It is meant to be luxurious and very high end but anyone can come here, you know?
Tuesday, 7:03 A.M. — I walked into SIFT Bake Shop Mystic for the second time in the past 24 hours, a few steps off of Main Street in Mystic, Connecticut. I had my eye on one of those flaky ham & cheese croissants I’ve been dreaming about since yesterday morning, a hot coffee and a chat with the owner and chef Adam Young. We touched on many topics including why and how he got into pastry, why he chose Mystic, our shared love for New Orleans, appearing on Food Network and what’s to come!
There is something about walking into SIFT Bake Shop that calms you instantly. The dark floors and almost all white interior, only complemented by small accents of cobalt and sea glass, allows its pastries to steal the spotlight. Trays of cookies are stacked in perfect pyramid formation and fancy looking pastries are displayed upfront, very brightly lit. A white rope is used as a divider in the small space, a subtle detail and nod towards the coastal community it’s located in. Beyond their food/drink offerings, it’s a perfect example of how important the consumer experience is from the moment one approaches the bake shop until the time they depart.
SIFT Bake Shop Mystic Owner & Chef, Adam Young.
The height contrast between my 5’1 and Chef Adam’s 6’5 was laughable. My medium-sized GorillaPod wasn’t tall enough to take a photograph of him at eye-height. I had to stack it on top of two display gift boxes the staff let me use as I awkwardly raised myself to the viewfinder.
Rebecca: Where and from whom did you first learn to bake?
Adam: Well, it’s funny, I went to culinary school for savory cooking and when I graduated 15 years ago, they didn’t offer a full-blown pastry degree. It was all savory and they tied pastry into it. Specifically, I started very young working in kitchens and when I started culinary school I ended up getting my first apprenticeship in New Orleans and I was like 17 or 18.
R: I’m from New Orleans originally. I was just there for Jazz Fest!
A: It’s one of my absolute favorite places I’ve ever lived. I think anyone who is in the culinary industry should spend time there…So I got down there and I had this apprenticeship lined up. I showed up to work my first day and walked in, the sous chef looks at me and says “I have no idea who you are or what you’re doing here.” Everything I had lined up with their HR department had fallen through. So here I have just signed a lease, I was a kid with my two suitcases. It turns out the pastry department needs help. I was really reluctant to do it and it wasn’t what I was there for. I ended up working for a very talented pastry chef, her name was Joy Jessup. And she knew that it was a love-hate thing with pastry. I didn’t give it much thought so the more push back I had, the more she would force this information on me and took me under her wing a little bit. I started to enjoy it. So I finished my apprenticeship there and started to look for jobs that were pastry driven.
It turns out the pastry department needs help. I was really reluctant to do it and it wasn’t what I was there for….so the more push back I had, the more she would force this information on me and took me under her wing a little bit. I started to enjoy it.
R: So this was the experience that really led you into your path. What was it about pastry that you started to enjoy?
A: I’m very much technique driven so what I think savory and culinary are very intellectual you can taste, you can manipulate, you can season. This is very different – there is a strict set of variables, the liquids are always going to simmer at this temperature, starch is always going to gelatinize at this temperature, it’s very precise. So as long as you can control all those variables, the outcome is the same every time. And I enjoy that.
Most recently I moved back to New England, to open Ocean House. It’s a super luxe hotel with like six or seven restaurants and it’s a huge machine. I came out to open that in 2010 and that was just such a cool experience and such a rewarding and gratifying job. I was head pastry chef there and I had a team with me…This is what I was made to do…And what’s unique about pastry is that they’re not $10,000/night rooms. They’re $3 items and they’re approachable, achievable luxury. Because it is meant to be luxurious and very high-end but anyone can come here, you know? And that’s whats cool about pastry.
R: So it’s more about the experience. What made you decide to open shop in Mystic?
A: Exactly. And that’s why and right down to the reason we chose the building. Mystic had the right demographic, the right amount of people. We kind of like to ball hard for six months, and then kind of have it quiet down! I enjoy working like that!…We’ve got a great report with the locals and thankfully they’ve been a huge support for us. And as I was saying it is about the experience. No one is coming here out of necessity…We wanted everyone to see what was going on in the back. That’s why everything is glass here. We have nothing to hide…It’s bright and it’s clean. That’s really a big part of our mantra.
We’re a high-end amenity but we’re also consistent in regards to our hours. We’re 7 AM to 7 PM, 7 days a week, year-round. I don’t close early because it’s slow and I’m tired and I want to go home. Even if that costs a little money in the forefront, it has already paid off.
R: That’s great. So do you guys end up doing a lot of custom work?
A: Yeah, we do a tremendous amount. We do a lot of wedding cakes and a ton of birthday cakes and dessert buffets. You’d be surprised. It’s great because people can rely on us for their parties. And it’s all made here. I’m not buying anything…Every macaron is made here, the glazes, the cocoa butter…We also want to give the staff some incentive to work here, you know?
For the bakers in the back, my philosophy is to get them to work for more than just a paycheck. They want an experience, they want an education, they want to see new techniques and leave a better baker. It is the employees that run this place. It’s not me. I’m just here to kind of mandate things but we’re fortunate to have a wonderful, wonderful staff. I left Ocean House the summer before last and I didn’t plan this. I didn’t speak to anyone about it but 35 employees left and helped me open this place. My whole pastry team…It was very humbling to see people who wanted to get behind it.
For the bakers in the back, my philosophy is to get them to work for more than just a paycheck. They want an experience, they want an education, they want to see new techniques and leave a better baker. It is the employees that run this place.
R: What was that transition like going from just having to focus on the baking side of things to manage both baking & running a business?
A: It’s a lot. It’s more administrative work and more “Oh, the cooler is broken down.” kind of work than I would like, obviously. But it’s very rewarding to see from an owner perspective. You see things differently…Budgets to balance and then you really start to look at your staff and come up with your own ideas of how a business should operate.
R: You had to decide how you want your consumer experience to be.
A: Exactly. Who I wanted to hire and what worked and what didn’t work our first year. When we opened here last May, it was just a completely new concept. Are we going to have 200 people or 2000 people? Who knows. So we had a little bit of trouble trying to gauge…We would run out of stuff at 4 PM and people were upset because they were coming in at 6 and nothing was left. Or we would overpack tons of stuff that we would then have to throw away…It took a few weeks to dial it in. We were significantly busier than I thought we would be, thankfully!
…It’s a unique area and it’s unlike anything else you’ll find in a small coastal town. This is as small as it is…Our payroll is a lot but on the weekends here at 6:45 AM we have people lining up. Then at 9 o’clock at night in the summer we’ve had about 1500 people…It’s great to see the same faces back and it’s the most gratifying thing. It’s not just a tourist that drops in here one time…That’s what supports us. We welcome tourists as well but it’s meant to be an asset for the town.
R: So as far as the kitchen is concerned…What’s your biggest pet peeve?
A: Cleanliness. Organization…And if you want to be a baker here, first of all, we do tryouts. We pay extremely well. It allows us to get kind of the best employees but the expectation that comes along with that paycheck is also very, very high. Everyone back there is from restaurants all over the country or hotels…They’re really very focused and disciplined…That is the hardest thing and luckily the staff doesn’t really tolerate it from anyone. So if we brought someone new in and they weren’t pulling their weight, they would speak up.
Everyone back there is from restaurants all over the country or hotels…They’re really very focused and disciplined…That is the hardest thing and luckily the staff doesn’t really tolerate it from anyone. So if we brought someone new in and they weren’t pulling their weight, they would speak up.
What else for pet peeves? Inconsistent work…If you come in and get a chocolate chip cookie and you come in a week later, it should be the same. That’s why people come back again…And we don’t want to serve a chocolate chip cookie just to serve a chocolate chip cookie. We want it to be the best chocolate chip cookie. We want you to remember, wow. That is really freaking good. That’s what we try to do here…It’s not a grocery store or a convenience thing. It’s an experiential place.
R: What’s your favorite thing about Mystic?
A: There is a lot that Mystic has to offer and that’s what made it attractive putting the business here in the first place. I love living on the coast and it’s a beautiful coastal community. Then it has things like the Seaport, the Aquarium, great restaurants and it’s a small town with a small town focus so a lot of young entrepreneurs are coming in with restaurant tours. And places like Mystic Knotwork with small niches are really working hard and putting a lot back into this community…Everyone who owns a business here works 90 hours a week…We’re trying to make this collective unit…Just people who are very dedicated to seeing the overall success…It’s nice to see and to be a part of that.
Everyone who owns a business here works 90 hours a week…We’re trying to make this collective unit…Just people who are very, very dedicated to seeing the overall success…It’s nice to see and nice to be a part of that.
R: Five things you think every kitchen should have?
A: Ingredients wise…I would go with excellent olive oil. Excellent fresh herbs. We have a garden out back where we grow all of our herbs and that is absolutely paramount. Take your dried herbs and seasonings and just throw them in the garbage. A good source of local dairy…We use the Farmer’s Cow collaborative in Lebanon, Connecticut…It’s super fresh. Good butter. And in the case of a commercial kitchen, a core team…We make a lot of croissants here-
R: I had one yesterday. It was absolutely delicious!
A: Thank you, thank you! There is a lot of work that goes into making a croissant. So we use a Vermont Creamery sea salt butter for the croissant toast. And what that is you basically roll the dough out…You sandwich the dough on top of this butter square. Then you roll it with a pin and fold it and you fold it and you fold it…Until you have 81 layers of hair-thin dough/butter/dough/butter/dough. And when the water that’s in that butter steams when you put it in the oven, the steam makes it expand and that’s what separates those layers of dough. And makes a flaky croissant. So there’s a lot of technique.
R: And a lot of butter.
A: We probably go through a 1000 pounds a week. Tremendous amount…Same with the flour. Probably a couple thousand pounds a week. We use King Arthur flour…it’s all natural, not bleached, not brominated…Brominated is something that they add to basically every other flour on the planet to mature the proteins in the flour to become more glutenous to make better bread, pastries. But it also causes cancer in lab rat testing so what they do instead of adding potassium brominate is they age their flours.
…The point I’m trying to make is that we use very specific ingredients, very high-quality ingredients, high-quality staff. Things that cost more than the average bakery would be willing to pay for but we do that and it’s a little bit risky at the beginning because you’re spending all this money and you don’t know if you’re going to be busy or not. Thankfully, we’re busy.
R: And for all the high-quality ingredients you use and the cost that comes with that, you’re still able to provide pastries that are still accessible and delicious for everyone.
A: Yes, absolutely.
R: So I heard about your work on Food Network’s Spring Baking Championship. What was that process like and what has happened since it aired?
A: Well, they approached me years ago when I was at Ocean House. They actually shoot the episodes in July, about 6-9 months before and then they edit it for awhile. But even when I was at Ocean House, that’s our peak season and they were like “No you can’t go, you’re our head pastry.” Which I understood…They kept calling and I said “Thanks but no thanks.” And then we opened here in May. They called and said, “Look, this is the last time we’re going to call you.”…And luckily I felt comfortable enough to leave.
It’s three weeks in Hollywood. They fly you out…And it’s every single day. You are there on their payroll so they want you in and out as quickly as possible. It’s such a machine. The whole Hollywood production! It’s like 200 people on staff, camera men everywhere…It’s very real so you never knew what you were going to be making. What you see on TV, that’s really how it is! But it’s a production so they would do things like unplug your freezer or shave time off. So that aired this past spring and it has been great for the shop. Especially with the shop in the incubation stage…It’s good exposure. And I’m really glad we did it and I think we’re going to be doing a few more coming up. Similar shows to that.
It’s very real so you never knew what you were going to be making. What you see on TV, that’s really how it is! But it’s a production so they would do things like unplug your freezer or shave time off.
A: The people I competed against, we became very close and from very diverse backgrounds. So that was kind of nice to see how each person interpreted each challenge. The people who do the castings really have a good idea of what’s going on…They were talking to me and they were like “We need a white, straight male pastry chef from New England. You’re it.” It was a very cool experience and I’ve never done anything that big before.
R: And then you got to put your own name on it with SIFT.
A: They were great! They said talk about SIFT, talk about your family and your baby. They were really accommodating in that way.
R: You have a young baby daughter! How is she?
A: She showed up the same time this place did! Her name is Stella and she’s awesome. She’s beautiful inside and out. Just the sweetest kid. She was here yesterday actually and she’s just taken her first steps a month ago so now she’s cruising around everywhere.
R: You’ll have to baby proof the shop!
A: …She comes in and regulates, looks at all the bakers and makes sure they’re doing a good job. She’s great. My wife gave birth to her just a few weeks before this place opened up. So last year was a challenging year, to say the least, but very rewarding.
R: Was it hard to go out Los Angeles?
A: It was. Oof, we would FaceTime and stuff but it was really difficult. It was more difficult to be away from them than this place. And I credit my wife, she’s like superwoman. She works and runs a vineyard locally, Stonington Vineyards, and that’s kind of a cool place…She does all their social media marketing and event coordinating. She can do like two days there, three from home but she’s working all the time and full-time taking care of Stella because I’m here basically all the time. And she does all of our social media and marketing. So she’s very very busy and I couldn’t do it without her.
And I credit my wife, she’s like superwoman…I couldn’t do it without her.
R: How do you feel about the balance is between owning a business and family life?
A: Eventually the payoff will be in. Obviously, the goal is to spend a lot more time at home. But I take Monday’s off and Ebbie takes Monday’s off and we spend time with Stella. We have a routine. I come home and feed her and put her down at night. That’s our time together. Ebbie has her during the day.
R: And she visits!
A: Oh, she loves to visit. We’ll bring her here, she walks right up to the racks, will grab a roll and start eating it…My wife is Italian with dark hair, dark eyes. I’m dark hair, dark eyes. Stella is like platinum blonde, blue eyes. She’s beautiful but sometimes we’re like whose kid is this? I’m having a lot of fun being a dad. My wife is amazing and we’re in a good spot right now.
R: Any advice for a future baker?
A: Don’t do it. Only kidding! When you’re early on in your career, it’s important to expose yourself to as diverse of a CV as you can get. Work in country clubs, work in bakeries, work in free-standing restaurants, work in big hotels. Work all over and then figure out where your niche is. A lot of people get out of culinary school and they don’t know anything or have worked anywhere. And they say, “I just want to be a cake decorator or I just want to do this.” And it’s like you’re limiting yourself. The more you know, the more valuable you are.
A: …And then understand that before you’re ready to move out on your own thing, you have to absolutely know the business backward and forwards. It’s way beyond just baking the products. It’s running a business and taxes, insurance, payroll, and managing other people…It’s not what every chef wants to sit around doing but it has to be done on a regular basis. If there is no fiscally operating business, and you don’t run it financially responsibly, then there is nothing to bake. Because your bakery is closed…Yeah, really immerse yourself in the industry first, before you limit yourself to one avenue and then decide what you want to do.
5 Water Street, Mystic, Connecticut 06355 / website / ph: +1 860.245.0541
Biggest thanks to Chef Adam & Ebbie Young who let me come in, have this talk and share this conversation with you! Chef Adam mentioned plans of a second bakery opening in Watch Hill, Rhode Island later this year. And additional plans to grow in Greenwich, the Hamptons, and Newport. So if you can’t make it to Mystic right away – hold tight! Maybe they’ll come to you? Still dreaming about those croissants. xo, Rebecca