Mel Carlsen

Bakers dance through shifts

Oak Bay News goes on the job at Pure Vanilla Bakery and Café




The muffin station starts earliest at 5 a.m. so when the doors open at 7, fresh muffins await the customers.

The rest are ready to roll at 7 a.m. and the stations quickly fill with bakers crafting cakes, tarts, muffins and savoury itemsfor the day’s menu and special orders. Mark Laver is on the savoury station, Bobbly-Joe Zeiberg was in early doing themuffins, while Kelly Duke fills tarts and trays asking few questions despite only being on Day 4 at Pure Vanilla and acouple of cake decorators methodically work near the window.

“We all kind of know how to do everything. I think it makes sense,” says bakery manager Mel Carlsen.

She takes the last bench, a spare space with no specific role.

“If you’re not on one of the stations, you’re a bit of a floater,” she says, gesturing to a white board with a list of tasks andneeded items.

As bakers bustle about in a routine dance, she peruses the list while washing her hands.

“We wash our hands about 75,000 times a day,” Mel says with a chuckle.

Mel worked the last dozen years at Pure Vanilla in Oak Bay, starting at their original bakery, Cascadia in Victoria, nine yearsbefore that. She loves the job and can’t even imaging being at a desk.

Today we start with sugar cookies. She starts to scale the ingredients when two piles of cardboard boxes filled with a varietyof items arrive from a supplier.

A quick check of the items and they’re whisked away by various staff into the cooler, freezer or straight into the bakery orkitchen for that day’s use.

We get back to the sugar cookies, cutting swatch after swatch of six kilograms of dough into flowers and butterflies, plusone single other shape (let’s keep that a secret) under consideration as a potential new design.

“We’ll probably sell all of these this week,” she says. The decorated cookies are among the top sellers out of the Pure Vanillabakery, followed closely by lemon charlotte cake. Lemon squares and brownies are also popular. Freshness helps.

“We’ve got it pretty dialed in where things don’t sit for a long time,” Mel says.

It’s a methodical work pace, quick, but unhurried, augmented on occasion by the two short raps at a door, freezer orcooler, before the door pops open and the occasional “hot tray” or “behind” as the dance continues.

Nearby the morning’s earliest starter, on muffins, Bobby-Joe prepares the dry ingredients for the next day. The bakers allmulti-task, routinely timers go off as space is filled with another task. With a reporter in the room it’s likely a quieter moodthan usual. Carlsen later confirms there is usually a little more banter, more laughter.

I have to know, does working among the freshest of baked goods make you want more, or sick of it?

“It’s different for everyone, a lot of people get sick of sweets. I never have that,” Mel says.

“I’m not much of a sweet person, (but) it’s hard to say no to a fresh broken cookie,” says Bobby-Joe.

I get my first taste moments later.

It is in fact impossible to say no to a warm cookie.

Mel moves on to the citron filling, starting with a bowl full of vanilla sugar sifting the infused sugar free of its vanillabeans.

By 9 a.m. an oven is free and we embark on hazelnut biscotti, also on the list.

In between baking biscotti she gets started on vanilla cheesecake, featuring unbelievable amounts of cream cheese and thenamesake vanilla beans make a reappearance.

The list ebbs and flows. They have lunch, then work on the list and prepare to do the dance again tomorrow

Plus there are those sugar cookies to decorate.

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