Tom Papa‘s new food network show, Baked, is not about getting high, but it will make you very very hungry.
Tom is the new king of the baked good, taking you city by city to the best bakeries- some infamous, and some hidden gems- bringing us all into the kitchen to see how its all done. In short, it’s glorious. It’s also educational, it’s multicultural, it’s a travel show, and unlike most television today, it reminds you of the what really makes America. I spoke with Tom about his love for bread, and how he found himself traveling the country in search of all things “Baked.”
Tom told me he first found himself getting interested in bread and bakeries because he couldn’t believe that after humanity has survived thousands of years on the planet eating bread, up until the last 15 years. “It was like, wait a minute, why are we the first generation that is being told we can’t eat this stuff? This has been around for thousands of years. People have been making cannolis. People have been making bread. All of a sudden, we show up, and they’re telling us, no, don’t eat it. I was like, wait a minute, something’s up.”
When Tom started baking bread at home he realized that he and his family felt healthier. “We’re getting sick and fat from eating processed versions of this stuff. I would go to a supermarket and get, what I thought was a really good bread for my family. They had 30 ingredients in it, the best whole wheat bread I could find! Then I’m at home making bread that tastes so much better and only has flour, water, salt, and yeast. I want people to know this. I want people to realize, if you use good ingredients, this stuff isn’t going to kill you.”
What started as a New York Times article interviewing Tom about his sourdough starter (read more on that here), has become a glorious nationwide search for the best and most interesting baked goods in America.
He accomplishes this through Baked, a sort of Diners/DriveThrus/Dives for baked goods, that takes you from city to city exploring the beautiful and sometimes hidden world of slow baked goods. It’s bread porn, shot beautifully with these stunning timelapse shots of baking that will get you googling for nearby bakeries, and give you the bug to start baking at home. It’s beautiful, and even Tom had to admit he is impressed with the finished episodes. “We had a little premiere party for it at our house. I’m watching the episode. I’m like, I know this my show. That is me in the picture, but I still want to eat that thing that, that guy has.”
Season One takes us through Detroit, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston, Cleveland and New Jersey, and not just hitting up the usual haunts. He covers pizza in Los Angeles, because he wanted to debunk the myth that great pizza can only exist in New York, and bagels, well we don’t even get into bagels in season one. Maybe season two. Tom is much more interested in surprising you with places you haven’t seen before. There are 200 year old ovens, giant machines important from countries around the world, special techniques and tools- its dizzying and very enticing.
Tom loves not only the food, but also the exploration, going deep into different cities and meeting the people and exploring the cultures. “The Detroit episode was great, because of just what that city is doing, having this revival, this bit of a hopeful story that was coming out of there,” he said. New Jersey had a different allure- he grew up there. “I literally was outside my boyhood home, and this bakery that my Grandmother took me to. ” In L.A. he enjoyed debunking not only the pizza myth but also the myth that the city lacks culture. “It may be sprawling, but we saw these amazing Portuguese places and it’s amazing people, Mexican food from East L.A. Each place there’s real passion and real joy for this food. You can find it everywhere.”
Baked is deeply multi-cultural, multi-generational, and opens up the world of baking so far beyond whatever knowledge you already had about baked goods. Going way beyond the typical “cake, loaves and cookies” outlets, Tom shows off gorgeous baked products you’ve never heard of, created from long-standing traditions all around the world, bringing you into the heart of other cultures. Proof positive that the melting pot of America has not turned into a soup just yet. We see traditions from Georgia, Korea, Poland, the Middle East, Mexico and of course Italy. “When you’re in Cleveland, you have a heavy Dutch influence,” Tom said. “Up in Detroit, there’s a heavy Middle Eastern community. Whatever the city reflects, we wanted that to come out in the show. It’s really kind of interesting that these people come from all around the world. That’s what makes this country so special. They come from all around the world, and they settle here, and they make a life for themselves. Like I say in the episode, and thankfully they bring their recipes with them.”
One favorite surprise comes in the form of Khachapuri, a canoe-shaped pastry with egg baked right in and more cheese than you could ever imagine in a baked good. Oh my God. “And the cheese, that thing is so incredible,” Tom said remembering, and still enjoying the thought of it. And Kunafa, a dough that goes through a process so intricate you’ll be wondering how bakeries stay in business without charging more. “There’s 20 different steps in making those things. That was great because I wasn’t part of that culture. I didn’t grow up with that food.”
Unlike other trades, Tom says, people don’t open bakeries just to be in business. “The best ones, it had to start like the big bang, had to be this real passion for what they’re doing. Nobody just comes in it without a love of baking. No one’s like, Let me just open this like it’s a Mail Boxes Etc., or something. It’s like, they really genuinely love doing it. Then they make something that’s really special. Then all of a sudden, the community starts showing up. It doesn’t take advertising. It doesn’t take marketing. It just takes doing something really, really well.”
If you are inspired to follow in Tom’s footsteps not only by visiting more bakeries but by doing our own baking, Tom gives fair warning. It’s hard work. “You have to try, and fail a lot.” It also takes time. “I think it’s why people don’t do it regularly the way our culture is now, it takes time. If you rush any stage of it, if you get impatient and rush it, and don’t carve out time in your life to do it, over two and a half, three days, by the way, you’re going to blow it,” he said. “In a time when people are used to just going and getting something really quickly, and not spending much time on making the stuff, or eating the stuff, it’s like the idea that it’s going to take three days … In the final, final stage, if I do it 20 minutes earlier, it’s going to be ruined. That doesn’t fit with the rhythm of a lot of people right now.”
But its worth the time, he says, and not only because it’s delicious. It’s also peaceful. “Your life is so much better for it if you do it, because you’re in tune, you’re slowing down. You’re more thoughtful about it. You’re celebrating your life. All this stuff, bakeries, bread, all that stuff, it all comes from stopping, and then letting yourself enjoy what’s available.I really wanted that to be what the show was about more than anything. It’s a celebration of life. It’s like you sit, you don’t just eat because you have to get something in and keep going to your next appointment. You should be able to be with some people that you love, and eat some stuff that you love. That’s going to make your life better. You’re going to be better off for it.
And even if you fail, there is an upside. “The thing is, if you make a mistake and it doesn’t look like the best bread that you’ve ever seen, you can still eat it. You know what I mean? Bad bread is still pretty great when it’s toasted with some butter on it.”
The common denominator, the big lesson Tom takes from all of it, is the passion that everyone who bakes shares. “That’s why they got into it in the first place. You quickly realize this is not an easy profession,” he said. “They’re making this stuff around the clock, and I just wander in and there’s a big case filled with baked goods. I’m like, this is always here waiting for me.”
The Baked season finale airs this Monday, September 24 bringing Tom back to where he grew up, in New Jersey, and you can catch all of Season One on Demand, exclusively on the Food Network. Visit foodnetwork.com for info.