By Caroline Benveniste
Photographed by Karen Pearson
I quickly figured out that Brit Breads was truly something special. I was not surprised to learn that Lou had been on the faculty of the Culinary Institute of America, but I found it remarkable that he was making all his baked goods in an outdoor wood-burning oven!
After his second season at the market, Lou started offering baking classes. This February, I signed up for a class on Danish pastries, and for five hours we learned how to make croissant dough (which involves incorporating a large quantity of butter into the dough through multiple folds) and then saw how it was used to make pain aux raisins, pain au chocolat and assorted Danishes. We received detailed recipes and asked a lot of questions, sampled the pastries, and were given lots more to take home.
I was pleased with my newfound pastry knowledge, but I was mostly fascinated by what I found out about Lou during the class: he had learned to cook in the British Army! Here was one of the most accomplished chefs I’d ever met, and he had received all his culinary education preparing army food? It seemed so incongruous. I knew there was an interesting story, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Lou grew up in Burghclere, a village on the North Downs of Hampshire, a stone’s throw from Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed. It is a beautiful part of the country with many Thoroughbred racehorse farms. In England at that time, school children were given a test at age 11 to determine if they would follow a vocational or academic track. Lou placed into the vocational track, so one option after graduating at 16 was to attend college to learn a trade. Lou decided that he would train to be a cabinet maker, as he was good with his hands and had enjoyed wood-working class in school.
Then Lou saw an advertising campaign for the British Army, with the slogan “Join the Professionals” and looked into the benefits of joining. Learning a trade, traveling the world and getting paid! This sounded like a better plan than college, so at 16 he presented himself to the recruiting office in Reading. Instead of pursuing a trade in cabinetry, he opted for culinary arts instead.
The Army had purposely aligned itself with the City and Guilds of London Institute (CGLI), the nation’s accrediting body, so when you completed their training and passed their exams, you received the same accreditation as you would have if you had pursued civilian education. This provided certification for re-entering civilian life once one’s military career was complete.
Lou’s training started at the Army Catering Corps (ACC), located in a large tower block in Aldershot, the home of the British Army. There were floors for all the disciplines, such as kitchen, larder, pastry and butchery, and there was a heavy French influence. During the first two years, there was one week of culinary arts followed by one week of military training and at the end of that time, you came out with basic cookery skills.
After the intermediate cooking class, Lou stayed on at the tower and applied to take the Cook to Senior Officers Residence (CSOR), a specialized course equivalent to the advanced cookery course, with the addition of classes on wine and silver service.
He was the personal chef to the commander in chief’s household in Sandhurst, where he prepared banquets for visiting senior officers, diplomats and, occasionally, members of the Royal Family (whom he impressed by building a sugar model of the Royal Military Academy filled with petit fours). This led to his next posting, one of the most desirable, which was in Oslo, Norway. Here he was personal chef to Commander in Chief of Allied Forces Northern Europe, General Sir Richard Lawson.
Following this tour, Lou went to Germany. There he was encouraged to return to headquarters in Aldershot and pursue a teaching position. One class that particularly resonated for Lou was the Army’s teaching course CGLI 7307. The course touched on the psychology of teaching; it made students think about how they wished to portray themselves as a teacher and how this would affect what kind of teacher they would be.
Another competitive posting was to Fort Lee, Virginia. An exchange had been established between the United States and the United Kingdom, and one of the main tasks of the British exchange officer and warrant officer was to lead the American team at the Culinary Olympics, held every four years, in Frankfurt, Germany.
Lou’s tour had a new category in the competition named World Champions of the Armed Forces. It should be noted that the US Army, like most other armies, trained to the requirement of army feeding, while the British Army, as mentioned before, was trained to the CGLI level and covered disciplines such as sugar pulling, pastillage sugar work and other skills that had their roots in French classic cuisine. These were the techniques likely to impress the judges, and Lou was selected for the American posting that led the American team to victory at the Olympics in 1992.
Lou returned to the UK and spent the last year of his 22-year army career as an assessor for CGLI. During that time, he competed in the Craft Guild of Chefs competition and won, making him National Chef of the Year. He was the first educator and first military chef to win this award (Gordon Ramsay had won the previous year). He was also appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) and mentioned in the queen’s New Year’s Honours List.
After he completed his army service, Lou considered either a position at Highclere Castle as a corporate chef (it was no longer a private residence) or joining the faculty of the CIA in Hyde Park.
At the CIA he passed the culinary test and was offered a job; however, it took eight months for his visa to come through, so in the interim he took the job at Highclere Castle. In all he spent 16 years at the CIA—the first 11 as a professor, with six of those as the chef instructor at the Escoffier Restaurant and the final five as dean. While he was at the Escoffier, Lou also owned a popular British-themed restaurant in Rhinebeck called A Spot of Tea.
After his tenure at the CIA, Lou was homesick and returned to England, but his children, who had been raised in the United States, did not feel at home there, so the family returned here.
When Bread Alone stopped coming to the Millbrook Farmers’ Market, one of Lou’s colleagues from the CIA thought of Lou to replace them. Lou was interested and decided to do his baking in an Alan Scott oven. These outdoor wood-burning ovens are direct fired: the fire is built in the main chamber, and the baking is done there after the ashes are removed.
These ovens can cook anything a regular oven can but better because of their extremely efficient, even cooking. Lou did not have an oven at his new house, but he noticed that there was one in Hurley, and the owner was happy to let Lou use it.
Commuting to Hurley to bake his bread only added an additional layer of complexity to an already grueling baking schedule.
This cycle starts on Thursday, when the oven is fired up for a short two-hour burn. When the oven reaches 380°F, Lou bakes the Eccles cakes, Battenberg sponge and shortbread cookies. On Friday, the oven is fired up at 6 a.m. for four hours while Lou makes his doughs. When the oven reaches around 700°F, the embers are raked out, the oven is mopped and the door is closed for one to two hours until the temperature equalizes at 580°F.
During this time, Lou finishes shaping his breads. He bakes the sourdough, five-grain and whole-wheat multigrain. After baking these breads, the oven temperature has fallen to 430°F, and this is the time to bake the breads in loaf pans (such as the white toast loaf), lardy cake and focaccias.
Now the oven is at 380°F, which is perfect for baking the lemon-drizzle cake, Jamaica ginger cake and various scones. The oven is fired again at 9 p.m. on Friday. At 10 p.m., the door of the oven is closed slightly with the fire still burning. At 2:30 a.m., Lou cleans and mops the oven, at 500°F. Then the baguettes, large sourdoughs, Cornish pasties, sausage rolls, apple turnovers (both made with homemade butter puff pastry) and all the Danish pastries are baked. By this time it is 6:45 a.m.; the truck is then loaded, and Lou drives to the farmers’ market.
Since that first year at the market, Lou has built an oven at his house. He uses products from local farms (like pork from Walbridge in his outstanding sausage rolls) and is hoping to soon collaborate with Miracle Springs, a Community Supported Agriculture farm that uses biodynamic principles in the production of produce and goats’ milk.
Lou plans to eventually retire to England, but in the meantime, we are lucky to have him here in the Hudson Valley.
Brit Bread products are available at the Millbrook Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., from May 26–October 27. During the off season, Lou also delivers his products to Walbridge Farm Market on Fridays and Copake General Store on Saturdays. Two baking class series will be offered on Saturday mornings, one in the late fall and one in the early spring in Lou’s kitchen, and during the summer, classes will be offered on Sundays at HGS Home Chef in Hillsdale, NY.