In the fall of 2012, a pizza chef in Jacksonville, Florida wrote a letter to the Vermont bread baker Gérard Rubaud asking Rubaud to consider him for an apprenticeship in his Westford bakery. Acclaimed baker, raised in France, Rubaud has sometimes taught aspiring bakers in his hilltop bakery in the years preceding his death on October 7, 2018, at the age of 77.
“For many years I have been looking for a purpose in my life. I have found out that I want to be a baker,” wrote Trent Cooper. “I agree more with your philosophy on bread than any other baker I have spoken of or read in the books. Your admiration, persistence and severe beliefs about bread are what I admire most about you.” He had read about Rubaud on the Farine bread blog.
Cooper, then 27, continued to write some of his life, concluding with a description of his work in the pizzeria, where he had given the bakery a name (Neesheta) and “began to treat the pasta balls as if they were the my daughters.”
Two weeks went by without an answer. Intent on apprenticeship, Cooper resents his letter. Before the second missive arrived in Vermont, Rubaud called to offer Cooper a trial run to see if an entire apprenticeship could work.
“I remember how I felt when he called me: Is this really happening?“Cooper said.
The call would lead to a four-month apprenticeship, from autumn 2012 to winter 2013. Now, about seven years later, Cooper is renting Rubaud’s old patisserie and filling it with the life and warmth of sourdough bread which he cooks as a soloist in a wood oven.
Rubaud’s daughter Julie Rubaud, owner of Red Wagon Plants in Hinesburg, helped Cooper get in touch with the owners of the property about his interest in pastry. She and Cooper had met during her apprenticeship.
“When Trent was my father’s apprentice, one day I had the vision that he took control of the pastry shop,” said Julie. “It’s a good choice. It reminds me a little of my father: he looks like the kind of person who can spend time alone up there.”
Like Gérard Rubaud, Cooper is driven by the pursuit of excellence. Both were top level athletes: Rubaud was a climber and an alpine skier; Cooper, born in Bremerton, Washington, and raised there and in Tampa, Florida, played forward on a Major League Soccer team.
In Westford, Cooper focuses on the production of pain de campagne, his favorite name for French sourdough, in oblong loaves called bâtards.
“I make a type of bread,” he said. “If I do two or three or four, I am dividing my attention. If I divide my attention, I will never know how much I can do it.”
Cooper, now 35, moved to the apartment above the bakery in December and got to work to get in shape, order supplies and connect with the stores. He started selling his bread – prepared with hard red winter flour, freshly ground spelled berries, sea salt, water and levain (appetizer) – in January. Loaves of Trent’s Bread is now available in about half a dozen stores, including Jericho Market, Sweet Clover Market in Essex and, recently, both locations in Burlington City Market, Onion River Co-op.
Cooper bakes about 250 loaves a week and often delivers them hot from the oven. If the market supports it, it would like to increase that number to 150 or 200 loaves per day.
“I feel that Gérard’s bread was unique to him and that it should be with him,” Cooper said one recent morning, shaping loaves of dough that he had started mixing at midnight. “This is very similar, but it is my way of doing it. Gérard and I are different people.”
He looked up from the bread bench and said the name of his teacher, “Gérard Rubaud”, rolling his R in homage to the Frenchman. “People will stop and talk about him, Gérard’s old friends from the neighborhood,” he added.
Cooper met his teacher when he flew to Burlington for the trial phase, a few days after Rubaud had called him. He arrived at the bakery around noon while Rubaud was loading loaves of bread into the oven.
“The first thing he did when I got here was to look at my hands,” said Cooper. “He looks at my palms and said: ‘You will be a good baker. Good bakers have short and wide hands.'”
The stage ended three days later when Rubaud said to Cooper: “You’re okay” and accepted it for an apprenticeship, said Cooper.
Cooper returned to Jacksonville to sort things out before returning to Vermont for his bread studio. During his flight home, he carried two loaves of Rubaud’s bread. The flight attendant told him to put them on the floor.
“‘I can’t do it'”, he recalled saying. “‘This is Gérard’s bread.'”
Cooper found homes for his dogs, Benny and June, and drove north to Westford in his 1998 Buick. During his apprenticeship, he did not mix pasta or bake loaves – those practices belonged to Rubaud, Cooper said. He helped shape the dough and received the peel from Rubaud after the latter used the tool to place the loaves in the oven. He baked apprentice loaves.
The apprenticeship was centered on levain, a portion of the dough that is fed with flour, water and a little spelled and sea salt every four or five hours during the day. The dough ferments the dough making it rise and giving flavor to the bread.
“The advantage was crucial,” said Cooper. “You can’t pretend. You have to learn it.”
A major difference between Cooper’s and Rubaud’s bread is the percentage of the flour withdrawn, Cooper said. Use a slightly higher ratio, about 24 percent of the weight of the flour. This method tends to keep the holes in the bread on the smaller side. He doesn’t want his jelly to drop.
“Making bread at Gérard’s level requires extraordinary dedication,” said Cooper. “Not many people I’ve ever met had that level of dedication in everything they do.”
The unpaid apprenticeship ended after four months, when Rubaud decided that Cooper had mastered, his student recalled. The baker made this decision the day Cooper’s gain peaked faster than Rubaud’s in a dough fight, according to Cooper.
“When the apprentice has nothing else to learn from the teacher, this is the end,” said Cooper. “I didn’t come here to pass the time. I didn’t come here to have fun.”
Cooper, who had stayed in the bakery, didn’t have a place to stay and didn’t have enough money to go back to Florida. So he crashed into a delivery driver’s house in Burlington for about a week, and then got a sugary job on a farm in Pennsylvania.
When he had earned enough money, he returned to Florida, this time settling in the Tampa / St. Petersburg area.
“I went on a mission to open a bakery, but it didn’t happen,” said Cooper. “I had no money and I couldn’t get funding … I was so poor. I’m still poor, but at least now I have a bakery.”
Cooper has worked in restaurants and bakeries for several years. Last fall, after learning that Rubaud was dead, he sent his condolences to Julie and inquired about the pastry shop. He put him in touch with Michael and Agnes Hibbs, who had purchased the property in October 2017.
Michael Hibbs, a retired engineer, said they were looking for a baker who would be a suitable companion.
“We wanted to see the place go on and not just fall apart,” said Hibbs. “That’s why we were happy when Trent showed up. He seemed to be the right person to take control of him.”
The other day, while Cooper’s loaves rested before baking, he ate bread, cheese and pickles, delighting in every bite. “This is fantastic,” he said. “This is the best part of my life.”
During the morning snack, he described his role as a baker as “just the catalyst among the ingredients”.
“I am a levain administrator,” he said. “She is what makes bread.”
Cooper thinks his bread is the best on Thursday, when he makes an afternoon delivery to Burlington’s Intervale Community Farm. Levain seems to know that it will be his destination, he said.
Standing on the farm last week, Cooper chewed a piece and pronounced his verdict: “I wish I could make such a good dough every day. My energy and the energy of the bread, we were aligned.”