Photo Essay

A Morning with Normal Bread

7:30am Dusting the baskets

It's 5am. My daughter hasn't woken us up this early in three years. I'm groggy and when I get out of the car, I'm unsure Dustin is there. It's the hour immediately before dawn, my favorite light of day, which I call "hashish light" for reasons that I won't explain.

The door to Normal Bread is open; inside, I find Dustin Cutler already frenetically moving around the bakery. "You want some coffee?"

I decline. I get my charge from watching him. I promised myself I wouldn't ask Dustin to pose, or get in his way, but I can't resist. The curtains are closed, and Normal Bread is bathed in yellow light. Outside the world is, as I said, hashish blue. "Could I ask you to open the curtains? I'll go outside and shoot from there. I promise this is the only time I'll ask."

Dustin is completely polite and patient and enthusiastic. "Sure thing."

Those shots came out okay. Over the next three hours I took over 1000 photos of Dustin baking the morning's bread selection: white, sun-dried tomato cheddar and 7-grain. Luckily his success rate with baking bread is better than mine with producing compelling photographs.

To most of us, baking bread is a mystery, whether by bread you think of crusty European loaves or jet-injected Wonder in the white polka-dotted package. Actually, Wonder Bread has only one part to play in this story. The name of Dustin's bakery, Normal Bread, is a play on Wonder Bread. If Wonder Bread is anything but, so is, and for totally different reasons, is Normal Bread.

I try to capture Dustin at work: adding flour and water to the mixer, adding yeast, then salt, then mixing a while, seperating it out (the 7-grain and sun-dried tomato cheddar come from the same base), adding the ingredients, then letting them rise, punching them, letting them rise, dividing them into the balls that will become loaves. Letting them rise again, then at last forming them into balls, again giving them a rest, then a few slashes with a razor blade (the coup de lame) so they won't burst, and then, into the over. Dustin likes the rhythms of baking bread, work-relax, work-relax.

Dustin received his MBA from Syracuse University a few years ago, with the idea that he might be a baker someday: "Maybe when I'm forty".

But one summer, while on vacation in the "downeast" area of Maine, they happened upon a small bakery called Cinque Terre run out of the home of Leslie and Gloria Prickett. He baked European-style bread, and his wife baked pastries including a raspberry pie that Dustin still talks about. This chance encounter strengthened his resolve; maybe he'd be a baker before he hit middle age.

In 2004, Dustin returned to the Maritime area, this time to undertake a five-month internship working at Richard Rice's North Head Bakery on the island of Grand Manan, off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada. The villages there lived off of tourism and fishing, and since it was high season, Dustin was busy, working six days a week learning the art of European artisan bakery.

At home in Geneva, things began to fall into place. He found an old storefront on Washington Street with green tiles on the front, and several layers of signs painted and etched into the facade: LIQUORS over Quality Food Market. He added Normal Bread to the layers of the building's history.

Dustin had a lot of help from enthusiastic friends in the community who were willing to lend a hand. In return, he gave away a lot of free bread at the beginning. Normal Bread opened in the Fall of 2006.

Normal Bread supplies two of the area's better restaurants: Madderlake Cafe and Red Dove Tavern. Dustin is growing his business slowly, nurturing it like his sourdough starter (called, in the heavily French artisan bread lingo, a "poolish"). He gets a lot of advice from his fans. You should offer breadcrumbs! You should take this to the wineries! How about rolls over Thanksgiving! (He recalls the baker he apprenticed with on Grand Manan warn him away from rolls..."Too much work!" But Dustin offered rolls at Thanksgiving.)

Dustin cheerfully takes all this back-seat baking, and is always interested in what his customers think about the bread. He freely admits that he's still learning.

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