Andrew started working in the food industry right out of high school but never envisioned baking, let alone being a business owner, as his career. His passion for art, local grains, and being in the kitchen led him to where he is now: manning the ovens at Madison Sourdough in Madison, Wisconsin. He never intends to leave.
I started as a baker at Madison Sourdough, and I ended up buying it four years later. I like being a business owner because I get to control some of my own destiny in some ways. It would be hard for me to be told what to do. I’ve had to make hard decisions, and I enjoy that. I really like being responsible for myself and for the people who work for me. I took over this business when I was twenty-five so I had a lot of learning to do. That’s pretty young for a business owner. The weight of the responsibility of that… I had to grow into that, but I really, really enjoy that.
The company was very different when I started. We weren’t in this location, we didn’t do food, we didn’t have a café, we did like six types of bread and some pastries, and that was it. Our commitment to local sustainable foods, local producers [pause] wasn’t as strong then. Once we took over, we made some really quite simple changes like getting our butter and eggs and milk and stuff… foundational things that we produce a lot of… in Wisconsin.
I had my first co-op membership when I was eighteen, which was awesome. I started my first garden when I was twenty-two, and that really changed my perspective on quality of food, freshness, and the sort of importance of like sustaining your own, if you will… Or trying to support people close by and support a much more sustaining community. I think the co-op turned me onto, “Okay this is cool. This is coming from a specific farm that’s really close to Madison.”
We’re not 100% committed to working with local farmers. A lot of it has to do with quality. Like greens that have a ton of bugs in it as an example… We can wash ‘em multiple times here, try to deal with it… if I get a customer, which has happened, who says, “There’s a caterpillar in my salad.” That’s really unfortunate. At the same time it’s kind of cool because you know its super fresh because that caterpillar is still alive. There’s something kind-of special about that, but also the customer doesn’t understand, and that’s an issue.
What drew me to it then is different from what keeps me here today.
My first baking job was with The Great Harvest Bakery. This was right out of high school when I was eighteen and the breads that we did there were very different than the breads that I’m interested in now, but at the time it was pretty amazing. My interest in the baking wasn’t just the job. I wanted to really enjoy the things I was making. When I was a child the idea of being a chef or a baker or a cook was a very different thing than it is today. In the early 90’s and the 80’s being a chef or a cook was like a straight-up blue-collar job, you know what I mean?
Art is a way of thinking creatively… It taught me to think a certain way about what I do. I went to [UW] Madison here—when I graduated I had a bachelor’s of fine arts. I was between a rock and a hard place financially because I put all my eggs in one basket for this job I ended up not getting, and I just needed to do something that I knew how to do. Baking and working in the kitchen was something I was comfortable with. I drove by Madison Sourdough and I was like, “I’ve had their bread. It’s really good.” I stopped in and they said they were looking for someone. The next morning I called, set-up an interview, which was at 5am in the morning the next day, and I thought it would be kind-of a cool thing to do for a few months.
After a couple months, it became clear that it was something I really enjoyed and something that I would commit to working for at least a year. Learning how to make decisions and living with them—it’s a good lesson. Life is too short to sit around and worry about the past or the future; you just need to go forward.
It was a lot of hard work, but the company was so small. I was the only full-time baker along with the owner and his wife, and there was something special about that because I got to engage with the owner who was the head baker and really ask a lot of detailed questions. There was time for that conversation to happen. When I was starting it was truly like old-school master and apprentice relationship, where the standards were very high for me and I really enjoyed that.
I worked six days a week. I worked from 2am until 11am each one of those days. I would get up in the middle of the night. I would have a lot of solitary time… Like a good four hours of solitary work, which I really enjoyed where I could just focus on the work and the rhythms… Listening to music… kind of meditate on what I was doing. Not just making bread but what I was doing with my whole life.
It was a sort of transitional period for me. I look back on those days very fondly.
What I liked about making art was that I had a connection to all other artists before me, and I really feel that even more strongly about baking: That I work within a tradition that gets passed down. When I get up at 3 o’clock in the morning I think about the other bakers who are up doing the same thing, and I think about the bakers who did it the generation before me, and I think about the person who taught me how to make this bread and that he learned working mostly with French bakers. To connect to that kind of history… it carries a lot of weight for me.
After a year of baking, my first year of baking, I took some time off. I was like, “Oh, I’ll take some time off and I’m gonna go travel.” When I was in Paris, Cam Ramsey who previously owned Madison Sourdough, hooked me up… I got to work with this baker for a few days and it was really, really inspiring. At the time I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back and continue to bake. After that experience I was like, “Oh, I am super into this. This is really cool.”
It’s like a connection to that history. To see a third generation baker doing what he was doing… we were carting around breads on the street. Just walking deliveries on a little cart, going to restaurants, having espresso with chefs… their lifestyle was so routine and so set, but like simple and enjoyable in a lot of ways. They worked really hard but it was just sort of like, “This is what we do. We live above the bakery. This is what we’ve done for generations.”
My role as a baker is to take the wheat, which is just this seed of grass, and guide it towards it’s like intended… most excellent purpose… which is a loaf of bread.
Bread is essentially fermented grain. It’s amazing that as a culture we’ve developed skills to get there—guiding that process to make something that is truly nourishing and stable. It’s truly transformative. Wheat, in particular, has been the cultivated crop of the world for thousands of years. There’s lots of other grains out there, but wheat… It’s been sort of foundational for civilization as we know it.
I love bread.
There’s nothing like a good-fresh-warm baguette. With some butter on it… like high-fat butter… it’s so good… Specialty breads are great, like nut breads, but I’ve grown more and more to really appreciate whole-grain loaves as my everyday bread.
I’ve really held onto staying a baker. Other chefs who cook still and own their restaurants will say the same thing: If you back away, if you leave that, you’ll lose something. Something will be lost… Whether it’s like really tangible or more kind-of like the spirit of a dish, or the spirit of a bread, or spirit of a place.
I’d rather give up the business and still bake. Its kind-of crazy… There’s usually three bakers when we start the morning, and we’re all kind of waking up, but we all know what to do. We all have our stations. We don’t really talk a lot for the first few hours unless we need to, and I think that’s important to just kind-of like get into the process, get into the day. I enjoy the mornings because I need that little bit of solitude… that quiet. I’ll never not be a baker.
— Liz Berger