"Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first." Whoever first uttered those words was wise, indeed. In the sweet spirit of Top Chef's dessert-only challenge series, Chow Bella's treating you to a profile of a Valley dessert chef each week. This week: Karl Boerner of Karl's Quality Bakery.
Walk into Karl's Quality Bakery and more than the scent of a baker's family affair embraces you. Karl reigns behind the scene in his kitchen. His wife, Stephanie, artfully slides between racks filled with fresh baked goods and customers at the counter. Next door, Christine, their eldest daughter, expertly prepares sweets for the new pastry café, The Baker's Daughter. An encounter with a family member ensures a sample of something fresh and delicious offered from the bakery cases, drawing you in like a hug.
Karl's journey to his Sunnyslope neighborhood bakery began when he was a teen in post WWII Germany. He worked his way through the European apprenticeship system gaining the skills of his craft and learning the practical lessons of running a business. Karl reminisces like a practiced storyteller sharing tidbits of his long years of training as he gladly hands out bites, sweet and savory, of his labor. All with infectious laughter and a twinkle in his eye.
Read more about Karl Boerner after the jump.
When did you know you wanted to become a baker? I was standing on the beach in Hawaii, watching the waves on the ocean... (laughs). I was 15 years old and needed a job. I really wanted to work with cars, be an auto mechanic, you know? Cars were being built with more and more speed. There were no jobs with cars; it was hard to get any kind of job. My mother passed a sign in a bakery window, advertising for an apprentice. My mother reminded me how when I was six years old, we lived next to a bakery, and I had wanted to bake.
I was the first one to apply for the job and I got it. I thought, well I will be an apprentice for three years, and then I will do something else. After my apprenticeship, I had learned so much, and wanted to learn more. So, I continued 2 more years of training in pastry and 2 years in chocolates.
What were the early influences, inspirations?
First of all, we worked from 4am to 6pm or even 8pm daily, no days off. The pay was about $5 per month in post WWII Europe. Work was about survival not about having your dream job. No inspirations.
What came after all that training?
After my apprenticeship, I applied to be a police cadet. I really wanted to be a private detective at that time. After being chosen to train I was told the chances to make it to private detective were very small. I realized that I liked to give orders, not take them, so I declined being a cadet!
The apprentice system conjures visions of chefs yelling and throwing things, did that ever happen to you?
I was taking my exam to qualify for professional certification. I was making pastry cream; I must have forgotten an ingredient, maybe sugar. I was kicked in the ass, literally. I turned on the kicker, and it became a kitchen brawl, guys holding each of us off the other. Yes, there were bruises.
What came after your apprenticeship?
By the time I was 21, I had my own bakery in Switzerland. I rode a bicycle to solicit business. Every morning I was out making deliveries. Again, long hours of baking and then selling. I climbed the steps of 50 story apartment buildings to make the deliveries. Up and down. Up and down. Eventually I had a restaurant and a hotel.
How did you decide to come to Arizona?
Looking through the Swiss newspapers at advertisements I thought of coming to the U.S. There were postings from New York-decided no, it was too crazy, Kansas City-nothing happening there, and then I saw an ad for New Orleans. I liked Louis Armstrong, I liked jazz, and so I decided to try New Orleans.
I brought two suitcases from Europe, one with clothes and one with books. I have always been curious and took time to learn something new each place I worked.
Karl's travels took him from New Orleans to Oahu, Los Angeles and Phoenix. He worked in U.S. resort hotels and bakeries. He owned a bakery in Seal Beach, CA. Looking for a different kind of place to raise his young family, in 1994 he brought his recipe books to Arizona. After 8 months in Phoenix, Karl opened the doors of his Quality Bakery.
Is there a difference between training to become a pastry chef in the U.S. and in Europe?
In Europe, you learn the foundation, the techniques, and you learn it as a trade. Information and recipes are passed along. Here people are more guarded with their information.
I worked with a baker in Los Angeles who needed help with croissants in his hotel bakery. He didn't want me to see his recipe. I didn't need his recipes I have my own! How could I help him? So I watched him prepare his dough. The problem wasn't in his recipe; it was the temperature of his butter, part of the technique. American baking is also simpler than European baking.
What is your personal style for your baked goods?
Everything fresh. Everything made from scratch. We use the best ingredients on the market and we don't take short cuts. We have a retail bakery we have no wholesale business. We stock a wide variety to offer our customers. We prepare what we like to eat as well, even if something will make me more money, if I don't like it, I won't make it. Living in so many different regions of the world I have learned you have to adapt recipes, for Arizona we have to adapt to the temperatures and the dry air.
What are your favorite kitchen tools?
My knives and my >offset spatulas are my tools. They have a special place where they hang, and I keep them arranged all facing one direction to care for the edges and blades.
When you are not in the bakery what do you do for fun?
I like foreign films at The Harkins Camelview 5. Also I go to judo tournaments. (Karl has a black belt in judo) During the world soccer championships, I schedule my work so I can watch the matches.
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Do you have some advice for culinary-pastry students?
Develop a strong work ethic. Stay after your work shift, 2-3 hours and be there just to learn. Understand you don't get out of school and know everything, be committed to working 3-4 years, like an apprentice, and learn all you can. My apprenticeship was 6 years.
What are your personal favorites from your bakery?
I like the apple dumplings. I like our bread, its neutral and versatile. I like Christine's Rocher and her Piment Truffle (dark chocolate ganache with chili)!
Tomorrow, Karl shares his recipe for Strassburger cookies.