It’s no surprise that the Shelly Bay Baker is by the sea. Owner and sole baker Sam Forbes has an energy in the kitchen that is as relentless as the tide, and his enthusiasm for sourdough is as vast as the ocean itself.
We caught up with Sam recently to get the story behind his craft and to learn where his passion for sourdough comes from.
He rewinds us 16 years to when he was 11 years old and already earning his stripes in a commercial kitchen. OK, so at this stage he’s peeling potatoes and doing the menial stuff in small-town west Wales. But he’s there in the kitchen, absorbing the tastes, the aromas, the tension, the bonhomie and the buzz of creation. And then there is the cash. Pocket money on steroids. When you have eight siblings financial independence has to be a good thing.
He kept going, building his repertoire with formal training and practical experience, and at 16 he was a full time chef. For someone who was never all that enamoured with school, this was a vocation that returned much… and opened the door on the unique party lifestyle that the hospitality industry is infamous for.
But this kid is diligent - he’s not one to faff about wasting time or energy. A bit of travel that takes in Australia, and a year in Queenstown, provided a buffer before he established himself in London and the rarefied air of fine dining.
London was also where he got another taste of Kiwi style, when he met and married his partner Bryony. When time was up on her OE it was an easy call for them to come back to New Zealand in 2013. For her, it was to study medical anthropology, now at master's stage; for him, it was to continue his kitchen odyssey.
Sam landed in Wellington and in a larder stocked to the brim with encouragement and opportunity. It was Miramar’s The Larder restaurant, run by Jacob Brown and Sarah Bullock – masters of hospitality on both sides of the kitchen counter. It was here in 2016 that the epiphany occurred. Sam was at university studying geology, environmental science and biology - just to prove he could do it. Keeping his hand in at The Larder meant baking the bread in the morning before heading off to study. This presented Sam with a ‘THIS IS IT’ moment. This is the way he’s going to do his own thing. Bread. Satisfying, comforting, healthy, wholesome bread. Sourdough bread.
Jacob and Sarah not only let Sam go with good grace, they loaned him half the money he needed to get set up. But first it was off to the San Francisco Baking Institute run by Frenchman Michel Suas. His business helps bakers around the world with hands-on, real-world experience that combines modern technology with traditional artisan techniques. You can see a connection here – Michel was baking at 14.
Sam amplified the three-week Institute course with bakery work on both coasts, including New York, Vermont, San Diego and back to the sourdough capital of San Francisco (a thing that started when the French bought their sourdough baking skills to the Californian gold rush in the mid-1800’s).
Sam liberated a little piece of history when he uplifted an American starter for the trip home. (A little science: sourdough starters are a simple fermented mixture of flour and water that contain a colony of microorganisms including wild yeast and lactobacilli. A starter is what makes sourdough the more easily digested magic that it is compared to breads made with yeast or baking soda.)
Once he got back home the dream took shape in 2017, when the Shelly Bay site unexpectedly popped up on Sharedspace. Americans Sharon Galeon and Midori Willoughby had started Wooden Spoon Boutique Freezery in 2011 and they had space to spare in the Bay. They thought a fellow artisan back from a visit to their homeland was the perfect culinary collaborator.
Making every dollar go as far as it could, Sam and Bryony mucked in to create the bakery in the Freezery building. Tracking down a series of leads was doubly rewarded when an ex-Pak 'n' Save oven was found for a good price and an industrial food mixer was thrown in for free. Bryony’s handyman family did the fitout, and the company logo was a family affair as well.
Then it was down to the business of baking.
Sam is a machine in the kitchen. It’s just him. It’s his domain and he is the master. Looking like the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar he simply does not stop when we’re talking to him. Taking photographs is a dance class. His ‘work triangle’ is more like a hexagon and it’s well worn – bench for ingredients and tinkering with the recipe on the computer screen above, to the mixer to add flour, to the dough tubs that sit for 12-16 hours to lift and fold, to the whiteboard to record, to the bench, to the mixer to empty and clean, to the tubs to measure acidity. All the time scanning the thermometers for ambient temperature, because just one or two degrees either way will mean a change to production processes. Later it will be cranking up the oven – carefully so as to not blow out the three-phase power supply. Later still it will be milling grains and preparing ingredients for the next onslaught.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
That’s the way to churn through 750 kilograms of flour a week. That’s the way to bake a couple thousand loaves and bagels a week. And Sam reckons that’s the way to pay back your loans and be working for yourself and not The Man.
All it takes is working between 4am and 1pm for six days a week … and be at the market selling on the seventh. Thank goodness for Bryrony chipping in on market day too - especially training up other sellers so they can impart 'the knowledge'.
Originally there were no sales targets. Just bake. The plan was to supply the popular markets. Harbourside Market in town as well as Karori and Newtown in the suburbs supported the cause. But then demand for wholesale supply kicked in as well - to the likes of Peoples in Newtown, Havana Brothers, Maranui Cafe, Queen Sally’s Diamond Deli, Commonsense Organics, Milk Crate and others. It’s all proven Sam’s theory that there’s enough consumer demand for sourdough to support him and the others like Leeds Street, Baker Gramercy, Neville Chun and Catherine Adams, and that it's growing all the time.
Sam is also looking forward to his own version of the Shelly Bay development. He’s already pondering the possibility of a retail space on the site, as well as making the bakery even bigger and better. He’s also recently had a fellow San Francisco Institute colleague with him helping to refine recipes and processes – including adopting the emerging modern bread philosophy of minimising handling. He’s already found ways to reduce production time and therefore make more bread in the same time. It sounds like he just grew another arm and leg.
But he’s also aware that small business is vulnerable. Anything can and does happen, as he was reminded on the eve of his short Christmas holiday. The last day’s baking was destroyed when the fridge malfunctioned. Sourdough that was being restrained at a cool 4 degrees was suddenly 20 degrees and busting out everywhere. Sam arrived at midnight to check and found the chaos. There was nothing to do but throw it all away. Eight rubbish bags of ruined dough is not something you put out for Santa.
Even then he was baking bread on the break, content to know it wasn’t going to be that flash when it’s coming out of holiday ovens and BBQ’s – but such is the joy of baking he’ll give it a go anyway.
So how does he cope with the relentless effort and heat of the kitchen?
A nightly swim in the bracing waters just metres from the bakery is the tonic. It’s another reward for working in Shelly Bay, a place that feels a million miles from the urban centre in plain sight just over the water.
You can’t help but think that’s the secret that whets his appetite for success.
You can find Sam and his bread at open-air markets and some food shops throughout Wellington. The best place to check for an up-to-date list is his website here.