A young man pursues his passion of baking sourdough in lieu of a PhD

The process of redrawing life during midlife is absolutely confounding. Marriage, children, and mortgage, are responsibilities that hinder one’s appetite for risk. Perhaps that’s one reason why Millennials seem to capture all of the media’s attention with respect to cultural indicators and trends.

Recently I was offered a part-time job working as a baker for Duluth’s Best Bread. Wholly uninterested in this sort of employment, I ultimately agreed to try it for a day out of simple curiosity. The finished product you see here is wonderful, mouth-watering even, but how is it that the simplest of ingredients and a sourdough fermentation process that has been handed down over thousands of years could totally upend a young man’s life?

 

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24-year-old Michael Lillegard was on the fast track to a life of relative comfort and ease. He had just completed a master’s degree in discrete mathematics. (FYI, I don’t understand what this kind of math is either. Suffice to say, it’s crazy math.) A six-figure salary was within reach, and potentially a PhD program. Money. Status. Security. Like so many of us, Michael didn’t wish to spend his life in front of a computer. Unlike most of us, myself included, he pulled the plug on his career trajectory before it even started. While finishing his coursework he found his passion in wild yeast, flour, water, and salt.

As a kid, Lillegard dreamed of opening a pizza place. During college he continued to feed this passion for homemade pizza by building an outdoor brick oven with his father. Working nights and weekends, it took him four months to complete. He is a perfectionist who possesses an unusual ability to stick to mundane tasks day after day after day while perfecting whatever it is he sets out to do.

It’s somewhat ironic that he now runs his fledgling business—Duluth’s Best Bread—out of an old pizza parlor located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Duluth. During the week he lives like a monk in the small apartment located in the rear of the bakery, where he pursues his craft with a minimum of distractions.

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He barely eats or drinks anything during the week, subsisting on the same sugary breakfast cereal nearly every day: Reese’s Puffs. YEE-UCK!  Mother Lillegard must worry constantly. His parent’s house, frequented on weekends, is about the only place where you’ll find him eating a square meal.

 

That’s right ladies. Both Michael, and his employee, Vin, are still single…

Mike Vin and oven

The work is arduous and time consuming. Only months into launching Duluth’s Best Bread, Michael found it necessary to hire help (Vin learns the trade in the foreground). Though I was offered a modest salary, it was far more than Michael clears after expenses (likely by a factor of three or four), who freely acknowledges as much.

My only complaint about the experience—one that could ultimately result in labor unrest, work stoppages, pickets, etc—is that little white radio in the background.

Mike Vin radio single

Throughout my tiring six-hour stint as a baker, a local radio station specializing in cheesy, commercial Christmas music dominated the airwaves ALL DAY LONG. Though his taste in music may be (lets be clear, IS) lacking, it’s indicative of Michael’s innate cheerfulness.

This springs from a grateful heart. The young man is thankful for an unusually supportive family. One would think his father, for example, might express misgivings over the current placement of an expensive degree in Michael’s back pocket. The opposite has occurred, however. Many of the young baker’s first customers were co-workers of his father, who remains proud of his work. His brother, Robert, fronted the majority of the required capital and handles the business and marketing side of things so Michael can remain focused on the art and science of baking.

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I heartily recommend that you give Mike’s handmade bread a try. You just might discover that Duluth’s Best Bread is more than a clever brand name. I can just about guarantee that you will not find better croissants anywhere in the city, for example. Precious few people are foolish enough to take on such a labor-intensive endeavor on a commercial scale.

croissants

If you look closely you’ll catch a glimpse of the hundreds of thin, buttery layers that make up a croissant. Michael attempted to explain the math behind all the layers, which I failed to grasp. I prefer to think of it as some sort of delicious wizardry. If I hadn’t personally spent much of the day working on a batch, I certainly would have thought $3 for a chunk of bread vaguely resembling some sort of fancy biscuit was wildly overpriced. Now I have an idea of just how much effort goes into this uncommon melt-in-your-mouth goodness.

600 grams of butter (1.33 pounds) are spread out on enough dough to make just 12 croissants, which is folded and rolled out, placed in the refrigerator for “proofing,” and ultimately rolled four times throughout the day. It’s all incredibly time-consuming, and the taste and texture of the product bears this out. These are incredible. Like manna from Heaven, to tell you the truth. I’ve never tasted anything like it.

The bread is equally fantastic, and worthy of the expense. Michael’s ingredients are shocking in their simplicity. Flour, salt, and water, aren’t terribly interesting, actually. What makes his product unique is the one ingredient that he doesn’t purchase, or even see, which is wild yeast. He merely creates an environment for the wild yeast, which teams up with lactobacillus, to flourish. I asked him where the lactobacilli (the same probiotic bacteria found in yogurt) come from. He said, “Nobody knows.” Though humans have been harnessing the symbiotic power of wild yeast and lactobacillus bacteria for thousands of years, mystery remains.

The yeast produces alcohol through fermentation, similar to the beer-brewing process, and the lactobacilli produce lactic acid. These account for the unique flavor of sourdough.

I cannot adequately describe the amount of effort and patience required for producing a superior product like this. My workday was on a Monday. Since Michael takes Sunday off, the oven wasn’t even fired up. The sourdough process (fermentation) requires a full 24 hours for the yeast and bacteria to do their thing. He employs a cold fermentation process by refrigerating the batches, which slows down the activity of the yeast and produces a deeper and richer flavor. I spent the entire day assisting in preparing the dough (the ecosystem for the stars of the show to do their work) for the next day’s baking needs. Hours and hours. Sore arms. Sticky, wet dough. It’s hard to understand why someone would want to do this type of work six days a week. I suppose that explains why such bakeries are so rare, and also why they are worthy of our support.

As part of my compensation package, I demanded a full loaf of bread, which I’ll describe as a European-styled sourdough. Since my entire family eschews gluten, I toted it along to a book club made up of several strangers who had read my book. Possessing a hearty crust and a soft and moist interior, everyone gushed over the sourdough’s incredible taste and texture. “It’s like eating a chunk of Heaven,” is how one woman described it.

Incidentally, one of my readers at the gathering runs a grass-fed beef operation out of Wrenshall. I picked up 50 pounds of hamburger, roasts, and various steaks from her while there, and she also delivered me the 25-pound pastured turkey used to partially offset the hard work I put in at the Food Farm this past Fall. Each of these products are vastly superior to allegedly comparable items produced by the industrial food system. So much so, in fact, that they seem to derive from wholly different species.

It’s not just about better taste and nutrition either. No local culture can be complete without local artisans, farmers, brewers, craftsman, etc. There is something impoverishing about deriving 100% of one’s nutrition from corporations led by millionaires sitting far away, high atop globe-spanning empires, whose chief concerns are for the “needs” of shareholders, and who consult chemists for variations of flavor and methods of cost-cutting. We can do better. By “we,” I mean literally you and me—our community. An industrial food system that rapidly developed after the second World War has virtually destroyed our collective knowledge of how to grow food, and even what real food is, over just a couple generations. They have convinced the multitudes to leave the responsibility to “experts.” People like Michael Lillegard are helping to recover what we have lost, though I suspect he might laugh at such an audacious statement. He simply goes about his task day in and day out, humbly, of producing the best tasting bread in town.


4 thoughts on “A young man pursues his passion of baking sourdough in lieu of a PhD

  1. Great story, Eddy. I could go for those croissants! 🙂 Nice to see young generation getting back into that. My sister travelled all the way from Europe with a batch of sourdough starter for me in her luggage. 🙂

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