By lunchtime the dining room is full. Still no sign of stress or undue hurriedness from anyone on the staff. It's clear that, just like his bread, Healea has a deep respect for all his employees and genuinely cares about them. They talk like good friends as they work on their various tasks around the big, central counter.
By the time I leave, I can tell that it's not only Healea's extensive knowledge and experience that make his success. It's also his calm attitude and positive demeanor. "There's no room for arrogance in baking," he says. "It's not health care or peace in the Middle East. At the end of the day, it's just bread."
"Being an early bird, I don't get out too much," says Tim Healea, "But when I do, I crave Asian." When the craving hits, Healea and his boyfriend will head out to Biwa (215 SE 9th), Tanuki (413 NW 21st), or Ping (102 NW 4th). He says that they remind him of the little spots he stops at when visiting Japan. -Tim HealeaMore of the FOOD ISSUE here!