“Our job is to manage a life-form from start to finish,” Michael Rhoads tells his students in the Montpelier kitchen at La Brioche, part of the New England Culinary Institute. “You’re going to hydrate it and keep it alive so it dies the way you want it to.”
It may sound like he’s describing finishing a pig for a farm-to-table meal, but Rhoads, 36, is the chair of NECI’s baking and pastry department. The accomplished baker and teacher is talking about growing starters for the breads that recently gained him a new title: world champion.
On January 25, Rhoads was one of four artisans on the Bread Bakers Guild of America team that won the prestigious Sigep Bread Cup in Rimini, Italy. He took first place in his category, Traditional Bread, against an international field of competitors, including teams from Israel to Australia. Rhoads also played a role in creating the healthy Loli bread and the corn-and-cranberry panettone dessert that, along with an ambitious sculpture made entirely out of bread, won the U.S. the competition.
The bread that Rhoads prepared was a levain (“leavened” in French), a sourdough that rises extrahigh thanks to cultures rather than yeast. Though it originated on the continent, Rhoads’ take was all American, starting with the shape, which he named the Tricom. Each loaf was folded into a triangle that, when it baked, puffed up to resemble a Revolutionary War-era tricornered hat.
Rhoads’ loaves also had a key Vermont ingredient. Wildcrafter Nova Kim provided him with a treasure trove of native black walnuts, which lent a dark, nutty taste to the crusty, chewy sourdough. Rhoads stenciled a willow tree on the Tricoms with King Arthur flour. When his handiwork emerged from the oven, he served it with slices of Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery’s ash-ripened Bonne Bouche cheese.
Breads at the Sigep were judged by a jury composed of all the teams’ captains and by some representatives of the public, who only tasted slices. Rhoads attributes his victory to the eye-catching tricorn shape and to his ultralocal focus. “It really played to the hearts and minds of the Italian public,” he says. “The French team couldn’t believe we made things like that in America.”
For his part, Rhoads has been doing so for years. In 1996, the college dropout headed to NECI from Montana, but he made a detour first to study with Alan Scott, the late famed California oven builder. While earning his associate’s degree from NECI, Rhoads interned at L’Espalier in Boston under notoriously gruff chef Frank McClelland.
From there, he headed to the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., where, Rhoads says, he tried to keep his baking prowess a secret while he learned superstar Thomas Keller’s savory secrets. Rhoads returned to Boston when McClelland poached him from Keller to help him open his bread-focused, rustic-Provençal-style bakery and restaurant, Sel de la Terre.
It wasn’t long before Rhoads was confident enough to open his own bakery, B&R Artisan Bread, in Cambridge. Named for himself and his wife, Jen Bones, B&R built up a reputation, winning Boston Magazine’s prize for best bread bakery in 2008.
But Rhoads’ back was no longer cooperating with his routine of baking 2000 loaves a day. When he won NECI’s distinguished alumnus award in 2009, Rhoads discussed the possibility of returning as an instructor with founder Fran Voigt at the ceremony.
Rhoads says he’d always planned on returning to his alma mater to share his knowledge — when he had had enough. Now, the timing was right. He joined NECI’s staff in 2010, just after learning that his back pain was due to a severed disc that might eventually have left him paralyzed.
Rhoads admits that, in his role as an administrator and instructor, he doesn’t get to cook as much as he would like — except when he’s preparing for competitions. “My primary responsibility is to make sure these kids are getting the education they’re paying for,” he says, indicating the students who are assembling pistachio macarons and cheesecakes in the teaching kitchen at La Brioche.
He’s working on his own education, too. Rhoads is currently enrolled in NECI’s BA program in hospitality and restaurant management. “It’s all about continuing the learning process,” he says. “I still to this day spend a couple thousand dollars a year to learn new things. Competitions, or spending my money to take a class at the French Pastry School in Chicago. You have to make that investment, or you become stagnant.”
This thirst for education led Rhoads to join the Bread Bakers Guild in 2002. “That’s when I realized I didn’t have a clue,” he says. It was also when he began to focus on the science of baking.
Before long, Rhoads was attending an open call for one of nine spots on the American baking team. “You went to a three-day class,” he explains. After his first day, “I didn’t even have the energy to tell my wife I got home. I just sat in a quiet little ball and drank a beer.”
When Rhoads attended NECI, the school had no pastry-focused program. He says his first attempt at competing made him realize that he had a lot to learn about mixing techniques — and baker’s math, a key to the flexibility required in competition. Rhoads now emphasizes metric math in class. He doesn’t bother with U.S. customary units of measure because “I don’t have time to teach fractions to adults,” he says.
Rhoads also had to learn to expect the unexpected. His first time competing in the nationals for the U.S. team, he was shocked to find no freezers available. At the Sigep this year, he had to prepare his levain in only four and a half hours. “I was, like, Wow, that’s not possible,” says Rhoads.
With the right knowledge, however, he was able to make the impossible possible. Rhoads fermented his flour ahead of time, then allowed precisely an hour and 15 minutes for his bread to bulk (leaven) before preparing it for baking.
His levain’s unique flavor came not just from the woodsy black walnuts but from a pair of starters: a liquid one made of whole-wheat and a stiff one made of white flour. The result was a mix of the sour flavors of acetic acid with those of the sweeter, almost creamy, lactic acid from the stiff white starter.
According to Rhoads’ Sigep team captain, Dara Reimers of the Bread Shack in Auburn, Maine, the result couldn’t have been better. “He’s visionary in his approach to problems,” she says of working with the baker. “I love levain products. The fermentation in his was strong. I really enjoyed that with the walnuts. They were such a great pair.”
Although Rhoads describes his baking process as “Michael Rhoads-ing” a dish, he admits, “Nothing is a new idea in food … I like taking what other people do and putting my twist on it.”
Rhoads illustrates the principle — with some literal twisting — when he bakes some of his levain dough into an elegant shape that resembles an uneven, avant-garde braid. The dough is his, but the shape, with the sides covered in bran and the center in flax seeds, is borrowed from his teammate John Tredgold, of San Francisco’s Semifreddi’s Bakery.
Rhoads leaves the tips of the bread pointy, so they end up crisp as breadsticks and nearly burnt. “I love that mix of textures,” he says, and slices the bread to display the profusion of bubbles created during rising. The light, mushroomy ciabatta he prepared earlier in the day had perfectly round holes; these are long. “The fact that they’re stretched out like that shows that it went in under,” Rhoads says, meaning he didn’t let the dough rise quite long enough.
Students and colleagues are eager to try a slice, but Rhoads won’t allow it — not yet. “Bread is not supposed to be hot out of the oven. That is purely an American myth,” he scolds. From a scientific standpoint, Rhoads further contends, hot bread isn’t healthy. “All those starch molecules are still swelling and expanding,” he explains.
He removes the Tricoms from the oven last, for optimal drama, saying with a wink, “Figured we’d show off for ya.”
That theatrical streak doesn’t hurt in competition. “I like to do the triangles under, because they’re more dramatic. I just think things pop a little nicer,” he says, referring to the dough’s long, puffy bubbles. “It’s my theory, and I’m sticking with it.”
But, says Rhoads, in the strict, stressful world of competition, drama queens quickly flame out. So he’s more inclined to approach baking like an athlete: Training is paramount. “Nothing can faze you,” he says. “In practice, we’re writing three-page notes about how it can be better. The cool thing is, my students get to see that we’re not perfect.”
Perhaps Rhoads and America’s bakers aren’t perfect, but for now, they can claim to make the world’s best daily bread.