The Toronto baking instructor talks foodie trends, carnival confectionery, and the architecture of cakes.
The Bonnie Gordon College of Confectionary Arts is an unexpectedly sweet wonderland hidden away on an industrial stretch of Caledonia Road. Inside, the smell of fresh baked goods permeates the air, and the school’s gleaming kitchens welcome everyone from weekend workshoppers to dedicated students working toward a diploma. The hallways are lined with glowing profiles of former students, orchids made of fondant, and dollhouses that turn out to be cakes.
This is Michael Smith’s domain. As the school’s head of baking instruction, he works full time teaching a rotating roster of a dozen classes. Smith, 28, has lived in Toronto since 2008. After training at the Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, and following a two-year stint at the Summerhill Market, Smith gradually transitioned from the kitchen to the classroom. He is now responsible for developing and teaching the school’s baking curriculum. “I want to bring more of a baking focus to the school. Our decorating program is really comprehensive and there’s a lot to it, but there’s room for expansion in the baking program,” he says, sitting across from me in chef’s whites that are still pristine after a six-hour class.
Our interview with Smith—about surprising eclair flavours, gluten-free baking, and the unexpected intersection of architecture and pastry—follows.
Torontoist: How do you go from being a full-time baker to teaching other people how to bake?
Michael Smith: Teaching was never something I had thought of doing. I just kind of fell into it. A friends of mine is also an instructor [at the Bonnie Gordon College], and she mentioned that they were looking for baking instructors. At the time, we didn’t do nearly as much baking at the college as we do now. It was in its baby stage, and they brought me in because they wanted to expand on it. I had a crippling fear of public speaking, so part of me wanted to try teaching out and see if that would help—“do something that scares you,” essentially. At the beginning, I found it difficult to vocalize my knowledge of baking. Eventually, it became easier, and I would think of it as if I were training an employee. I was used to doing that at a pastry shop or a bakery, and I found teaching similar to that.
A typical class is usually a full day, and it’s pretty intensive. It’s a lot of back and forth: I’ll demo, they’ll make the product, and then I’ll demo again. It’s quite a lengthy process to build a class and plan it out. There’s a recipe development stage first, so after what we decide we’re going to make, we develop the recipes. We make sure that they’re doable within the class’s timeframe. With bread, it’s especially tricky, because breads take so long. We test the recipes, and after we’ve got those nailed down, we make the handouts and make sure we have the supplies, and then we write out a checklist of how the day is going to run. We estimate as best we can, and then after the first class, we go back to the drawing board to see what worked and what we need to rearrange. I love recipe development part of it, but I also like writing handouts and putting the class together and seeing what works. Over time, I’ve gotten a lot better at it.
Who are your typical students?
Our programs are open to anyone. If you’re coming in with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever, that’s okay, but you might find it a little difficult and there might be a bit of a learning curve. For our diplomas, it can be quite varied, but generally it’s younger people looking to get into the industry. With the continuing education classes, it can be young people, older people, or in between. You might get mothers and daughters or husbands and wives, and it’s a really diverse crowd.
I find a lot of people will go through a career change later in life, and they might be sick of their office jobs. They’re getting into the kitchen because it’s so different and it’s so interesting to them. I know when I went to school, you would get all ages, from all over the world. It was really neat.
Before you became a baker, you were interested in studying architecture. Does that have an impact on what you do now?
All through high school, that’s what I was geared towards. I chose classes in drafting, physics, calculus, and arts, which were all the requirements for architecture. You know how some people know what they want to do right away? That was me. I wanted to go into architecture, but I had always loved cooking and baking at the same time. To be honest, I don’t really know what changed my mind, but towards the end of high school, I decided to abandon the whole architecture thing and go into culinary school. So that’s what I did. Even sometimes when you’re building cakes, aspects of architecture come into it. They kind of go hand in hand. In the longer program, we teach sculpted cakes and how to build cakes. We used to do standing figure cakes, and there’s a lot of engineering that goes into that.
From your spot in the crossroads of baking’s long history, and the college’s trend-driven work, what are some food trends that might be coming our way?
I feel like people are coming back to homespun, older-style pastries and doing them in a way that’s a bit more modern. Sometimes when you take stuff that was popular in the 1800s, it’s a good idea, but it doesn’t translate into modern tastes. For instance, we have a carnival confections class, which takes things like lollipops and candy apples and reinvents them to make them a little bit more interesting. Using different ingredients and new, more exotic flavours, and different ways to decorate.
We’ve been excited by the trend for eclairs. Eclairs, especially in Europe, have always been popular, but over here’s it’s just been the standard chocolate. We wanted to show that there are a bunch of possibilities for decorating and flavouring that people would have never thought of for an eclair. We’re doing a tangerine eclair that’s a really vibrant, fresh pastry cream that’s going into it. I really like it.
What’s your opinion of Pinterest and Instagram, where there are a lot of hashtag foodies?
Personally, I’m not one to follow trends, but social media is a really great way to get pastry out there. So many more people are interested in this art form, which I think is a great way to keep it alive, fresh, and updated. I’ll get people coming into my classes who have seen these trendy things and want to know how to do them, and I love talking to students about taking what we’ve learned and translating them into what they’ve seen.
What do you think of the current interest in low-carb, no-carb, grain-free diets that are so popular these days?
[Laughs] I’ll be honest, I’ve sometimes stuck to diets like that! I tend to eat more or less low-carb, and I don’t eat a lost of pastries or bread, even though I love it. If I am going to eat it, I want to make sure it’s really good quality.
The one fad that concerns me is the gluten-free trend. Obviously some people absolutely have to avoid gluten, but I feel like a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon. What I don’t love is that gluten-free seems healthier to people, when that’s not necessarily the case. When low-carb or gluten-free is seen as the healthiest option, that’s what worries me. With gluten-free baking, it’s so big that we have to offer a class. People want to learn about it. It is very different. For me, it kind of gets scientific, because we’re using these different ingredients and different methods, and I do like that part of it. I do love figuring out how to take a product that I’m used to and make it gluten-free without sacrificing taste and texture, and coming at it from that analytical and experimental mindset.