Stoking career fires
In the backyard of his parents’ rural Vinland home on Friday, Colin Busby sniffed a loaf of bread he had just removed from the oven.
“Fresh bread always smells good,” the 22-year-old Busby said, while criticizing the loaf’s light color and lack of caramelization as he placed it beside three baguettes also fresh from the oven in which they had been baking for about 20 minutes.
The breads were baked in the process of getting his wood-fired, brick-lined oven heated for the real work that would start before sunrise the next morning: baking loaves for Saturday’s Baldwin City Farmers’ Market.
Bread baking is an ancient process and one more complex and hands on than setting the controls to a modern oven and waiting for the bell to ding.
“It’s always a game figuring out how much wood to burn and for how long,” Busby said. “I’ll slowly heat that whole masonry mass to about 500 degrees.”
The oven was a project of last summer, completed with the masonry advice of Vinland restoration guru Ray Wilbur, Busby said. It has a 4-inch-thick, 4-foot by 4-foot hearth of refractory concrete topped by a firebrick-lined, stucco-covered baking chamber that matches the color of the limestone home of his parents, Anna and Bill Busby.
He got the design from a book by the late Alan Scott, who reintroduced and refined oven designs bakers had used for centuries.
“Before the Industrial Revolution, you could probably find ovens like this made of native stone in France and throughout Europe,” Busby said.
The bread he produces shares a similar tradition. He uses only organic whole grains and eschews the cultured yeasts introduced in late 1800s in favor of sourdough with its naturally occurring yeast and bacteria. Busby vends the finished product on Saturdays at the Baldwin City Farmers’ market, delivers fresh loaves Thursday to Antiques on the Prairie, and is working on an arrangement to sell Thursday at Cottin’s Farmers’ Market in Lawrence.
“I pretty much keep it to water, flour and salt,” he said. “I want to perfect what I’m doing with those basic ingredients before moving on to adding other things.
“It’s really amazing how much there is to learn using just those three basic things.”
It is a very hands-on learning process. Busby has learned to adjust the moisture in the fire chamber through such measures as placing a pan with a wet mop head in the oven. With no thermometers, he judges the temperature by the feel of his hand or watches the change in color to a handful to flour tossed in the oven, looking after 15 seconds for the just-right brown rather than the too-hot black or too-cool tan.
“I have a grandfather who is an engineer who said I should drill thermocouples in the vault so that I know exactly what is going on in the oven,” he said. “I prefer to feel with my hand and watch the flour.”
The oven and breads are the result of a journey that started when he sought to satisfy his sweet tooth.
“I first started baking when my mom told me if I wanted chocolate chip cookies, I would have to make them,” Busby said. “I started making more and more elaborate pastries. Luckily for me, about two years ago I discovered breads. If I had kept sampling my pastries, I would have had to get on some kind of exercise program.”
Nothing he studied while earning his music degree from Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo., prepared him for baking. That he has learned through his experience, reading, “picking the brains” of bakers during a spring trip to California and from a job last summer at WheatFields in Lawrence.
“Basically it was just cleaning,” he said “But the bakers at WheatFields were very nice. They let me come in early and get my hands on dough, make some simple baguettes and ask lots of questions.”
Busby plans this fall to leave Vinland and his oven behind. He has a baking job lined up in New Orleans in the restaurant of two friends.
“They will let me do some baking on the side,” he said. “Ultimately, my goal is to start my own bakery with maybe two or three people baking every day, making about 1,000 loaves a week and feeding the community.”
It’s a career choice that does raise eyebrows, Busby said. There’s no career ladder in that what you do on the first day as a bakery owner is what you do every day and bakers, while able to make a comfortable living, will never get rich, he said.
Among those who do support his vision are his parents.
“They can see that I have gained a lot of skill and knowledge,” Busby said. “They can see I have a plan — that’s what it comes down to.”
His mother said her support comes from witnessing her son’s passion for baking and producing wholesome, organic food. There are also benefits for her and her husband.
“We eat great when he’s here,” she said. “When his friends were here, they made a meal for us that was just wonderful.”
It’s those direct responses that make baking meaningful to him, Busby said.
“I can never see myself in another job,” he said. “It appeals to me because it is so directly meaningful. Food is something you literally need to survive. You can’t go a week without food but I’m pretty sure I could go a week without insurance. Insurance, loans and mortgages have cultural significance but they’re not visceral enough for me. I like working with a hands-on finished product I can consume and sustains me.”