To watch Chuck Kaiser mix a batch of sourdough bread is to watch a master at work. There are no recipes, no measuring cups, and no distractions. Focused completely on his task, Chuck quietly adds dashes of yeast and scoops of salt to flour and water to create the artisinal bread he loves. He started his professional career as a chef, but a bicycling accident lead him to be a baker. He has made his old-fashioned sourdough bread for many Fort Wayne restaurants over the years, and is now in charge of all the bread making for Club Soda. Decades of long hours and hard work have taken their toll on his body, but he loves baking bread and can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.
Indianapolis, New Orleans, Venice, and Back
Chuck went to school to study Restaurant and Hotel Supervision, but decided that was too easy and became a chef. “The hours were worse, but the pay was better,” he said. Logic that, viewed through the lens of youth, is difficult to argue with. His first big break came when he landed a job at The Canterbury Hotel in Indianapolis. The hotel needed to regain some of the luster from it’s glory days, and that meant they needed a new chef in the kitchen. He and the other applicants had to prepare a meal to win the job, and even though he was young, he beat out all the other chefs.
From there his talents took him to New Orleans to cook for, and study under, the nationally renowned Creole chef, Leah Chase. New Orleans was also where he met and married his wife, Lisa Williams, who now owns and operates Honey on the Table in Fort Wayne. Years later, the two of them traveled to Venice, Italy to study under the internationally famous, Cordon Bleu-trained chef, Fulvia Sesani. In the 12th century palazzo that houses her cooking school, Chuck and Lisa received private instruction on the chemistry of cooking and how heat affects food.
Having worked at many of Fort Wayne’s best restaurants and having received such prestigious training, Chuck’s career as a chef was running smoothly. That is, until a bicycling accident left him with two broken hands. As part of his recuperation, he kneaded dough for a friend who ran a bakery and made cookies. The more he did it, the more found he enjoyed baking. Before long, “I got this idea that I wanted to learn how to make bread,” he said. He started making organic bread with friends at the Three River’s Coop, which they sold via a tiny classified ad in the back pages of Gourmet magazine. Soon, he was making artisinal breads full-time from a kitchen located in the former ceramics building of the old Fort Wayne Art School in the West Central neighborhood of Fort Wayne. These days, Chuck works out of Richard’s Bakery on Wells Street and supplies bread orders for a few of his original clients while making all of the bread for Club Soda.
“Sleep Is Overrated.”
To someone like myself who requires at least six, if not eight or ten, hours sleep a night, the hours Chuck works are inconceivable. Thanks to his artisinal methods, his day typically begins at 1:00 a.m., a time when most people are either heading home from the bars, or fast asleep like me. It’s at this early hour that he starts mixing dough for the next day’s bread. His sourdough ingredients are just flour, water, salt, and sourdough starter or “mother”. “Most bakers don’t use a sourdough starter anymore,” he said. One of these mothers dates back one hundred and fifty years to the immigrants who moved west to Portland, Oregon on the Immigrant Trail. Another is from San Francisco and is equally as old. When he pulled back the cover on one of the jars, the almost overpowering smell of fermenting yeast hit me in the face with a wallop. It was amazing to think that the contents of that jar had their roots so far back in American history.
At about 4:00 a.m., Chuck puts tomorrow’s half-made dough aside in large buckets and begins to finish the dough for today’s bread orders. After rising overnight, the dough will almost double in weight as Chuck adds more flour and water. From here it rises once more, is divided, shaped into loaves, and baked in a large oven. By 7:30 a.m. the toasted rounds of finished sourdough bread are cooling on racks. At no later than 8:15 a.m., they are being loaded into the delivery truck, and by 9:00 a.m., they are being delivered to customers. “The baker’s life is pretty lonely, but here I have the donut and the danish guys to keep me company,” he said. Fortunately, he also has an assistant that helps him and handles the making and baking of the enriched breads.
The rest of his day is spent starting the next day’s bread order, making specialty items like croissants, and helping out with the breads Club Soda will serve that evening. In addition to all of this, he works with Club Soda chefs on their catering orders. On a good day, he gets home twelve to fourteen hours after arriving at work to grab a few hours sleep before starting the process over again.
To be a baker is to know hard work and long hours. Decades of eighteen hour days on his feet, and lifting endless batches of dough that weigh-in at 70 plus pounds a batch, have taken their toll on his body. His bent hands and back are a silent testament to the strain. He has undergone double hip replacement, and double knee replacement isn't far off. Despite this, and the obvious signs of exhaustion, Chuck’s quiet, indomitable good nature is always evident in his persistent and knowing grin.
Perhaps more than anyone I have met in writing this website, Chuck embodies pure passion for his work and a deep love of all things food. He loves being able to produce bread every day. His simple gratification for all the hardship is the humble pleasure of smelling and tasting loaves of bread fresh from the oven. He said that he and other baker’s have a running joke that once whatever you’ve baked is cool, “it just isn’t the same!” Chuck also said, “You’re working hard, but when you’re finished, you can see you accomplished something.” What more could any of ask from our work?