Rob Fecteau remembers the feeling he had when the first loaves of bread came out of the oven at his BirchTree Bread Company on Green Street: “Not to sound mushy but it was pretty magical.”
The bread was baked before BirchTree opened – ciabatta, an Italian white bread, for Rob’s cousin who helped with the construction: “We are all Italians or mostly Italian eating the Italian bread coming out of the oven. There’s a picture of me with a loaf and there’s construction and a ladder in the background and it was awesome. There were about ten loaves of bread and they were all a little burnt and caramelized, but they were the first and magic.”
That ciabatta, now flecked with rosemary, is still on the menu at BirchTree, one of the special breads that rotate in to complement the three daily loaves, the most popular of which is the simplest: a crusty Country loaf. Second place, however, is more surprising: Coriander Raisin. Not to Rob – he loves the sweet-savory combination – but some really do not care for coriander or aren’t used to having it in bread. The other daily bread is made with local whole wheat and flax. All of them are made with natural leaven – a mixture of wild yeasts and naturally occurring good bacteria that help leaven and flavor the dough – which in itself is a kind of magic… and menace.
“I thought baking would be easier as a chef and it’s not,” says Rob who was born in Worcester and spent 15 years working as a chef in the surrounding area. “There’s a real challenge using the natural leaven starter. It is not always predicable.” Like any living organism, you need to feed it, and Rob adds, “Unless you are on point with the feeding you will get a different result.”
According to Rob, that’s one of the biggest differences between bakers and chefs: “Chefs make lots of miniature calculations and can make amends when they miss. Bakers make a few calculations and if you miss any of them you mess up the whole thing. You must know your dough and what is happening in each level of the process to make the right decisions. You can’t scramble. Once something’s done, it’s done.”
So why leave his established and comfortable career as a chef? To take on that challenge and learn new culinary skills. Besides, chefs work late nights, and Rob, who got married in May of 2014, hopes baking will give him a more balanced life. The baker’s life, like the bread itself, is more precise. Even though his days start early, his wife is a teacher and they both like waking up with the sun. So, he set out to find baking inspiration both near (Five Loaves in Spencer and Hungry Ghost in Northampton) and far (Tartine, Acme, and others in California).
The real revelation was the space Rob ended up with for BirchTree. He pictured himself and a helper opening something like Hungry Ghost, which basically has bread racks and a walk in counter. He knew he wanted to be in Worcester, but he never imagined occupying the massive space on Green Street with its warm, industrial-feel, openness, and constant sunlight pouring in from the windows.
“Sometimes the space creates the vision for what you make,” says Rob.
That big, welcoming, inclusive vision seems much more logical when you consider Rob’s cooking inspiration. His father is French and his mother is Italian and both sides of the family cooked. He remembers semiannual trips to his maternal family’s house in upstate New York where the food just kept coming, the kitchen and dining room filled with platters of seafood, vegetables, and sauces. Rob credits his father, a travelling salesman, for expanding his international tastes and fueling his desire to explore with stories, pictures, and food brought back Africa, China, France, Germany, and South America.
And Rob hasn’t left his chef hat behind. In addition to the breads and pastries, BirchTree added sandwiches to the menu in January and runs what he calls a “scratch kitchen,” braising its own corned beef and making its own preserves, pickles, and nut butters. Rob won’t say what’s coming next – despite this author’s plea for pizza – only that he is happy with the slow growth, wants to keep doing what he is doing better, and is listening to his customers even as he forges ahead with his own vision.
“It’s not called artisan bread because it is baked in an artisan oven,” he notes. “It’s because there is an artisan making it, crafting it every step of the way.”