Cuisine Confessions

Becoming an Artisanal Baker Destroyed My Body

Some days I made up to 800 loaves of bread myself. It was an infernal pace, I never complained but in hindsight, I now know that choosing this job was the worst mistake of my life.

by Anonymous
09 December 2019, 6:13am

Photo via Flickr userPauline Make

This article originally appeared on VICE France in February 2018

When you work in a bakery, every second counts.

I worked for a long time in an artisan bakery where everything was done by hand. Some days I made up to 800 loaves of bread myself. In the workshop, I was working with a timer next to me to keep an eye on my workflow. If I wanted to receive a bonus and earn more than the union minimum, I had to be able to ship 9 kg of dough in less than four minutes. It was an infernal pace but working in this bakery was important to me because I knew it allowed me to add a super-line on my resume. I was ready to accept anything.

Here in the UK, traditional bakeries are making their comeback. It can be considered a good thing, given the tasteless flavor of industrial bread that most English put on - making bread compatible with the standards of mass distribution is at the expense of taste. The bread must be kept for a long time and it must be dull enough to marry "everything". The agro-industrial manufacturing workshops where these breads are produced are thought to be profitable until the last crumb. The entire production chain is under sanitary control. At the opposite end of the spectrum, in small family bakeries where apprentice bakers want to experiment, it's a different world.

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It's especially super-tiring work and, I did not say that one day, but it is clear that when you're a woman, it's even harder physically.

I have spent a lot of time in the restaurant industry, where it is normal - even cool - to work H24, do 10 hours of nonstop service and wear ultra-heavy pallets without flinching. Starting in the world of bakery, I was so good at this kind of atmosphere. And then I wanted to give the image of a strong woman so I never complained, even if I was already suffering from some small glitches of health, especially at the level of my joints. In hindsight, I now know that choosing this job was the worst mistake.

Because by dint of repeating always the same gestures, the body is used and in the term, one runs a real risk. In France, this type of occupational disease is called MSD (musculoskeletal disorders). When you make a baguette for example, you have to fold the dough by pressing with your fingers before flattening it by pushing with the palm of your hand. Expect to do this three times a wand. Very quickly, I ended up feeling unbearable pain in the wrist.

I also had to carry bags of 12 kg of flour - which is on the verge of official recommendations. Moreover, note to flour producers, it would be good if the weight of bags for professional bakers and pastry chefs was halved. These bags are designed for industrial bakeries, who buy very big and where the workers have trolleys to carry all that. Besides, the people who work in these buildings are not really bakers - they just press buttons to activate machines. It's probably less traumatic for the joints, but it's not at all what thrills those who want to become bakers. For the passion of the craft, it will be necessary to return.

In general, the more you are under pressure, the easier it is to get injured at work. I remain convinced that we could have done without all the stress we were subjected to. Personally, it ruined me completely. Not only the schedules are very badly thought but in addition, one feels a little obliged to accept everything if one wants to prove oneself. For the first four hours of work, for example, my only job was to carry all the sacks of flour from one side of the kitchen to the other, I had to do this on my own and I was not allowed to ask help to colleagues.

It was only the day that I went to see an occupational therapist that I realized that I had really shot my body with all those sacks of flour. It's stupid: you just have to buy a pallet truck or a trolley to help us carry it - it would not change the quality of the dough.

The consequences of all this? All these superfluous physical efforts have ruined my health and I am unemployed technically: I can not physically do the job for which I was trained. Because of these fucking sacks of flour, one of my vertebrae moved and my TMS became chronic. I was so sorry if you knew - at one time, I could not even open my front door. I had to change all my pots and pans, too heavy, to use lighter; I had to change all my kitchen to have workbenches and a higher table.

Fortunately, it has improved since. I did a lot of swimming and yoga. I remain a fan of bread dough - you can do so many good things with so few ingredients, it will always fascinate me.

But I regret something: the world of catering and culinary crafts does not care much about working conditions. My only regret ? I did not pass the natural selection that prevails in this environment: my fragile joints did not support the repeated movements that my stressful post required. You have to be really versatile when you work in a bakery: you have to know how to help the service, collect coffees and pastries and at the same time, watch his mess. It's quite counterproductive to have to run all the time right to left like this. I always had the timer in mind.

In athletics, there are sprinters and distance runners. It should be the same for all those who work in the restaurant industry: you can not spend the day sprinting. We better hold the distance at a moderate pace.

Interviewed by Felicia Alberding.