Early in our history, Stir the Pots interviewed Dan Lepard, someone who helped shape my entire baking approach. Then somehow we lost the interview on the site. So I reached out to Dan to fill out a written interview questionnaire, he kindly obliged.
How did you become a baker?
As part of being a pastry chef. I started on the pastry section of a restaurant, Alastair Little’s, in London in 1990, bread was part of the work I had to do each day and it became a craft quickly loved and continued to nearly 30 years later
Is it elitist to just use sourdough rather than yeast?
Elitist to use sourdough? Well preferring sourdough probably marks you as someone who considers the flavour and texture of the bread important and that, I guess, is elite in a world where many people are struggling to have any bread to eat let alone consider bread’s inherent qualities. But I’m concerned that we live in a world where big industry has a reputation of “caring for the little guy” and old traditional ways for food production like sourdough are considered only affordable to the elite. That’s a bit messed up, and what’s exciting now is that artisan bakers and millers are trying to reassert that those old traditional ways are for everyone.
What favorite toppings with bread?
Peanut butter on toast.
Marmalade, favorite flavour?
Well, I do love Yuzu marmalade right now. In fact Japanese marmalade making has got my head in a spin, so fantastic.
We miss your forum, what happened with blogs?
The world changed. I think even today we see less commenting on web pages and more tweets, Instagram comments and Facebook replies. When I started my bread forum back in 2003 the internet was a different place https://web.archive.org/web/20070501040853/http://www.danlepard.com/forum/ and my forum was one of the first places where people could talk about sourdough. Before it there was really just rec.food.sourdough ftp://rtfm.mit.edu/pub/usenet-by-group/news.answers/food/sourdough/starters but both of us probably found the upkeep of the forum a lot of work, and today Instagram has taken its place.
How do you choose a subject and make a successful cookery or baking book sell?
Writing a best-selling baking book, well that’s often part-luck even though authors are loathed to admit it. However, if you put sales to one side and think about writing a great baking book, one that you’re proud of, then that’s a different thing, and very achievable. We’re probably at peak-baking right now for cookbooks. There are so many out there that I think defining your expertise in a way that would appeal to booksellers and readers is very difficult today.
What do you see today in the home baking world?
Home baking today is completely exciting, and that is both a good thing and a problem, especially for the working shop baker trying to make a living. Talented home bakers are succeeding baking tremendously complex breads, cakes, anything they can think of, and this sets up challenging expectations when they visit a shop bakery. Both on quality and price.
Professional bakers, how are they doing; financially, creatively, artistically?
So for professional bakers they somehow have to juggle employment regulations and fairness when the outlook competition for the business is tough and often unfair, they try to support small suppliers who’s costs are higher at a time when customers expect things at the lowest possible price. It’s very tough to be a working baker these days.
Who do you write for in the magazine market?
I was never especially a magazine writer, more for newspapers, and today I write a monthly food column for Fairfax Newspapers in Australia, syndicated through newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald Herald and The Age Melbourne, and have done since 2013. I write occasionally for the Observer Food Monthly, and from 2005 – 2013 wrote a weekly column for The Guardian newspaper. A weekly column is hard work, so I feel I’ve done my innings.
Are you living in England still, or is Brexit taking a toll?
Well still living in England but almost all of my work is overseas. I train chefs and commercial bakers, as that allows me more scoops with techniques beyond the simplicity and skill-free techniques expected in recipes for beginner home cooks. Brexit is taking its toll on everyone. It’s perhaps a situation that is similar to the huge changes in voting patterns around the world, driven I guess by fear about the future.
Who are some of your favorite bakers?
Gosh, I could write a list of a hundred and still find more. Always it’s the ones who challenge current ideas and move forward.
Who influences you?
Probably more what that who, my ideas grow from rethinking uses of ingredients and how the interact with each other, or over time.
I watched you writing notes for a formula in San Sebastian once, and wondered if that was the way you came up with formulas, or just ideas with percentages, how do you develop ideas?
Percentages or formula are based on facts or assumptions about the ingredients you’re using, the time you have, the result you want. So though from the outside it might seem random, “they’re using 2% salt to flour weight in their bread but what do they know?”, the truth is if you use more salt than that, say 3%, it becomes overly salty and impossible to eat in a straight bread. My ideas and work are always in response to my feelings, situation, hunger, very personal reflections on where I am, or where I think we are. I don’t think I’d ever randomly make a bread – say, with miso, chocolate and gruyere – as I can’t imagine a situation where that loaf would be the answer.
Is your mixing method for bread the same, simple mix and folds?
Pretty much. However in bakeries sometimes there are time and space constraints that mean the dough needs to develop more quickly, and sadly doughs that would benefit greatly from more time need to be rushed. But wherever possible it’s slow simple mixing and folds.
What interesting flours are you using, ancient grains?
I get a bit stuck over many rare grains as I write for publications that are really about general cooking, so I’m discouraged from using hard-to-fin ingredients. But personally, I’ve very interested in resurgence in forgotten grains, flours in Japan & Australia, and especially table-top milling.
Do you think bakers have finally come out of the shadows and are more respected craft persons?
Somewhat. Chefs still hold the top table, bakers and other food craft people underneath that.
Are you writing a or many books of late?
Many books. Yes, and still writing.
Does Bruno watch you in the kitchen?
Always. I cannot begin to fully express how much I love our pup Bruno.
END OF INTERVIEW
Dan is a busy guy, not only in the kitchen but also sharing forums with others. I didn’t catch him at the grAINZ-2019 Event, where he was joined by Ian Lowe. I didn’t make it but like me, you can watch the videos of the event here.