Breaking Bread at Blackbird Baking Co.
I was sitting with Simon Blackwell on sleek gunmetal Tolix stools at Blackbird Bakery Co.'s sun-filled marble lunch counter. Simon had just returned from deliveries, just one of many duties he'd fulfilled since his day began at three in the morning. When I mentioned the eclectic parade of customers I had observed entering his bakery, Simon's Blue Jays-capped head tipped back as he exhaled a gracious sigh of relief. "Yes, we have lots of regulars," he acknowledged. I would later learn that he does not for one moment take their faithfulness for granted.
I first discovered the Blackbird Baking Co. in 2013, on a curating excursion I took with Kim Antonius-Peabody, with whom I co-founded the Fairmount Park Farmers' Market. There were holes to fill in the our vendor line-up; a key one was bread. So we ambled through Kensington Market, hoping for a local bread maker to fall from the sky. We stepped into Sanagan's Meat Locker, curious to visit the popular butcher shop. At the check-out counter we noticed some very good-looking crusty breads bursting out of brown paper bags. We bought a couple of loaves, made by the Blackbird Baking Co., and were immediately taken by their exceptional texture and taste.
The bakery agreed to join our market that first year, and continues to be a vendor. They are swarmed with customers every market Wednesday. Rain or shine, blistering heat or temperamental cold streak, the artisanal handmade bread flies off of market tables. Most weeks at least a few people leave the open-air bakery shop stifling tantrums because every last loaf had been sold.
Simon Thomas Blackwell hails from Vancouver. The son of a baker mother and a baker father, Simon's journey to becoming a member of Toronto's bread-baking elite is no surprise. His maternal grandfather and great-grandfather, whose last name was Ditchfield, were British master bakers. Both worked in a bakery in Walsall, England, and they purchased it in 1900, renaming it Ditchfield Bakery. (The Ditchfield family ran the bakery until 1988.) It was there that Simon's mom learned to bake bread.
Simon describes his parents as "the brilliant Sylvia and Brian Blackwell of Sechelt, British Columbia." Together his folks baked handmade breads, which they sold via Clayton's Heritage Market in Sechelt. Simon liked baking but what he really wanted to do was become a chef. While still in grade school, he began working in the Vancouver kitchen scene of the early eighties. In 1987 he enrolled in Malaspina College's Culinary Arts Program because it was known for staffing exceptional European chefs.
Simon graduated in 1988. His cooking career saw him moving through many distinguished kitchens. He began in Vancouver, then headed east to Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel, followed by a trip across the Atlantic to London's Grosvenor House on Park Lane, and then back to Vancouver, where he moved his knives around French dining establishments. In 1998, he headed back to the UK for three years, which included stints as a sous-chef at Kensington Place under the tutelage of chef-owner Rowley Leigh. Simon also worked for a time at the River Café under famed chef-owners Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. The two women, along with Chef Leigh and Chef Simon Hopkinson, are just a few of the mentors he speaks very highly of.
Simon still misses working in restaurants but he does not miss the harrowing hours. Given that he is now a family man, he concedes to crack-of-dawn starts and 12-hour shifts so that he can enjoy nightly dinners with his wife Kelsey and their two children.
Simon bows his head in reverence when he states, "Kelsey is incredibly supportive." His respect and love for his partner bleeds out in near tears. Although not an obvious part of the day-to-day retail business, Kelsey's touch is everywhere: she lent the bakery her creative design chops to create the bakery's signature typeface logo which is hand-stamped or stickered on every package and box.
During its first three years of business, the Blackbird Baking Company worked out of the back end of Soma Chocolatemaker's King and Spadina location, selling solely to the wholesale market. His main client was friend Peter Sanagan, whose butcher-shop customers were buying upwards of eighty loaves a day. A chance opportunity to take over the former Cobs Bread location on the same street in Kensington Market manifested itself, and Simon leapt at the chance to move his business to the neighbourhood that he adores for its vibrancy. This bakery's brick-and-mortar birth was assisted by the unwavering support of friend-investors—Manhattan's The Spotted Pig's co-owners Chef April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, and Soma Chocolatemaker founders David Castellan and Cynthia Leung.
And so Blackbird and Sanagan's became Baldwin Street neighbours, separated by just one store—aptly named the Good Luck Shop. Speaking of luck, I asked Simon about the bakery's cult-followed sourdough bread and the wild-yeast starter they use. Simon proudly blurted out, "His name is Murray, and he's four years old. We feed him every day, twice a day, seven days a week. It's all about consistency, so he's fed at the same time, every single day." Murray got his name from now-retired chef Allan Murray, another of Simon's many mentors. The two chefs met at the now defunct Le Gavroche in Vancouver, which served traditional French cuisine. "He was a pleasure to be in the kitchen with. Strict, but fair." Chef Murray was into baking traditional European-style breads and it is from him that Simon's bread-making gene, which had lain dormant for so many years, came alive.
What precisely makes Blackbird Bread so unique, I asked. "It's in the care we take to make our bread, to mix everything by hand, developing the dough's strength by hand stretching and pulling. Hand dividing. Hand shaping. Our fermentation process takes two days, and then it's hearth-baked right on the stone." They'd been baking in a Moffat Rotel 2, which was bought from the previous tenant, but it has recently been replaced by two stone hearth deck ovens made by Miwe in Germany. The bakery uses certified organic flour grown by CIPM Farms in Madoc, Ontario, who custom stone-mill their grains to the Blackbird Baking kitchen's specifications.
Perhaps the Good Luck Shop's luck has rubbed off on the bakery, especially staff-wise. Blackbird's head baker is Brenan Clarke. "He's incredible," Simon beamed. "He's a trained chef who's worked as a baker. He called me out of the blue! His enthusiasm for bread is remarkable for someone as young as he is, in his early twenties."
Circling back to his respect for the bakery's regulars, Simon told me about opening day on Baldwin Street, May 1, 2014: "There were four bakers, including myself, and three counter staff. I really had no idea what would happen—if anyone would come—but they came, and they've never stopped coming." His only glimmer of insight had come from the rock-solid loyalty of the bakery's customers at Sanagan's, where Blackbird breads are still sold. But from the moment the doors opened there was an instant cult following for his temple of delicious crusty breads, focaccia, and pastries.
At times Toronto's food culture can come across, dare I say, as grossly decadent. It is hard to believe that a city pulsing with so many food crazes is also a city where so many residents go hungry. Blackbird Baking Co.'s day-to-day duties include helping to feed their hungry neighbours. Leftovers are donated to three charities, including the Good Shepherd Ministries. Fabulous bread plus a healthy staff culture plus big hearts. It all makes Blackbird Baking Co.'s success incredibly easy to understand.
Blackbird Baking Co.
172 Baldwin St., Toronto