‘99% science and 1% black magic’: These at-home bakers aren’t loafing around

Most homes don’t come with a temperature-controlled walk-in freezer, nor do they come with multiple stone deck ovens. Then again, most people don’t dedicate three rooms in their house to storing smooth, sticky loaves of fermenting bread.

When Jesse Hellen-Lloyd started baking bread in 2015, he didn’t expect his Bellflower home would become the headquarters of a burgeoning bread business: My Brother Baker.

“I love being in the middle of it. I don’t notice it so much,” Hellen-Lloyd said. “But every once in a while my landlord who lives in the front house will tell me how good it smells.”

On the morning of Wednesday, June 1, he was hard at work, folding a large tub of sticky white dough that would become the baker’s popular country loaf—“a simple American country sour,” he said. “It’s not anything fancy but it’s slow-fermented and super tasty, very utilitarian. It goes thousands.”

A french baguette baked by Hey Brother Baker and sold at the Bixby Knolls Farmers Market on May 26, 2022. (Kristen Farrah Naeem | Signal Tribune)

He was joined by head baker Michael Simenson and helper Jojo, who mixed, shaped and refrigerated breads in a coordinated dance as they squeezed through the tight corridors of the garage bakery.

In the late hours of the night, Hellen-Lloyd’s wife Christina would haul the globular loaves of dough, tray by tray, into the three ovens to be baked. By early morning, she’d begin mixing dough for baguettes. It’s a round-the-clock operation.

“Baking is 99% science and 1% black magic,” said Simenson, who joined the team in July 2020. He’s the lead on the bakery’s pastries like flaky croissants and pan au chocolates that are sold at the Bixby Knolls Farmers Market every Thursday.

A former chef who lost all three of his kitchen jobs during the pandemic, he too was selling bread out of his house. When Hellen-Lloyd saw his focaccia on Instagram, he invited Simenson to help him with the business.

“I was enamored, like, ‘You built a bakery in your garage?’” Simenson said. “It was so inspiring, how they handled it, how they built this bakery. I just really began to believe in it.”

Hellen-Lloyd, a trained sound engineer, started baking bread when he was inspired by the extensive offerings of bakeries in San Francisco. At the time, he was working in the music industry, but he always had a knack for experimenting—previously in beer, pickles and cheese. He picked up some literature on the topic and started baking.

“There’s a lot of concepts that interplay very tightly in this sort of dance, between time and temperature and development and fermentation,” Hellen-Lloyd said. “Grasping that with natural fermentation, when I first started, it was a beast.”

It took about a year and a half of baking before he made something he was proud of, Hellen-Lloyd said. Then, he started bringing extra loaves to his local watering hole, Heritage Sandwich Shop.

“The kitchen got ahold of one at one point, and I think the next time I walked in, two of the line cooks basically tackled me and were like, ‘This is amazing. I love it, it’s so good,’ super flattering,” he said.

Shortly after, he got in touch with the head chef, and earned his first official customer.

Now, instead of working to make louder beats, he works with flour and yeast.

Hey Brother Baker Owner Jesse Hellen-Lloyd folds over some dough to help develop a gluten network in the bread to make for a chewy loaf inside his garage bakery on June 1, 2022. (Richard H. Grant | Signal Tribune)
Hey Brother Baker Head Baker Michael Simenson holds a freshly made baguette inside the garage bakery on June 1, 2022. (Richard H. Grant | Signal Tribune)

It would take a year for Hey Brother Baker to get its second customer, Solid Coffee Roasters in Artesia. From there, the business grew organically.

In Long Beach, his breads are scattered around the city: loaves at Commodity LB on Atlantic Avenue, Ethikli: Package Free Goods on E 4th Street and Heritage Sandwich Shop on 7th Street; baguettes and ciabatta at Oh La Vache on 4th Street; and sourdough and brioche at Berlin Bistro on 4th Street, not to mention their spread at the Bixby Knolls Farmer’s Market.

“I’ve watched this happen now for the past decade. It’s like a maker’s renaissance. People like the idea that the stuff that they’re consuming is made with care by somebody close by,” Hellen-Lloyd said. “And it’s not just pumped out of a machine at a factory. I think with bread, it’s easy to tell the difference.”

Though their bakery is currently crammed into Hellen-Lloyd’s house, he’s hoping to move the operation into a commercial kitchen space, but is waiting for the right time.

“If someone was going to be a fly on the wall at our bakery, they would be absolutely mind blown with what we’re able to pull off,” Simenson said. “It just makes me very excited, very proud of what we do.”

For more information about Hey Brother Baker, including their farmers market schedule, follow them on Instagram at @heybrotherbaker.

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