A 1972 picture of Randall George helping his mother bake bread hangs on the office wall. Outside the door, customers line up for the freshly baked breads and pastries. The aroma of dough, chocolate and espresso permeate the air. Busy employees serve up hot drinks, fresh croissants, homemade soups and sandwiches packed with local ingredients and served on crusty yet soft and chewy homemade organic bread.
It’s doubtful that Randall George’s mother would have predicted her son would become one of the finest artisan bread bakers in the country, that he would own a popular and busy cafe in Vermont – or that he would be honored by the President of the United States for instituting workplace policies that help support women and children and provide a living wage. These are just things that Randall George humbly does, because it’s who he is. What follows is an interview with Randall George and a glimpse inside of the delicious world of Red Hen Baking Company in Middlesex, Vermont.
An Interview with Randall George, Baker / Owner
Which breads and pastries are the most challenging to make and why?
Breads that have just four basic ingredients, as most of ours do, are the most challenging because you have no goodies to distract from the simple flavors and textures that come from just flour, water, leavening and salt. The baker’s skill is the most important ingredient. For pastries it is pretty much the same, with the addition of butter and sugar to the list of ingredients. Mastering the craft of making a good croissant takes a very long time. (I am not a master of that– I leave that to our pastry chef Jeremy Gulley and his assistants.)
Can you talk about the type of person you look for in a baker and how employee training plays a role in the end product?
We have 15 full-time bread bakers and 3 pastry bakers, so the quality of our bread and pastries depends entirely upon having a skilled, hardworking staff. When we’re hiring new bakers, we look for people who are not strangers to hard, physical work and derive satisfaction from seeing the fruits of their labor.
Sometimes this means that the best person for the job is someone who fits that description, but doesn’t have baking experience. But increasingly, we are finding people who do have bread baking experience. Whether or not a new baker has experience, it takes months for anyone who starts here to get up to speed (literally and also in terms of quality).
Training new people is a big investment and one that we take seriously, but we take retention even more seriously so that we can minimize the amount of training we have to do.
You’re known for using and sourcing the best in local ingredients. What are some of your key partnerships and what value do they add to your business?
We have been buying flour from Ben Gleason at Gleason Grains since 2000. Ben has been growing wheat in Vermont’s Champlain Valley for 35 years and stone milling it himself. We have been responsible for Ben making a major upgrade to his mill in 2008 and since that time we have been buying half of the volume that he produces annually.
In 2008 we also started getting flour that is milled by Champlain Valley Mills entirely from wheat that was grown by Tom Kenyon at Aurora Farm in Charlotte, VT. This allowed us to produce our first all-Vermont loaf, Cyrus Pringle.
In December of 2014, we began working with Les Fermes Longpres in Les Cedres, QC when they began opening a roller mill on their farm. Their new milling operation, called Moulin des Cedres, was built so that the farm can transform the 500 acres of wheat they harvest each year into flour.
We now source about 95% of our wheat from within 150 miles of the bakery. I am proud of the significant impact we have had on each of these farms. In turn, these partnerships have made our bread better.
What are your most important tools in the kitchen?
My mind and my hands are the number one tools. But for actual tools, it’s amazing how many different important uses there are for a bench knife (sometimes called a bench scraper). I can’t imagine what I’d do without that simple tool.
You were recently honored by President Obama at the White House for your progressive workplace policies and support of employees. What was the experience like?
It was surprising and exciting to have the opportunity to go to Washington and to meet the President and some of his staff. The President is even more charismatic and sincere than I had imagined him to be. I was also very impressed and inspired by Tom Perez, the Secretary of Labor. Mostly it was just very exciting to see that there is an interest from our highest level of government in seeing that workers in this country are treated fairly.
Do you have any advice for home bakers who are trying to turn out a successful loaf of bread?
Get Jeffrey Hamelman’s book, Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, and work with those recipes. Remember that you don’t need to knead your dough like crazy. Let fermentation and occasional folding do the work for you. Your results will actually be better than if you worked the dough extensively.
Also, don’t bother with sprayers or cast iron pans in your home oven to get steam in there. Just use Elizabeth David’s method of covering your bread with an inverted steel bowl. The bread will steam itself and the results will be better than any of the more complicated methods people use.
The next time you’re driving on I-89 in Vermont, be sure to visit Red Hen Baking Company. It’s 5 minutes from the highway and the bread and pastry are nothing short of scrumptious. From breakfast and lunch to bread and croissants and more, you’ll be glad you stopped by.
Red Hen Baking Company
961B US Route 2
Middlesex, VT 05602