Interview with Portland Rising Star Baker Tim Healea of Little T American Baker - Portland, OR
Antoinette Bruno: When and why did you start cooking?
Tim Healea: That's a good question. I have a journalism degree. I moved to New York City after college to be in magazines, and I didn't like it at all. For me it was a corporate job, and it wasn't what I thought it was going to be. I started dabbling in culinary arts.
AB: Do you prefer to hire cooks with culinary school background or without? Does it matter to you?
TH: I don't require that prospective bakers have a culinary school diploma, especially since most culinary schools don't have a strong bread program. I can always train motivated people in proper fermentation methods and dough handling. Foremost, I look for someone who has a passion for baking and at least some familiarity with working in a kitchen or bakeshop. That said, I went to culinary school myself, and I know other successful bread bakers who started the same way, so it definitely doesn't hurt.
AB: Tell us about getting Little T off the ground. Anything you wish you had known before opening your own place?
TH: I had about a decade of experience working in bakeries before opening Little T, so things went fairly smoothly in terms of production. The one thing I've struggled with is traffic flow and service, since we serve customers from the counter. We're in a residential neighborhood, so sometimes it's quiet and sometimes we're slammed, and often it's difficult to predict when we're going to be busy. We have two registers, and it can be confusing to customers which register to order at, especially since our large, custom-made pastry case is right in the middle.
The case, while visually striking and a beautiful space to display our products, has been a bit of an obstacle to good customer service. Additionally, I wanted our bread case to be visible through our exterior windows, but unfortunately that location makes our breads difficult to see once inside the bakery. If I could, I would reconfigure our front counter so that we could streamline some of our service issues.
AB: What are your top three tips for baking success?
TH: 1. Choose the best quality ingredients you can find. 2. Be detail oriented: measure everything precisely, follow specified timings, and pay attention to temperatures. 3. Use a light touch when handling dough. As with many things, less is more.
AB: So what’s the secret to a your baguettes?
TH: The secret to baguettes? Good, basic breadmaking ingredients. Good quality wheat. Our southern type of wheat, when fermented, makes very good tasting bread. Not only ingredients but the fermentation process. Bread is a fermented product.
AB: How do you fit into the local culinary community?
TH: When I conceived Little T, I hoped to push the envelope a little bit in terms of how people thought of an artisan bakery. I wanted to use traditional baking methods to make our products, but add in a little twist with an unexpected ingredient or an interesting shape, and hopefully come up with something new to say. When I was designing the bakery, I wanted that sort of evolution reflected in the environment, so the cafe is very modern, and looks maybe a little more L.A. or Sydney or London rather than Portland, Oregon.
AB: Does that work for the locals?
TH: While the decor has been polarizing for some, we've actually settled into our location, and I've been pleasantly surprised at how well we've been accepted by our neighborhood. I think having a consistent, quality product that's a good value has been the key. We may do things a little differently, but at the heart of it, Little T is ultimately a neighborhood bakery cafe.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment to date?
TH: Opening the bakery. We started with seven people and now I have 16 employees. And I allow other people to express themselves creatively and do what they want to do in the baking field.
AB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you in five years?
TH: I'm looking at possibly opening another location. One of my bakers is a pastry chef looking at collaborating on a new project, probably in another city. We're looking at both West Coast and East Coast. It's kind of open right now.
AB: What do you think you’d be doing right now if you weren’t a chef?
TH: If I weren't a baker, I'd probably be editing magazines or some other media, which is what I did before I started baking. I do have a degree in journalism, and I'm still a news junkie. But if I had to change careers and could do anything I wanted, I'd probably choose to be a house music DJ.