Food by VICE

How a Former Truck Driver from California Became a German Master Baker

Ben Tugwell never thought he'd be running one of the best bakeries in Berlin, especially after moving there without knowing a word of German or having any professional baking experience.

by Anna Gyulai Gaál
Jan 20 2018, 5:00pm

The smell of fermenting sourdough, burning beech wood, and sweet beetroot syrup mix in the air of the small Berlin bakery. The building's huge windows fill the room with natural light and allow visitors of the ufaFabrik in Tempelhof to get a peek at the art of the two bakers: Benjamin Tugwell and Timothy Naughton, who man the traditional German wood-burning ovens. The American-Australian duo is counted among the best bread makers of Berlin.

Ben's Bakery, named after the 29-year-old Tugwell, started heating up the ovens in 2013, but the two have long worked together. An experienced baker, Naughton visited Germany in 2008 and decided to apply to different shops to learn something new in this Shangri-La of sourdough bread. He got a job at the famous Soluna organic bakery, under the mentoring of Peter Klann—a beloved baker who has offered opportunities to several non-Germans to learn the secrets of German baking.

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Sourdough breads at Ben's Bakery. All photos by Jakub Koncir.

"He liked to meet different people from different countries and with some, like us, he connected," recalls the tall, skinny Naughton. He's just returned from chopping wood, putting a few logs more on the smoldering fire—they do all the work around here.

Tugwell also came to Berlin in 2008, following his wife, Amanda Ribas, who got a place in a study abroad program at the Berlin University of the Arts. With a culinary background but without any knowledge of the German language, Tugwell felt hopeless in looking for a job. "We were incredibly broke," he recalls. "So I got this book on bread baking and started making our own bread at home, just to save money. I enjoyed it a lot, so I applied to Soluna and Peter gave me a chance."

Tim Naughton works the oven at Ben's Bakery.

Naughton was the one who first taught kneading to Tugwell at Soluna, and they quickly became friends. Klann became a father figure to both, not only passing down his recipes, but also sharing his wisdom and teaching his bakers about the soul of baking.

"A baker always leaves a piece of himself in whatever he bakes, so when everything on the shelves looks good, you know the baker had a good day!" says Tugwell. He mixes cooked rye berries that have soaked overnight into rye sourdough, along with walnuts, sunflower seeds, and beet syrup—one of their own creations, the Everest bread. The duo mill their own flour at the Fabrik too, and the powder floats in the warm air, creating a thin white veil on shoes, books, and smartphones.

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Tim Naughton (left) and Ben Tugwell.

Tugwell and Naughton both left Germany for a while, but Klann asked them to return in 2013. Tugwell arrived just in time to meet the old baker again; a couple of months later, Klann died. His mentor's death had a great impact on Tugwell, who had faced many difficulties in his own family, and Klann's guidance helped him to discover his true passion.

While Naughton knew from an early age on that he wanted to work with his hands, and dropped out of school in Melbourne at the age of 16 to study baking, Tugwell worked all sorts of jobs before he found bread. "I worked as a truck driver, warehouse manager, and in a hardware store, too. I traveled Europe alone in 2006, and then I already knew I wanted to do something else. Amanda's Cantonese-speaking great-grandmother used to call me the 'fat boy, happy boy,' and she suggested me to start culinary school because I 'any way love to eat,'" says Tugwell, who left Soluna not long after Klann passed away. LPG Biomarkt offered him a space in which to start an organic bakery that would provide bread to their stores, and Tugwell immediately asked Naughton to join him. The company financed Tugwell's master baker program: over a year long of training in German, according to the country's very high and serious standards. He worked in the mornings at the bakery and went to school in the afternoon.

Tugwell knew nothing about baking before he arrived in Berlin.

"It wasn't an easy period for Tim and me," Tugwell says of the bakery's beginnings. "So much was out of our control. For example, I didn't want the bakery to be named after me, but the decision wasn't ours. But even if sometimes it's difficult and we argue, we both know what we need to do. We bring different qualities to the table and at the end of the day, we are friends who play table tennis before work and have a beer afterwards."

By now Tugwell and Naughton work so well together that they hardly need to give each other any instruction. Their movements are light, precise, and choreographed as they place the loaves into the three-meter deep ovens. They make 300 to 550 loaves of bread each day for all of the LPG Biomarkt stores and ufaFabrik market stalls.

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Ben's Bakery specializes in traditional German sourdough.

As the hours pass by, some of the loaves continue to rise in their baskets on the racks, while others are already out of the oven, filling the air with the smell of home—it's hard to wait till they cool down just enough to have a taste. Tugwell portions the dough and Naughton forms the balls into rounds, working with both hands at the same time.

It's hard to believe that this union is soon to split.

Naughton was recently offered a promising opportunity back home in Melbourne, opening a new line of bakeries which will allow him to use all the knowledge he's gained over the past 14 years. Tugwell will stay solo in Ben's Bakery, though he and his wife would like to eventually return to California to be closer to their families. Their dream is to open a German-style bakery in San Francisco.

Naughton stokes the embers of the wood-burning oven.

"It'd be a European-style bakery with heavy German influence, lots of sourdough, whole grains—more on the healthier side. I also would like to focus on the community, to really train people and make the products available to everyone," says Tugwell, breaking one of the first loaves fresh out of the oven and cracking a smile. "So none of this $10-a-loaf crap!"