There is an angel in a kitchen and you can find her towards the end of your week, nestled theatre-side in her bakery beneath the oaks. Slowly crossing the bridge over the creek to the canyon’s beloved Theatricum Botanicum, the scent of Patrice Winter’s delectables will have you second guessing if you ordered enough loaves of bread, if said bread will make it home intact, or better yet, if you should have added a fresh pizza. We met for a socially distanced interview and a quick peek into the inner sanctum known as the Canyon Bakery.
What compelled you to start The Canyon Bakery?
I moved to Topanga Canyon in 1970 and made my wild yeast starter “Hawk” from heirloom grapes that were fed by the artesian water from the spring on the land. I’ve been baking and cooking for the canyon ever since and always dreamt of creating a bakery here. Fast forward many years and many bakes later I found and created a certified commercial kitchen at the Theatricum Botanicum, where I’ve had a wholesale and retail space since, gosh! 2008, when the economy collapsed! The 2020 new year brought my dream to reality and I put up a sign made by Megan Geer Alsop, an incredible artist here in the canyon and daughter of Ellen and Peter.
When did you learn to bake and who was the person that taught you?
I learned about baking from my Mama. I was one of four children. She had us painting and decorating her cookies while we were in our high chairs. When we could stand on our own she’d put us on Coca-Cola boxes so we could reach the counter. I’ve been baking seriously since I was 5 years old. Everything I learned was in my mama’s kitchen and from books. I am a self taught Baker really.
While I was growing up, my Mom and I would travel around the world every weekend via different cookbooks we would get from the library. We would make everything from scratch. My mother was Sicilian. She knew what day of the week it was from the aroma emanating from her Mama’s kitchen. She grew up eating Italian food but loved everything else but that! My grandma taught me Sicilian cooking, though. Thank god she lived with us because my father LOVED Italian cuisine. My father, a cook in his own right, taught me to make soups, casseroles and dishes from the organic foods we grew in our garden. We even dug compost together. To this day I tend a garden and a compost.
What’s your favorite thing to bake and why?
Oh my! That’s a loaded question! I love to bake EVERYTHING really, but if I had to choose I would have to say bread. Making wild yeast whole grain breads because it is the creation of life itself from the hands of the farmer and a loving baker. I love to feed people, and get to know how they really like things. It’s so pleasing to give someone a favorite food, just how they like or remembered. I have been blessed to be able to feed the people of our beautiful canyon community and they are always open to some of the twists I might put on something as well as my wild creative ideas.
If you could bake with anyone in the world living or who has passed, who would it be?
I’d give anything to be able to bake with my Mama again. Anything!
I’ve been influenced by many of the artisan masters. I’ve studied their books and practices for a long time. Then I came across Chad Robertson of Tartine and now the infamous Tartine Manufactory.
I bought his first book years ago and went through it recipe by recipe probably more times than I can count. I literally had to tape the book back together, I’ve used it so much. I was fortunate to be able to bake with him in a series that SFBI put on a few years ago. All of my favorite bakers were a part of it, actually. Steve Sullivan and Dave Miller as well. I brought my taped up book to the event for Chad to sign. He chuckled and loved the use my book showed.
My baking bucket list is now complete!
What is one thing about living in Topanga that you cherish the most?
The canyon itself and its people but the one thing I truly cherish is my time on the mountain each morning. I go out at first light for a meditative run. It’s just me, the wildlife, fauna and god. My happy place where I can sort things out and change my world.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business?
Well, let’s just say it has changed my whole business plan. My original plan was to open with the Theatre on June 1st and serve light fair prior to the shows and at intermission.
Let’s jump back a minute here. I had been baking and selling breads out of my kitchen every Friday and people were able to come in and select breads or pick up ones they ordered. It was lovely. They would be able to walk in, taste a little something and chat every week. It was really sweet.
In preparation for the theatre shows I had just organized my takeout window and then the pandemic hit, the cafe I was baking for closed, and I had a fridge loaded with food and knew people needed to eat, so I went to work feeding our canyon. I took down my closed sign, put up a takeout and phone number and used Instagram. I opened my takeout window and people showed up.
Then the complete lockdown happened and I had to close my window and do pre-order only. Here I used Instagram again and my takeout sign and text number. I made a menu each week, as I do now, and would text those with the menu that texted me for takeout. I worked on my own, making all this food and bread, cleaning up, the hours it took was incredibly difficult. I was lucky. My farmers would drop things off and if I needed something other than food or grains my hubs would go out. I basically went from my tiny kitchen to my tiny home. I wanted to stay safe and healthy in order to keep feeding our community. At first it was wild. We were all scared. I had to put a limit on the amount ordered so I could handle it.
Believe me, I am grateful for the business, but what is so sad is that I didn’t know who I was serving. I felt so disconnected and couldn’t recognize anyone behind their mask. For me cooking and baking for people is all about community, connection, love , laughter, hugs… all the things we can’t do right now.
However, I can feel a shift is happening. I’m calling out to those who are picking up when I can to connect from a distance. It’s the best we can do under the circumstances and it is SO needed. I am grateful to have the community and look forward to when the masks come off and to the hugs we are all in need of.
What essentials does a baker always have stocked in the pantry?
Grains, mill, water, sea salt, coconut sugar, butter, herbs and spices to name a few.
Patrice is taking orders weekly, for more information visit her website and @thecanyonbakery