SINGAPORE (Nov 25): Dean Brettschneider — baker, cook and author — is dashing across the road between his flagship café, Baker & Cook, and his baking school, both located in the quiet neighbourhood of Greenwood. Dressed in his baker’s uniform at first (he had been teaching a class), he rushes off after a quick hello and a firm handshake, and returns shortly after for the interview with Options dressed in jeans and a checkered shirt.
We get the impression that Brettschneider is, first, a busy man and, second, one who does not like to waste time. As we sit outside his café, his bright blue eyes are laser-sharp, and he is brisk and concise with his words; in fact, we later learn that words are not the only thing he is loath to waste.
One of the most celebrated bakers and chefs to hail from New Zealand, Brettschneider boasts numerous professional achievements. At 16, he began an apprenticeship at the award-winning Rangiora Bakery in his hometown, winning the NZ Apprentice of the Year award soon after, before working in Europe, where he gained experience in numerous notable hotels, fine-dining restaurants, artisan bakeries and even stints with supermarket chains such as Tesco.
He moved on to R&D, then ran his own craft bakery, wrote several award-winning books, appeared on TV in highly popular baking shows and worked for some of the biggest companies in the food industry before settling in Singapore in 2011, where he has been mostly based ever since he opened the doors to his global bakery chain. Indeed, his long list of professional achievements would take far more than one newspaper article to describe.
Yet, when asked about his personal journey, he immediately starts with his grandmother, who taught him how to bake and sparked his lifelong love for food. “Like a lot of people, I learnt a lot about baking from my grandmother — baking and making cakes for the community and the family. But I found that I particularly gravitated to food,” he recalls. “I chose home economics over woodshop in school; I just fell in love with the why and the how. It wasn’t about baking scones or sourdough or cakes because baking those days was more casual, it was more conservative. In those days, biscuits were biscuits and cookies were cookies.”
Brettschneider found he took to baking easily. “I have an inquisitive mind and, as a young apprentice, I’d ask, ‘Why’d you put the salt in there’ and the old guys would go ‘Shut up, Dean, stop asking all these questions’,” he jokes. However, he was never quite satisfied and was always restless.
“Again, I was just kind of thirsty for information and knowledge, and whatever I was trying to do, I was always trying to gain skills,” he adds. It was this thirst for new skills that made him explore the science behind baking — how to keep it on the shelf for six months, for example, or experimenting with textures, flavours and structures of bread. Ultimately, it boiled down to his relentless focus, which carried him through his decades-long career.
“Baking waits for nobody; baking is a constant because you’re baking to open at 7am and it’s tough because you’re baking through the night. Yeast is controlling you while you’re trying to control the yeast. And it’s not being silly to be on your feet for 12 hours; it’s that you’re so busy and multitasking with things in and out of the oven,” he says.
Through it all, Brettschneider learnt that it is not so much about the product, with its textures and flavours, but learning about managing a business, organisational skills as well as relentlessness, focus and passion.
Indeed, it is this same passion and focus that drive his work with The Foodbank Singapore, Baker & Cook’s charity partner since 2018. The Foodbank helps fight hunger and reduces food waste by redistributing non-perishable food items to over 100 beneficiary organisations. Baker & Cook donates not just bread and food, but also time from its employee volunteering and through holding special awareness events.
This is nothing new for him, he says. When he ran his own bakery as a 23-year-old in New Zealand, a local charity used to come to pick up the food to be donated. “I’d rather have waste in my business with common sense. There is always a small degree of waste that’s needed, but I’ve always had an issue with food that’s going into the rubbish,” he says, adding that it has always been important for him to give back in some way.
He also says that he feels a sense of achievement in helping shape the communities wherever there is a Baker & Cook. Noticeably, he says, he has never opened a Baker & Cook in a shopping mall, despite many invitations to do so, and does not plan to. All outlets have so far been in residential neighbourhoods, with the latest in Dempsey, close to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. “I’d never noticed it until I did another interview sometime ago and the journalist said, ‘You’re shaping communities because people are hanging out at your café and in their neighbourhoods’. I’d never thought of it that way.”
Asked what is next for him, Brettschneider says he has had conversations about a new Baker & Cook outlet, and they are considering between two neighbourhoods, though he does not say where. He would like to focus more on his personal pursuits now, as he had a health setback when he ruptured a disc.
“I’ve got a piece of titanium in my back now,” he says. “I’d still be the founder and keep a very close eye on the business, but quite frankly, I’m wanting to spend more time on other projects rather than run the business.” With a twinkle in his eye, he adds, “I have got great people who would also need me to get out of the way.”