Wild Wheat turns 21 years old in October of this year. I am not one for celebrating milestones but given these strange times, it’s a good chance to reflect on all those years.
My wife suggested very early in lockdown that it could be an opportune moment to tell a more detailed story of who Andrew Fearnside is and what Wild Wheat is to me. An opportune moment to reflect on what it means to me to do what I do.
I will always tell anyone who asks that I feel very fortunate to have known from a very young age that I enjoyed to cook. From as early as I can remember I was happy in the kitchen pottering around with various simple cake and biscuit recipes. My mum was a great enabler in fueling that interest early on. I remember cutting out recipes from the Auckland Star which were purpose-designed for young kids: very simple recipes with step-by-step instructions and basic pictures as well. I ended up with a couple of scrapbooks full and I was often making batches of fudge, chocolate caramel slice and ginger crunch. It didn’t take me long to realise I wanted to be a chef.
At the beginning of sixth form I left school for an apprenticeship of sorts through AUT. I worked in various restaurants around Auckland until I turned 21, when London and the Big OE called. Since school, I had done nothing but work unsociable hours and weekends and my OE gave me the chance to live a normal life hanging out with new friends. It took me nearly two years to get back into a kitchen. When I did, I landed a job on cold larder in a restaurant by Tower Bridge, Le Pont De La Tour. It was the biggest kitchen I had ever worked in – very fast paced and very long hours. I would arrive at the end of my working week exhausted. It was not uncommon to work a couple of 16 hour shifts in a row, punctuated by only 4-5 hours’ sleep.
I spent a couple of years there, slowly working through the sections until I ended up on the “sauce” section where we were responsible for all sauce making, meat work and cooking. I loved that section. It was where I learnt the most and enjoyed being at the head of the kitchen. However, throughout my time cooking I had struggled on and off with dermatitis. For me, this itchy skin was brought about by being in contact with so many different foods all day. It was also exacerbated by a poor diet, not enough rest and too much socialising. It made my day-to-day existence in the kitchen quite tough going at times.
When I was given the chance to work in the in-house bakery, I jumped at the chance. I could learn a new skill and give my hands a rest. I figured I would give it 6 months and go back to cooking. That was 25 years ago. I never made it back to a restaurant kitchen.
I immediately loved bread baking. Without being too cocky, I felt I got it almost straight away. I forged a great relationship with my eccentric head baker, and in a two-man team the learnings were endless. By the time I left a couple of years later to head home, I was the head baker. I thought I knew a bit at that stage. Turns out I was a bit too cocky.
It was a shock to come home to NZ after six years away. It seemed an almost impossible task to find a bakery that was producing the same style of bread that we had been making in London. I was only weeks away from returning to London when a chance phone call to Pandoro got me an interview. I stayed there for three years baking and cooking, which was the best of both worlds for my then skill set.
All the while though, the hankering for doing my own thing kept bubbling away inside me. I had always dreamed of opening my own restaurant in the early days. Now that dream was going to become a bakery.
Shaping Wild Wheat
Wild Wheat was born October 1999. At first we were just doing wholesale pastry and breads. Our first night of baking was just days after France had dumped the All Blacks out of the Rugby World Cup at Twickenham. One silver lining as I toiled away on that first night was that I wouldn’t be missing the ABs in the final!
There were two of us involved initially: an old chef colleague and I, in a tiny unit just down the road from Quality Bakers. I used to drive past there every day and wonder if that was where all the bakers in Auckland were, as we never seemed able to find staff! It was a true struggle for the first 6-12 months. Everything was on a shoe string budget. Being closed Christmas and New Years ended up being the only two days off we got in the first six months.
It was a shock for me as the “bread” guy of the two of us. What I thought I knew didn’t amount to much at that point. All my experience in London didn’t translate very well to this new environment. I was also dabbling in a new style of sourdough that I had only really read about, but certainly never baked much of. London had mainly been about flavored breads and Pandoro was kind of the same. I really wanted to head in the direction of naturally leavened sourdough but it was full-on trying to perfect that process, whilst being truly in the deep end of trying to figure how to run a business.
We struck it lucky early on and got noticed by a few foodie people. This culminated in our potato sourdough making it into a locally written bread book. We were slowly making a name for ourselves with bespoke sourdoughs. Nancy Silverton’s book, “Breads from the La Brea Bakery”, was my bible. Her book was the inspiration for Wild Wheat. Whenever I didn’t know what to do, I would read the book again. She had also written some interesting anecdotes of her time starting up. These helped calm me when I felt it was all out of control. Her mention of how she stuck to her style of dark robust crusts, despite the negative feedback, stuck with me more than any other. It helped keep Wild Wheat on track, despite the early mixed results.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Nancy a few years back while she was in Auckland for Restaurant Month. It was one of the highlights of my cooking life. She is such an amazing talent and was so giving of her time; it was very humbling to meet her and listen to her talk. Nancy Silverton is a bread superstar. I told her how her book had inspired me and how in the depths of a difficult night she had saved me over and over. She wrote a truly great message in my copy of the book. It’s rare you meet your heroes and I was so lucky: Nancy lived up to all my expectations and more.
After a couple of years of seemingly running in circles with some small gains but very hard work, the two bakers became one. It was very apparent we were going in opposite directions: bread ruled production and I was the bread guy so it seemed obvious that I should go it alone.
But just when I thought I knew hard work, this was another level. Alone, baking, and trying to run a fledgling business, I did nothing but work, sleep a bit, and eat even less. I even moved above the bakery for a few months; not my wisest decision.
Proving the dough
It gradually got easier over the next couple of years. I better understood the requirements of both my roles (baker and business owner), got some staff and got more and more customers. I also won, two years in a row, the Best Hot Cross Bun competition run by Champion Flour. That put the business on the map and on the public radar. The first year’s win inspired me to open our Mt Eden shop. A public face, but again another level of so much more work.
The second year landed me with my worst day in a kitchen ever. We did a live interview on breakfast TV, parading our Hot Cross Buns. As soon as the camera switched off, the phone started ringing. It rang non-stop for days! I wasn’t expecting an avalanche of customers. We couldn’t cope. It was still a small bakery. That Easter we made some people very happy, but we made some people very mad!
A shop and new-found public appreciation of the brand (in most cases), spurred me on to move to a bigger location to set up a more fit-for-purpose bakery. Our second home was in a quiet cul-de-sac at the back of an old industrial estate in Pakuranga. It gave me the chance to organically expand, with better equipment.
We stayed in Pakuranga for 10 years. A very formative 10 years. During these 10 years I opened up three new shops and closed one of them. I experienced the GFC, my first ever redundancy process and my first yearly tax loss. And I learnt a lot about baking, realising more and more that I still had so much to learn. I also learnt a great deal about running a business, especially when times were not great. I did actually find time to get away to San Francisco for two weeks to attend a sourdough course. It helped me clarify what I knew, as I so often did things by feel without understanding the real why.
The Essential Ingredients
During our time in Pakuranga I became intently focused on sourdoughs, and especially the health benefits. The gluten-free phase was gathering momentum and people didn’t like carbs anymore. I flew a lone flag for sourdough saying “carbs are ok”!!
Once I began making monthly specials, they became more and more focused on health, using ingredients with a significant nutritional twist. I sourced new and amazing things I had never heard of before. Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco was my new guiding light. He inspired me through his great books to source new ingredients, to better understand and experiment with new grains, porridge breads and other new techniques. I had always known and told people about how much better a sourdough was for digestion. With Chad as a ground breaker, I took my baking to a new level, really focusing on better health outcomes.
Bread, like food for me has always been about the taste. I had always wanted my breads to taste great. I was now trying to match that with a desire to be healthy too. Around 2010 it was my life focus to hunt out new healthy ingredients and make breads that ticked different health boxes. That focus continues to this day but with even more intensity.
While struggling with dermatitis in London, I sought out any and all treatments that could help. I was most influenced by a naturopath who pointed out to me that what I ate affected my skin and my general health. This sowed the seed of an ethos that has become so important to me, both personally and professionally.
As I get older and have a young family, what we eat has never been so important. Globally there is a greater understanding of nutrition and its long-term consequences. I love nothing better that to make breads that not only taste good, but are good for you. There is infinite literature on how the sourdough enzymes break down gluten making it easier to digest. I have been telling anyone who would listen (and some who won’t) that fact for 20 years. What is great now is how many amazing ingredients we have on offer to add layers to that basic sourdough principle.
Out of the oven
We moved to our third home on Ascot Road, near the airport, two years ago. It is the culmination of all my dreams and a wish list almost all coming true. It’s a reflection of 20 years of hard work and of my aspirations. I don’t think I will ever have everything I need to bake great bread. I can’t stop tinkering and trying to make things better. Ascot, however, is almost there.
With time on my hands during lockdown I am trialing new ideas. They are all health-focused. When the shops reopen, the first monthly special will be a Hemp Sourdough. We have been making Hemp Focaccia for a year now, and I have been meaning to get it into a sourdough for some time. Hemp is a super food and now it is in bread. I can get my kids to eat a toasted sandwich on amazingly healthy Hemp bread. And they love it!
I have more exciting ideas in the pipeline as we look to see a return to normality, hopefully soon. Food waste is my other obsession: the reduction of it and ultimately not having any more waste at all. I am involved in a couple of exciting projects in this vein and I really look forward to sharing these with customers at some point this year. This is about doing what is ethically right, but also making sure it tastes great and is good for you. That is me in a nut shell really.
A while ago I borrowed another bakery’s catchphrase, “it’s all about the bread”. In retrospect, I felt a bit embarrassed so I left it alone. But it is still true for me. The honesty and integrity of my bread is everything: if that ever goes, then so do I. Those in hospo do what we do for the delight in seeing others enjoy what we cook and creating happiness through food. I do feel a real sense of achievement in seeing all different folk from various walks of life enjoying my bread. From the foodies who tell me it reminds them of breads around the world to my dad, a stoic Yorkshire man, who used to complain that the marmalade fell through the holes of ciabatta! He still ate it all though!
After 35 years in this industry I still love what I do. I feel a real sense of achievement when we send out thousands of loaves of great bread on a Friday night knowing that so many people around Auckland will be enjoying a loaf tomorrow. To me it means that Wild Wheat, and all the hard work leading up to this one moment, has been worth it.
I am only as good as my last loaf, so back into the kitchen I go.