Ready, steady, bake!
Barbara Young meets master artisan baker Leslie Gadd, founder of Lovely Loaves, to find out how baking classes designed for amateurs can produce professional results.
As A self-confessed “bread monster” Leslie Gadd (known to all as Lel), who has more than 30 years’ experience in commercial and specialist baking, prides himself on sharing his infectious passion and impressive skills with keen would-be bakers.
Forget the heady challenges set by TV’s The Great British Bake Off however, Lel’s classes, which are run in village halls around Lincolnshire as well as the converted 19th century barn at his home near Grantham, are designed for amateurs of all ages and levels of experience.
“I love to teach people how to make and bake a variety of breads, cakes, biscuits and pastries to a professional standard through a range of baking classes and courses,” explains 49-year-old Lel, who set up his mobile bakery workshops four years ago.
“For the domestic baker, I offer informative educational baking classes which are fun, relaxed events at halls, schools and house parties, as well as one-to-ones, corporate and team building events, and even hen and stag parties.
“I like to share my passion for one of the oldest trades and get everyone back into baking, no matter what their age or ability.”
As a natural people person who clearly loves what he does, Lel is a gifted and easy-to-understand teacher. Friendly, chatty and generous with his never-ending stream of helpful tips, when it comes to encouraging and guiding students in producing a selection of mouth-watering masterpieces, he also has a serious side and demands concentration, accuracy and a willingness to develop and learn new skills.
On arrival, students are allocated individual workspaces with basic equipment such as scales, scrapers, pre-weighed ingredients and a bowl of dusting flour, plus pen and paper to take notes. Classes run for about three hours, during which students learn to make three different products, including a variety of different breads, pastries, cakes and biscuits.
On the day I visited Lel at Lovely Loaves HQ, I was treated to a personal masterclass in how to make crusty white farmhouse loaves, jam doughnuts and lemon drizzle cake, which were all melt-in-the-mouth delicious.
At the end of the class, all bakes are sampled and students are invited to take home the products they have made.
“We all work at the same time, mixing, kneading the dough, baking and finishing,” explains Lel. “I want everything to look home-made. I’ve always been known as a generous baker, so nobody comes here and goes away hungry.”
Lel, whose 13-year-old daughter Lilly assists her father with the workshops, likes to watch over his students in class and helps by giving them pointers on how they can improve their produce.
“Baking is a skill, but it didn’t come to me overnight, it’s something you have to work at,” he explains. “Everyone can bake if they can be bothered, but for many people it’s easier to buy bread from a supermarket.
“My classes are educational but not formal. I enjoy interaction with people and I love a bit of banter. Half the battle of baking is being interested in it – if you’ve not got the interest, don’t bother!”
A passion for baking
Although not from a long line of bakers himself, Lel says his interest was first sparked at the age of 5 after watching children’s programme Play School visit a bakery: “I knew then that’s all I wanted to do,” he explains.
At the age of 15, Lel landed a Saturday job at a local supermarket filling freshly-made doughnuts with the added attraction of being able to eat as many as he wanted.
“I used to watch the bakers at work which fascinated me and still does. What I love most about baking bread is that you only need four ingredients that all cost next to nothing – flour, salt, yeast and water – and from those you can make something that looks and smells good, tastes beautiful and everybody wants some!”
After leaving school, Lel worked at Morrisons and was selected to do a three-year baking apprenticeship and City and Guilds qualification at Clarendon College in Nottingham.
Here he won the Master Baker’s Cup of Bread Making for three consecutive years.
After leaving college, Lel continued his training at the renowned National Bakery School (founded in 1894) at London South Bank University before securing his “dream job” as a lecturer at the university some years later.
During his time there Lel was also employed to cover night shifts for Asda and worked as a consultant for a number of TV commercials, including for Marks & Spencer and Philadelphia cheese, as well as helping designer Jean Paul Gaultier recreate some of his iconic designs in bread. His team was also responsible for making special occasion cakes for Parliament, including celebration designs for the Magna Carta, Lord Mayor and Queen Mother’s 100th birthday.
After teaching in London for 20 years, Lel decided to return home to Grantham to set up workshops teaching basic and domestic level baking with the aim of bringing back skills which he believes have been lost in the trade over the years.
“Wherever I’ve worked, I’ve always had a lot of pride in the products I’ve made. I want to be known for producing good quality products. Baking is one of the oldest life skills; so many people don’t know what to do with flour, but with the popularity of Bake Off, plus domestic science off the school curriculum, it’s a good time for the baking industry.”
Lel admits that while he is not a fan of The Great British Bake Off’s presenter Paul Hollywood and has only watched one episode of the nation’s favourite cookery programme, the series has helped boost awareness of the trade.
“Bake Off has sparked more interest in the profession and an appreciation and love of the trade, but true bakers have their own language which isn’t translated on the show. People confuse bakers with chefs, but it’s two completely different skills – like asking a carpenter to unblock the toilet. I can make a mean beans on toast or shepherd’s pie, but I’m not a chef!”
Lel enjoys teaching all ages and his classes for 4 to 11 year-olds and teenagers are proving popular.
“I love to see students progress and the pleasure on their faces when their products start coming out of the oven – they’re impressed and so am I.”
He admits that one of the most challenging audiences he faced when he first launched his demonstrations were members of the WI, stalwarts of baking perfection.
“Sometimes demonstrations can be a little bit daunting, but I just say, ‘Look we can all bake, I’m not teaching you to suck eggs, I’m here to give you a few tips and pointers as to how you can improve the fantastic stuff you’re already doing’.
“I don’t come in saying, ‘You’re doing it all wrong’, I just say, ‘We’re all here to learn and if anybody can give me any pointers or tips, I’m happy to learn as well’.”
Lel says that while electric bread makers have their place in a kitchen, he prefers to use more traditional methods.
“I don’t think they produce good bread as they don’t get the correct tension in the dough, but they are good because at least people who use them know what they’re eating,” he explains. “I’ve got no disrespect for anyone who uses bread makers, but they won’t produce the best bread – although it’s better than supermarket stuff.”
Lel also points out that the difference in taste between home-baked bread and supermarket produced loaves lies in both the ingredients as well as the fermentation processes used.
“Improvers, which speed up the fermentation of the bread, are used in all supermarkets, which is why baked produce often tastes of very little,” he explains. “I prefer to make it properly and use natural long fermentation processes.”
He also believes that people can only learn so much from a book, or by watching baking online.
“People think, ‘That looks easy, I could do that’, but if you take one of the classes you get to feel the consistency of the dough during kneading, which is much more realistic, and I can also watch your technique and advise as we go along. In addition students are able to feel the changes that dough goes through during the mixing stages.”
Lel says that to be a good baker, students need to really care about what they produce.
“In my opinion, somebody who says, ‘Oh, that’ll do,’ has an awful attitude to the job. You can always do something a little bit better and you’ve got to care.
“I’m a perfectionist. I don’t see the point of spending three hours in the kitchen to make a rubbish loaf of bread, I like to do it properly.”
Loaves in lockdown
Having moved to the village of Londonthorpe in March this year, Lel found himself much in demand in the early weeks of lockdown, baking up to 60 loaves a day to help feed his local community via Stuart Wilson at the Great Gonerby post office, where Lel still supplies freshly baked breads, cakes, biscuits and pastries.
“I was just trying to do my little bit to help my community,” he says. “There was no bread or flour on the shelves and as I’d got flour and yeast in stock I thought I might as well use it and help a few people out who were struggling.”
Even after the thousands of loaves Lel has made, he doesn’t believe he’s ever made a “perfect” loaf: “Nothing is ever perfect. I know it’s very good, but I would never say it’s perfect.
“A good baker needs to be patient, which I admit I’m not always. It’s quite a stressful job, with a lot going on and unsociable hours in horrible temperatures, but I love baking, it’s my passion. Cakes are messy things, but there’s not a lot of washing up with bread!”
When it comes to sharing tips and passing on his knowledge to students, Lel is generous: “There are no secret recipes. In my opinion, the world of baking has already been invented – we’re just improving what’s already been done.”
For more information on Lovely Loaves, telephone 07904 956825 or visit www.lovely-loaves.co.uk