James Whyte of Berhampore’s Baker Gramercy is a study in perpetual motion. You can find him Wednesday through Saturday behind the counter at his bakery doing everything from greeting customers to measuring dough to cutting sheets of croissant pastry with the greatest of precision.
But ask him about the business and he’s keen to step right out of the limelight. He tells us, during a rare pause in the action for a coffee outside the shop on a sunny morning, that “it’s not about me, really.”
We caught him on a Friday, which is an exceptionally busy day at the bakery: After the usual 3am start, it’s not until 11am that he’s actually able to relax. “Fridays are spent getting ready for Saturday,” he says. Oh, Saturday at Gramercy: On Saturdays there’s typically a queue outside the door before they open at 7:30. On a fine Saturday morning, the small seating area outside is likely to be filled with neighbours chatting, sipping a coffee and hoovering up pastries so delicious that you don’t want to let even one crumb drop. Those in the queue look on with envy at those who’ve already gotten their allocation of croissants - chocolate, almond, ham and Gruyere, for a start - or dense loaves of beautiful sourdough. (Please leave me some koji porridge loaf. And a couple of croissants. Please.)
Gramercy is now just over three years old. It’s a jewel of a bakery nestled into a small, early 1900s building that gets flooded with morning light, its elegant fitout a fitting canvas for James and his team’s gem-like pastries and generous crusty loaves.
It’s a long way from James’ first career in commercial real estate, and a long way from London, where he was working when the global financial crisis struck in 2008.
“The world changed pretty much at that junction,” he recalls. “The whole property market changed, and we were wondering if we would have jobs.”
He tapped into his love of food and signed himself up for a chef’s course at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. It came together in a flash: “It was London in May, visa in June, on the ground (in New York) in July. I had six months there and then I was home.”
He then set about channelling that education into a business. “I was looking for something to get my teeth into. Wellington is the sort of place where whatever you do you’ve got to get it right,” he says. “At the time there wasn’t a lot of artisan around. Leeds Street Bakery opened up around the same time. Small batch, high hydration breads just weren’t a thing.”
The picture is changing, with Wellingtonians now well served by a few truly outstanding artisan bakeries and, globally, a resurgence in interest in sourdough and small-batch, handcrafted bakes. “We’re all in different (kinds of) businesses,” James says. “Essentially at this point Gramercy is a small community bakery and we don’t do much wholesale.”
If some expansion does occur, he says, it will be on a small scale because he is absolutely focused on maintaining the quality side of the equation.
“Physically we can’t get a lot out of this site,” he said. “The breads on display today are exactly the breads we had when we opened up three years ago.” The koji porridge loaf, for example, is descended from a small batch made for the Nikau Cafe when it hosted US-based fermentation (and sourdough) guru Sandor Katz in 2014. (For the curious, koji is a type of fermented Japanese rice that is used as a starter.)
So what has changed since opening day?
“Our consistency and quality are a lot better,” he says. “When we started we didn’t have any viennoiserie, and now it’s a big part of the business.”
What is viennoiserie, you ask? It’s pastry - in particular, laminated pastry. Think croissants and Danish pastries topped with strawberries or, quite memorably, preserved cherries sitting atop a vibrant green matcha pastry cream. Lordy.
“They’re good, aren’t they?” says James with a smile when we praise the croissants, with their buttery layers that shatter as you take them apart. “We use some yeast and our sourdough culture, which gives it a depth of flavour. It’s one of those things where there’s a process to making that. You can cut corners but you just suffer because of it. For the sake of 20 to 30 percent extra work you can get a much better product.
“We’re all about quality, simplicity and consistency. We don’t take short cuts, we take long cuts. We’re not here to create an average product; we wouldn’t sell it if it was. We’re getting a bit of a reputation from people who know that we take it the extra mile.”
Among Gramercy’s regulars is a man from Hamilton who stops by for a dozen baguettes whenever he’s in Wellington for work. And the gentleman sitting at the window counter - he’s been coming in every Friday since Gramercy opened, always having a savoury pastry followed by a sweet one, James says.
And while his customers might wish he’d open up in a suburb closer to them, or open on a Sunday, for now it’s just not feasible.
For a start, he’s got a young family (children aged 6, 5, and 1). “At the scale we’re at, it’s extremely difficult for us to open on a Sunday. It’s such an important thing for me to have the time with my family.”
He jokes that his work/life balance was much more straightforward in his days of commercial real estate: “It’s 24-7. You don’t step away from it; there’s always stuff to do. You get better at using your time right. That’s why it’s great starting early in the morning - there’s no one there. We’re pretty productive between three and seven in the morning.”
Our conversation winds down just as Mark Potter, the principal of nearby Berhampore School, walks out of the bakery, a very happy man carrying a massive box of croissants. The captivating aroma of browned butter wafts alongside. James checks that he’s got enough for their morning tea - yes, all set, comes the answer. And then he nods to us: “I said to James, so do we need to butter them? He said, ‘no!”
Which brings us back to that Gramercy croissant. “We do things a certain way. In terms of creating a croissant, we’ve been playing around with that for three years and we still don’t have it right.”
We are more than happy to savour a Gramercy work in progress, and we know you will be, too.