The Birth Of Clarke's Bread
Meet Brenan Clarke: the baker at the forefront of Toronto's artisan bread scene.
It’s 1:00am on a Saturday night. Or is it early Sunday morning? Nick and I are waiting in a dark alley in North York. Cutting across the back parking lot of a weathered strip mall, we’re startled by what seems to be a motion-sensored light above an open door, leading to an empty lit staircase. Weird. There’s no one there. If you didn’t know us any better, you’d think that we were first-time buyers of a crooked drug deal.
The last time I waited for bread at 1:00 am was in Mauritius. I was 13-years old and visiting family. We had just arrived and were still very much jetlagged. My uncle thought it would be the best time to go out and get some fresh, hot bread. He wasn’t wrong.
Rolling through the dark and narrow streets, we stopped across a little white bungalow with bars on the windows. It was the only house on the block whose lights were still on. My uncle instructed that we stay in the car and hurried into the darkness. He reemerged by a lit door on the side of the house. He knocked and, within seconds, the baker opened the door and handed him some buns in exchange for coins. This, I learned, was a usual occurrence. Back home, the bread still steaming, we opened a tin of imported butter. I tore off a piece of warm bread, smeared it from edge to edge with the creamy gold, and tasted joy.
Now, half-way across the world, I’m doing it again.
As we looked for a seat among a pile of milk crates, there was Brenan Clarke, darting around the curb in his 2005 Dodge Caravan. Right on time. Bright-eyed and full of life, his day was only beginning.
“Do you want some drugs?” he yells out before bursting into laughter, a big smile on his face. When we met him a couple of weeks prior, he insisted that we come experience the witching hours of breadmaking; between 1:00am and 5:00am. This was our golden ticket to witness the magic that only comes to life as all the city sleeps.
“I don’t know anything else. That was what I was thrust into from a very early age.”
The kitchen is where Brenan always knew he belonged. Starting as a dishwasher in a fine dining restaurant at the age of 16, he fell in love with the hustle of a busy kitchen. At 18, Brenan moved to Vancouver and found work as a cook in various restaurants. The Vancouver Olympics came to town and there was money to be made. Desperate to retain their staff at a crucial time, the newly acquired restaurant where Brenan worked at the time paid handsomely. It was there that he filled his pockets with seed money for his next adventure.
“[I] went to France and I was at a little language school in a small town outside of Versailles,” he recounted. “And, it was amazing. Where I was living was right next to a castle and right down the street was this amazing bakery. And I think a lot of my love of bread comes from that experience where the whole town in the morning (it was a very small town) would just go and get their bread for the day. The whole town smelled like fresh bread. It was nothing I had ever seen before. I mean, you have bakeries everywhere, but there’s something about a whole community coming together to support one person. And that’s what that was. Tons of people would go there every morning, get their coffee, get their baguettes. Nobody here really even does that. You don’t see the same. It’s not a thing. People don’t go get bread at 7:00 in the morning, but that’s what this was. And it was really cool.”
Brenan travelled around France and England until his now-empty pockets beckoned him home. He enrolled in George Brown’s culinary school and, towards the end of his program, got a job at Bymark through a fellow student. “I was working 45-50 hours a week, going to school full-time and it was at the end of my school year,” he recalls. “I thought ‘that’s ok, there’s only a month and a half left. I’ll just do it, I’ll just not sleep,’ and did that. I barely passed”.
After cooking at Bymark for a little over a year, it was time for a break. Brenan had been falling out of love with the excitement of the chef’s life that he so idolized in his earlier years. The 12-hour days of being screamed at had lost its charm. He still wanted to be in the world of food, but no longer had appetite for fine dining kitchens.
With no prior experience baking bread, Brenan found a job as a baker’s assistant at Mabel’s. The bakery was in the midst of developing their own bread recipes. He quickly learned that it was no easier than working in a kitchen. If anything, the graveyard hours made it even harder. It was more 12-hour days of being yelled at, just in the middle of the night.
And Brenan loved it.
“Coming from what I was doing before; working in a kitchen and then going out and then being peer pressured into drinking all night...This was very different. You just go and you work and you’d be done work at like 10 in the morning and there’s a whole world ahead of you and it’s bright and sunny.”
An unsteady relationship with the head baker pushed Brenan to leave Mabel’s. He tried working in a kitchen again, but yearned to be back in a bakery. Infatuated with the focaccias being sold out of Sanagan’s in Kensington, Brenan wanted to learn how to bake them. He discovered that they were supplied by Blackbird Baking Co.’s Simon Blackwell, who at the time, was a one-man operation baking out of SOMA’s King Street location.
“That’s where Blackbird started. In that shop. And that’s where I started. [...] It was just this cool startup bread company and I felt that no one else in the city at the time was doing anything worth doing.” Brenan was the second employee at Blackbird Baking Co., and by the time he left his position as Head Baker in June 2016 - 2 ½ years later - the company had grown to a 24-hour, 23-employee operation.
“I left my job at Blackbird with no promise of it succeeding. I figured, if it didn’t work out, I would...I didn’t have a backup plan. This was it.”
Brenan planned to launch his bread at a small farmer’s market that summer. He had been doing some consulting work, helping North of Brooklyn perfect their pizza dough, and the owners offered their Church Street space for rent after-hours. Testing and experimenting throughout the night, in the too-small kitchen, with inconsistent ovens, and the nightly drunken ruckus beyond the walls, Brenan made it work. As he baked alone in a pizza kitchen, the scent of bread wafting through the air in the middle of the night invited an unlikely customer.
“Her name was Nathalie. And, she knocked on the window, maybe 6:00 in the morning. And she was an older French woman. I guess she was the cleaner at the bar. She asked if she could buy some bread. I was like, ‘I don’t make bread, I’m just testing’. She said, ‘I want to buy your bread. I’m buying it. You’re not letting me not buy your bread.’ [...] She wouldn’t let me not sell her bread and she would way overpay me. She paid me like $20 for 2 loaves of bread. I said ‘that’s too much money, I can’t take this money’. She’s like “you’re taking the money” and took her bread and [said] ‘you’re here next week? I’m here next week’. And she came back week after week. [...] She was such a huge emotional step for me. She was the first customer. I hadn’t sold a loaf of bread before on my own. She was like one of those things that made me seem confident in what I was doing. If this random person smells bread baking down the street and will give me $20 for 2 loaves of bread, I must be doing something right. Something’s working here.”
By the end of the summer, Clarke’s Bread was born. Brenan got through the farmer’s markets and moved into a new, larger kitchen.
“There’s a point where it has to make sense for a business to make money and I understand that there’s compromise, but there’s just some things that I’m not willing to compromise on.“
We followed Brenan down into the basement kitchen where we found Tristan MacLean, Brenan’s first and only employee, mixing dough. He had been there since 11:00 pm. Also hailing from Blackbird, the duo bakes together 7 days a week.
Nick and I have sat at chef’s tables and bars overlooking restaurant kitchens many times before. The organized chaos, the yelling, the cacophony of running appliances and clanking cookware; we always enjoy dinner and a show. But this wasn’t it. This was...serene.
What we experienced was the closest thing to magic I’ve ever seen. Pumpkins turning into carriages magic. Mystic creatures in the air magic. And all in peaceful silence, in the dead of night. Swift, yet graceful movements in perfect concert with one another without a word, save for occasional good natured jokes and the intermittent beeping of multiple timers. With all of the timings kept in check and the precision of their scales, whether a loaf is ready to move onto the next stage is still very much done by nurturing feeling.
Clarke’s breads are made with an incredible amount of care at every step of a process that can last 2 days. This shines through in the incomparable flavour and quality of their bread. It’s all because care is the foundation in Brenan’s breads; care in the utmost quality of his ingredients, care for the health of his customers, and care from the people that Brenan works with.
All of Brenan’s breads are made with 100% organic flour and grains, exclusively from K2 Milling. Not long ago, before K2 started delivering, Brenan would make the weekly 2-hour drives to and from Beeton, Ontario to pick up his supplies. “I wanted to do more than anyone else was doing. I wanted to do healthy food and whole grains and K2 is, they’re not necessarily whole grain, but they’re what’s called high extraction flour. So it’s sifted whole wheat flour. All their flours are sifted whole grain flour and there’s about 80% whole grain in all of their flour. I use that as a base and then I also use on top of that whole grains in all of my blends.”
Brenan also believes that the same pair of hands should be involved in the process from start to finish. “What I really loved about Blackbird when I started was the small batches, the ability to do everything from start to finish yourself, and to watch your process. I think it really is very beneficial and it’s really the only way I think it should be done”.
“The best bread in Toronto is only made by a few select people.”
Bread is undergoing an important period of awakening. As for many people, Brenan is unable to digest wheat that is not fermented, hence his penchant for sourdough breads. And as food documentaries continue to populate our Netflix list and people are gaining more general awareness of the foods they eat, we are starting to realize that for most of us, the root of the cause is not the bread itself, but how it is made.
Brenan went through the lineage of the most important bakers in the city and how one trained another, and how they move around within the same bakeries. Given the time-intensive nature of baking - especially sourdough - Brenan believes that it cannot be taught in a classroom setting. Baking is learned through apprenticeship, and new ways to perfect your craft comes from seeking those who are able and willing to teach. That night, Nick became his impromptu apprentice; Brenan patiently taught him how to shape various types of bread as we asked questions.
Toronto’s bread baking lineages are few, and easy, to trace. He speaks highly of Blackbird Baking Co., Mabel’s, and Forno Cultura. These are the bakeries that are dedicated to bringing bread back to its former, healthier glory; made in the traditional way, using natural ingredients. Brenan is humble, almost to a fault; I had to remind him that he is part of that group.
I told him how fortunate we felt to be in his presence. That some day, there will be a documentary made of the bakers who started it all. About those who triumphantly put bread back on the daily dinner table, eradicating our fear of being ill. And that he would be among them. He laughed; to him it was a ludicrous idea. Not to me.
We stumbled out of the bakery at 6:00 in the morning. Much later than we expected. It was still dark outside, but the birds were chirping, announcing the impending sunrise. We boarded a night bus home and as soon as we hit the pillow, we drifted to sleep.
When I woke up about noon that day, with images of flour clouds gently exploding through the air, I thought that I had perhaps dreamt it all. Did this really happen? And when I looked at the kitchen table and saw our doggybags of goodies, I knew it wasn’t a dream. Brenan never lets us leave empty-handed.
Brenan has played a more integral role in this bread awakening than either of us can imagine. He’s done more than he even knows, himself. And will likely never admit it. This is only the beginning for Clarke’s Bread and as far as he’s come, Brenan has a long way to go as he continues to obsessively perfect and experiment. Failure was never an option. But once we met Brenan and understood the fundamentals for his life’s work, we knew immediately that failure was not even a possibility. Remember Brenan Clarke; he’s big right now. But he’ll be even bigger someday.
Words by Kimberley Kwo. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.