Welcome to The Sugar Files, where Eater uncovers and features the city's best pastry talent. In this edition, Liz Buchanan of City Bakery gets the spotlight.
Liz Buchanan, City Bakery [Photo: Adam Larkey]
Liz Buchanan is the head-baker and general manager at City Bakery, the wholesale bread bakery owned by Michael Bortz. City Bakery specializes in artisan breads which are on offer at countless restaurants and businesses all over Denver, including Olive & Finch, True Food, The Universal, and Curtis Park Deli to name a few.
Tucked away on Washington Street, City Bakery sports bread ovens larger than some of Cherry Creek's biggest closets. Every loaf and roll is made by hand with traditional recipes. The bakery also makes excellent soft pretzels, pies, cakes, and, pastries. You'll have to wait another year to try what may be the best stollen in the United States - owner Micheal Bortz has German family roots and takes this traditional Christmas bread to heart. Little known fact: Bortz's chocolatier family owned the first company to make the iconic chocolate Easter bunnies.
At the helm of the massive ovens and hand rolled ryes is the passionate and focused Liz Buchanan who wakes up before many Denver cooks are clocking out from dinner service. Buchanan was an airborne linguist who specialized in Persian Farsi in the United States Air Force before her foray into bread-baking began.
Many of her friends in the military married young and Buchanan was tasked with baking their wedding cakes. Making these cakes motivated her to make a career jump and go to Johnson & Wales in Providence for pastry arts. Right out of pastry school she got hired at City Bakery where she has worked her way up during the past two years to head-baker. Buchanan talked to Eater about her inner geek, making her voice heard, why she always orders burgers, and where to find Denver's best one.
Why do you love making bread? I guess that's my inner geek. With pastries, there's the artistic side of it. With bread, it's still an art, but there's definitely a lot more chemistry and science to it. Every little thing affects it. Every ingredient that you put in or leave out has a huge effect on the end result. Being able to work with a living piece of dough and kind of work it through all the stages- if you do everything just right, you have this beautiful loaf at the end. It's especially great working here, because we do all artisan breads, all the natural methods, natural pre-ferments. It's great stuff. I love it. I went into culinary school thinking that I was going to get into doing wedding cakes. I think that's every pastry chef's dream. I got into school and I realized I was miserable doing cakes. Bread, which I dreaded getting into at first, was actually my favorite thing.
Are there any pastry chefs or bakeries that inspire you? I love Bouchon Bakery. My hobby right now, if I'm not working, is to go out and try a new restaurant in Denver. There's so many out here that I haven't even tried yet. I love going to Comida- it's nice I live within walking distance to The Source. If I'm hungry and haven't gone grocery shopping, I'll walk over to Comida or grab a sandwich at Mondo Market.
What is the most rewarding thing about your job? For me the best thing is just going through the entire process. From starting with a bag of flour, through working with it, you develop an instinct for how the bread is supposed to feel and look at each stage. You're really guiding it along each stage. It's kind of like my baby. Today, I reached in the bowl and I felt the dough and it felt stiff. It was about 200 pounds of dough and I looked at the recipe and I had forgotten ten pounds of water- I can do that just by feeling it.
What is the most challenging part of your job? Honestly, the hardest thing for me every day is waking up. I have to wake up at 1:30 every morning. I get a horrified look from people whenever I tell them that. It's definitely the hard part about working here, there's no real way around it. I wake up at 1:30 and I get in here at 2:00 a.m. Other than that, the managing part is pretty tough for me. When I first got here, it was tough to earn the respect of people who had not only worked in the industry longer than me, but were decades older than me. They would feel like no, you're not telling me what to do, I'm going to do it my way. It's still pretty tough, but it has definitely gotten easier; we've got a great team here. We all work hard and respect each other. I think working really hard helped me gain the staff's respect.
Do you have advice for young pastry chefs on how to make their voices be heard in the kitchen? I can recount many occasions when people who felt threatened by my sudden emergence would rather spend their efforts to try to tear me down or ridicule me because they felt some sort of injustice or special treatment was being bestowed on me because I was too young or I didn't have "enough industry experience" to be taken seriously. Fortunately, through my work ethic, I have gained many more allies than opponents in my efforts to be a supportive leader. Obstacles will always be there; the key is to not dwell on them or let them distract you from achieving success.
What's your secret for keeping balance in your life with your demanding work schedule? I've not figured that out yet. That is tough. I've started trying to figure out ways to be healthier- I've started doing yoga. I try to take naps immediately when I get home. I get really wound up and I'm just in high intensity mode from work and then I'll get home and my boyfriend will be like, whoa, you need to calm down. It will take me taking a nap to really calm down after work. I try to be in bed by 7 p.m., which is another tough thing for having a social life. I have to sacrifice sleep for that. I'm still trying to figure out the balance part. I'm fortunate not to have any other types of obligations, like school or a family, but I think moving forward, I'll have to figure something out. Work is my life right now.
Where do you like to go out to eat in Denver? There are so many great places out here, a whole spectrum too. There's a place out here off of Washington Street- it's a hole in the wall, biker-bar called Crash 45, they do the best burgers I've had in Denver. Steuben's is always just classically good.
What are your favorite pastry spots? Sugarmill, oh man! Also at Linger, I had a coconut cream pie that was just absolutely amazing.
When you are going out, what do you look for in pastries? I always look at two things- French macarons and croissants. I feel like those are two things that you definitely need to be skilled at to be able to produce- it's just like with going out to eat, I know that if they do a great burger, just the basics, then I know they are doing it right. If you can do the traditional, basic things right, then you've got an amazing foundation to be really creative, but I think people miss that sometimes, they just go straight for the creative part without really mastering the basics.
Do you have any pastry pet peeves? I want to say stupid people. Not stupid, but for instance, I hired a guy to be a manager in here and he told me right off the bat, I can do this, I've got this no problem. We kept running into problems- the bread wasn't turning out, or I'd come in and the bakery was a mess. I talked to him about it and was like, these are my expectations, I need you to follow through on these. Nothing would change or he would have problems and never ask questions. Maybe he was too afraid of looking incompetent to actually ask questions.
Do you have any other advice for aspiring pastry chefs? Don't underestimate the value of having a great mentor- someone to really take you through the ropes and show you the way. I was so fortunate to have Michael to work for because he sees that I'm passionate about it and that I really want to work hard. He's kind of taken me under his wing. Every question I've asked, he's answered it for me, and not only the baking side, but the business side too. You can be an amazing pastry chef but if you don't know the business side of it, that can be a huge stumbling block for your career. Don't be afraid to fail. You have got to just dive in head first. I think that's something that holds a lot of people back, I'd like to do this, but it's scary.
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