Adventures in...

Adventures in Baking

3rd May 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Illustration: Tim Laing

Justin Gellatly of Bread Ahead on his world-famous doughnuts, the torments of working nights and why it’s worth paying more for good bread

People think I’m sick of talking about doughnuts. “You make all this amazing bread and everybody just asks about the doughnuts.” But I don’t really mind. I still get very excited about them. I did a brand new doughnut the other day – vanilla and malt custard with salted digestive biscuit crumb – and it was insane.

At the moment I love a plain sugar doughnut – no filling. I’ll have it freshly baked with a cup of tea – or even better a glass of champagne. It’s our dirty little secret.

Justin Picks His Five Favourite Baking Books

My love of baking began at St John. I’d been a chef in London for many years, working my way up from general dogsbody. At St John, I was in the kitchen at first but on my days off I used to come down and help the bakers. Fergus [Henderson] was very generous about saying, “Why don’t you spend half your week in the bakery, half in the kitchen”. Then he was like: “For god’s sake, just bake full time”.

My first bake was quite magical. I still think about it today. We did a lot of hydration, so when I took the bread out of the oven the steam escaped and it really crackled. It was the singing of the bread. I know it sounds a bit ohhh, but it was calling to me. That day I hung up my chef’s apron, put on a baker’s one and never looked back.

I miss Fergus and Trevor [Gulliver] a lot. I worked with them at St John for 13 years before starting Bread Ahead and they are still a massive support – lots of words of wisdom, a steadying glass of madeira. It’s all good.

People in London sort of understand why a loaf is three or four quid. But I don’t think artisan baking is even 1% of what we consume in this country. It’ll take a long time, but I feel we’ve started educating people. It’s coming on in the bigger cities [around the UK] – Richard Bertinet is producing amazing bread in Bath.

When people question the price of our bread, I tell them to try some. The response is usually: “Wow this is really good, it actually tastes of something.”

When people question the price of our bread, I tell them to try some. The response is usually: “Wow this is really good, it actually tastes of something.” Our flours aren’t treated, it’s full of hydration, there’s a long fermentation period, and our sourdough will last four days without any shittiness. There’s a reason why there’s a 9p loaf in the supermarket; there’s also a reason why ours is £4.

There’s nothing worse than working nights. I did it for the first two years at Bread Ahead, having vowed never to work nights again after St John. There are some benefits to it – driving home on your motorbike and watching the sun rise is pretty good, but after a couple of years, pff. Another sunrise? Fuck it.

My mum was a good baker but her bread was as solid as a brick. She was adding too much yeast to it, so it over-proved. But I used to really like it – it was somewhere in between bread and a biscuit. I have good memories of the table at home in Richmond, where I grew up, with a nice loaf of bread in the centre.

I like quite a singe to my bread and a leathery chewy crust. So we bake quite hard and quite long, and we hydrate our bread a lot.

Every bake is a challenge. The flour is never the same, the atmosphere in the bakery is never the same. We do have a recipe but I rely a lot on the baker’s touch and eye and skill. It’s not like you just press a button and five minutes later it’s done.

A photo posted by Justin Gellatly (@justingellatly) on

A photo posted by Justin Gellatly (@justingellatly) on

My doughnut has been copied and bastardised like you wouldn’t believe. All around the world. A few people credit me, and that’s nice, but often they don’t. It’s my own recipe, the whole thing. I started from scratch and it took me 50 recipes to crack it.

Our doughnut is made using an enriched dough. It’s a very wet dough – there’s a lot of egg and water in it, so it steams inside when it’s fried. We give it a 24-hour fermentation. Lemon oils bleed into the dough, which gives it a really unique flavour. Then we pipe them to bursting with lots of different fillings: from caramel chocolate to my signature salted honeycomb

I still love learning new things – I get a real buzz out of it. We have bakers here from Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania, France, Germany. Whenever they go home I ask them to bring back momma’s recipe so we can learn something new.

You can absolutely make a decent sourdough at home. We teach using domestic ovens and people walk away with beautiful sourdoughs. There are things that can enhance it, like baking stones, which give you a better lift to your crust. Looking after your starter is the potentially tricky thing. We need to feed ours every day.

Bread Ahead is at Cathedral St, London SE1 9DE (and other locations around London);

Follow Justin: Instagram | Twitter

Posted 3rd May 2016

In Adventures in...


Interview: Killian Fox
Illustration: Tim Laing

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