Updated: May 14
On March 24 I started working on a project called Take Out Only in response to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on restaurants in my area. In my work as a food photographer, I work with a lot of restaurants, both established and new. This is a huge hit for them. When most restaurants fail in the first year, something like this can put even a restaurant that has been in business for years out of business...fast. The impact of this virus has touched so many industries, my own included.
I wanted to bring attention to the places that I've worked with, and the ones that I have never even been to. To let people know what they're dealing with, how they're still
operating, what they're doing to stay safe, both for themselves and their customers. Using what I can out of my talent set, this is my way of saying thank you, we know you're struggling, how can I help.
You couldn't find a more picturesque little hamlet than the East Hampton village where Black Walnut Bread Co.is located. Among the tiny cozy cluster of small storefronts Master Baker Christian Michalowski arrives before the sun rises to start his breads. I've yet to be there when he's making the bread, and I'm lucky if I get there and there's still any left to buy.
I've known Christian for over a year now. I met him when my best friend Kathy told me about this new bakery she heard about on the news. She knows I'm always looking for new clients and thought he might be in need of some photography services. I cold called him and he was so warm friendly and open to my pitch. He invited me to come down in a couple of days, around closing time, to chat.
I was then and still am always struck by Christian's joy and enthusiasm for his work. As we talked and got to know each other, I learned that his previous work was as a research scientist. Baking was always something he did for his family and enjoyed. I can imagine the chemist in him totally understands the workings of yeast, flour and salt and the magic they can create when combined. It shows in his breads.
Each week he showcases 5 breads and other baked goods like muffins, cupcakes and cookies. But the breads are the big attraction.They are so popular that people have to call ahead to have him save what they want. Otherwise there's no guarantee that what you want will be there when you arrive. I've seen him working his whiteboard of orders, ticking them off as they're picked up.
He sent me home after our first shoot with two rustic loaves, a ciabatte and an olive. The ciabatta was round and heavy, and when I bit into it had the nicest chew with pockets of air that held flavor that was satisfying and hearty. I think I ate both loaves. By myself. In less than three days. Since then I've come back a few times to start cataloging the showcases of breads Christian makes each week, and I hope to capture them all for him. If I can get there before the customers do.
But that was before the pandemic. I wanted to see how Christian was doing during this time, to include him in my project if he wanted. I hoped to shine some light on what he's doing now and drive traffic to support him through all this.
Of all the places I've visited while working on this, not one has said to me yet that they are busier than they were before.
But none of them were bakeries.
When I got there, instead of giving a warm hug while greeting each other, we just gave a distant air hug and laughed. I had my mask and Christian has his and we stayed 6 feet apart as we caught up. I could see the pile of reserved breads and muffins on his big steel work table. The whiteboard on the table, lined with numbers and names waiting to be wiped off.
Christian handed me a warm loaf of Parisian Peasant bread, saying he saved it for me to take home. It smelled heavenly, warm and comforting. I will enjoy this later, I think. he never lets me leave empty handed. I ended up with some incredible pistachio muffins too. So good.
The door opens and masked customers enter, calling their muffled hello's and Christian hurries behind the counter. These guys have been here before and called ahead to reserve their breads. They're lucky to get their first choice, but even if they hadn't their second and even third wouldn't have disappointed. They collect their goods, complete with honey butters, and pay with a card sliding it in the reader. They leave, happy and lucky to have the Black Walnut Bread Company bread of their choice.
Throughout the short time I'm there, people flow in, like the other times I've been there. Only this time they're masked and staying far from the counter. With his neckerchief mask, Christian reminds me a little of that character from Bazooka Joe that wore the shirt up over his face, Mort.
What struck me most about my visit to Black Walnut was Christian's positivity. He always has this twinkle in his eye, an easy laugh and a generous heart. I asked him what, if anything had this pandemic changed about his business. He surprised me when he told me that he was busier than before. People want comfort food, he says. That was the first time I've heard that since starting this. It makes sense though. Food soothes and brings security to people and what is more comforting than a loaf of bread. Warm from the oven, made with quality ingredients and skilled hands. Offered with an honest smile and a genuine wish to be well. This is what Christian offers now. He did before this and always will.
I'm glad you're doing well, My Friend. We need you and your amazing bread now more than ever.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that butters were complimentary. There is a charge for butter.
Please note: I practice social distancing guidelines, shoot with long lenses to look like I'm closer than I am, get in and get out to stay out of the way and do not go in to kitchen's unless invited, stay far back from food and I check my temperature before going out