Life on the bread (mak­ing) lines

Taranaki Daily News - - Homed -

A young cou­ple have walked away from cor­po­rate ca­reers to bake bread in New Ply­mouth. Sonja Slinger re­ports.

It’s funny where life takes peo­ple. Run­ning took Rosie Sar­gis­son and Jeff Fong away from the glitz and pace of hyped cor­po­rate ca­reers in Singapore and led them on a jour­ney into travel, food and ul­ti­mately a new life back in New Zealand.

They are the first to ad­mit that, never in their dreams 10 years ago, when they were stead­fast into study­ing en­gi­neer­ing at Auck­land Univer­sity with goals of climb­ing the cor­po­rate lad­der and chas­ing cool salaries that they would give it all away to bake bread in sleepy lit­tle New Ply­mouth.

Sar­gis­son, an Auck­land girl from pri­vate school­ing and pro­fes­sional par­ents, was sold on city liv­ing back then, al­ways thought she’d strive to live in big­ger brighter places, never con­sid­er­ing for a mo­ment that she would cher­ish the quiet life of sub­ur­ban New Ply­mouth.

‘‘But, I do, that’s just it. I love it here,’’ she says, from the sunny deck of Fong’s par­ents’ home in Mer­ri­lands where the smell of bak­ing bread wafts around us and tuis sing and frolic among kowhai in the nearby gar­den.

It was Sar­gis­son who con­vinced part­ner Fong while out run­ning moun­tain trails and tracks through Europe dur­ing their search for some­thing else that they should turn their backs on cor­po­rate life and set up a busi­ness that they could work to­gether in but which of­fered a life­style too – for­get the stress of cor­po­rate liv­ing, have the chance to run, prac­tise yoga but chal­lenge them­selves in a whole new ven­ture.

Fong grew up in New Ply­mouth, stud­ied hard and earned a spot at Auck­land Uni to delve into a ca­reer in process en­gi­neer­ing. That’s where he met Sar­gis­son. They fin­ished de­grees, landed grad­u­ate jobs with dairy gi­ant Fon­terra and af­ter a short time work­ing in Auck­land, went on to Singapore to pol­ish their ca­reers.

‘‘We lived 30 sto­ries up in a mas­sive apart­ment and life is all about your job,’’ Sar­gis­son says.

‘‘At lunch time peo­ple are sit­ting around talk­ing about work, about their pro­mo­tion or get­ting fur­ther ahead, devel­op­ment of ca­reers. It’s a com­mon lunchtime topic.’’

When a re­struc­ture came in Fong’s depart­ment and he was made re­dun­dant he be­gan to ex­plore the city, its food and its cul­ture. Fong’s par­ents were born in New Zealand of Chi­nese im­mi­grants and while Fong felt ev­ery bit a kiwi and had been ex­posed to some Asian cui­sine and tra­di­tion at home, he hadn’t re­ally ex­plored Asian cul­ture or taken much in­ter­est in the food.

They’d be­gun se­ri­ous run­ning by then too. Sar­gis­son, who grew up around sail­ing in Auck­land and had com­peted in­ter­na­tion­ally, had never run but was now hooked on the run­ning high af­ter be­ing in­tro­duced to the odd jog by flat­mates in New Zealand and Fong slowly lured her into longer events.

They were grow­ing out of Singapore and started to ex­pand their life hori­zons. They de­cided that when Sar­gis­son’s con­tract ended, they would head to Europe to run trails there and see what hap­pened.

This is where the bread comes in. And not just any bread – sour­dough.

‘‘We spent months hik­ing and run­ning trails in Europe – Slove­nia, Italy, France, Nor­way – and we be­gan to no­tice how much bread played an im­por­tant role in peo­ple’s lives,’’ Sar­gis­son says.

The pair sam­pled breads, ate lots and started to learn from other trav­ellers and lo­cals how to make it and en­rolled them­selves in a sour­dough cook­ing school in Eng­land. Sar­gis­son, who had had gluten is­sues be­fore the dis­cov­ery of sour­dough, found she had no prob­lem with it and that was another im­pe­tus for their foray into bak­ing it.

Their Euro­pean ad­ven­ture was a life changer. ‘‘I think the longer we spent away from that cor­po­rate world and the pace and chase of ca­reer, the more we re­alised how much you didn’t need, we even found that do­ing our wash­ing wasn’t es­sen­tial,’’ Sar­gis­son says. ‘‘Yes, it was,’’ Fong pipes up.

‘‘Par­tic­u­larly in Singapore, the only thing to re­ally do there is work and shop, pure con­sumerism,’’ Sar­gis­son says.

I'm al­ways en­thu­si­as­tic to have a chat with peo­ple and get to know our cus­tomers.

Jeff Fong

‘‘When you stop con­sum­ing it’s in­cred­i­bly re­lax­ing. All that con­sumerism isn’t get­ting you any­where, you just have to work more to pay for it.’’

The cou­ple de­cided to head home and Bil­low bak­ery was born in April this year.

They moved in with Fong’s par­ents, who were by now long time empty nesters, and set up a bak­ery in the garage/laun­dry af­ter pur­chas­ing some ba­sics, a baker’s oven, loaf tins and a cou­ple of fridges.

They’d brought back a dough starter, aka a mother, from Europe (com­pletely with the per­mis­sion of MAF, says Fong) ex­per­i­mented and proved un­til they per­fected their prod­ucts.

They bake around 30 loaves of vary­ing types ev­ery other day, in­clud­ing plain, whole­meal, spiced fruit, rye and car­roway and a spe­cial­ity loaf which dif­fers de­pend­ing on de­mand or what they fancy bak­ing. They source New Zealand milled wheat, some of it or­ganic for spe­cific loaves, and this week’s spe­cial­ity is a cran­berry and co­conut loaf and my, it’s def­i­nitely good.

When they are not bak­ing, they are mix­ing and look­ing at busi­ness devel­op­ment. Sar­gis­son is also teach­ing yoga part-time and they are both still run­ning, cur­rently train­ing for the Ke­pler Chal­lenge Moun­tain run in De­cem­ber.

They are pas­sion­ate about what they are do­ing, and ad­mit­tedly at around $8 a loaf, it’s at the high end of the mar­ket but they refuse to lower their stan­dards or use cheaper in­gre­di­ents. They have re­searched their price and be­lieve it’s on a par with other ar­ti­san bak­ers who are game enough to take on the tricky chal­lenge of work­ing with sour­dough, which uses 3 ba­sic in­gre­di­ents – wa­ter, flour and salt, no yeast.

They sell their bread via lo­cal mar­kets, on­line and through a cou­ple of stores in town.

‘‘I love talk­ing to peo­ple at the mar­ket, I’m al­ways en­thu­si­as­tic to have a chat with peo­ple and get to know our cus­tomers. It’s that con­nec­tion with peo­ple that we saw in Europe, any­one whose lived there would know what I mean - go­ing to the lo­cal baker, lo­cal butcher,’’ Fong says.

‘‘A lot of peo­ple see a sweet thing as a treat, but I say that a treat can be a re­ally de­li­cious loaf of bread that’s also good for you. Euro­peans see bread as a daily thing, it’s a way of life to go out and buy bread ev­ery day,’’ Sar­gis­son adds.

Fong and Sar­gis­son (both 29) are not mak­ing mil­lions but they are break­ing even and slowly gain­ing in prof­its as de­mand in­creases. But im­por­tantly, they are en­joy­ing life, their work and each other. They are risk tak­ers, given up safe se­cure ca­reers to delve into an un­known busi­ness and fu­ture. Good on them.

PHOTOS: SI­MON O’CON­NOR/STUFF

Rosie Sar­gis­son and Jeff Fong en­joy­ing life out­side of their pre­vi­ous cor­po­rate ca­reers.

Sar­gis­son pre­pares the rat­tan rest­ing bowls for the dough.

It’s not to­tal work, there’s al­ways plenty of ban­ter and a laugh in the process.

Slic­ing into the de­li­cious sour­dough.

The cou­ple is into mak­ing sour­dough bread that they sell at lo­cal mar­kets.

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