Is there a more intuitive baker than Nadine Ingram? The powerhouse behind Woolloomooloo bakery Flour and Stone certainly has the chops. From her childhood making cakes and slices with her grandparents in rural NSW to a hard few years in Michelin-starred restaurants in London and eventually to Sydney and opening her own shop, Ingram can confidently cook with her senses. And she's just published a cookbook, Flour and Stone – Baked For Love, Life and Happiness (Simon & Schuster). It's a very soothing mantra, if nothing else.
When it comes to baking, Ingram says she's had strong instincts since she was young. "I feel I have a relationship with what I do. Every sense awakens when I bake. And I think that's what makes a really good baker."
Interestingly, Ingram says she knows nothing about food science. "I don't know the why, but I know the how. I've worked with girls who are very scientifically oriented when they bake, and that's fine. But often they can overcook a cake because they're so focused on the measurements, the timing and the temperature they forget their senses. Having a combination of both is the best."
It's the Picasso rule of baking – learn the classics before going full Blue Period. Ingram learned those lessons as a 19-year-old, working at London's Michelin starred Le Gavroche. It was no cake walk.
"Le Gavroche was a very hard kitchen," says Ingram. "There was lots of abuse, both verbal and physical. There were three women in the kitchen, employed to keep the testosterone at bay. But it doesn't work, because they start showing off, and they start abusing you."
Ingram says it wasn't just the women who copped it, but women were more likely to put up with the treatment. "They're not going to jeopardise their opportunity working for one of the best restaurants in London. They're going to get back up, carry on, brush themselves off, and get on with it."
I learned technique at Le Gavroche, and how to be diplomatic at The Ivy.
As hard as the experience was on her as a person, Le Gavroche was incredible for her training as a chef. "It really honed my pastry skills, and I don't think there's anywhere that I've worked that been quite as good." It wasn't easy to remove the attitude she'd developed over her time working there, though. It took about a year before she shook off the toxicity of the Gavroche kitchen.
It was Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, the restaurateurs behind Covent Garden stalwart The Ivy, who eventually managed to de-program her. "I was a nightmare, because I had adopted the worst attributes of men to survive in their world. It took me a while to realise, 'Oh, OK, I don't need to be like this. I can actually be myself again'. I learned technique at Le Gavroche, and how to be diplomatic at The Ivy."
The behaviour she saw and also inherited while working in London cemented in her a desire to constantly strive to make conditions better for the people who work for her, including implementing R U OK? sessions, and career development programs. "These things are really important to me, but are unheard of in hospitality. It was Jeremy King who taught me that it could be done."
After Ingram had her first daughter she and her husband decided to move to Sydney. Ingram started working for the late Jeremy Strode at MG Garage, who took on the head chef role at the once-celebrated fine diner after Janni Kyritsis hung up his apron. "It was phenomenal working with Jeremy," says Ingram. "I think he was the first chef to really respect me as a pastry chef, and just let me do my own thing. He really had a lot of faith in what I could do."
When MG Garage closed its doors in 2004, Ingram started work at Surry Hills institution Bourke Street Bakery. "I just thought, 'There's no other place that I want to work but there'." It was here that she learned about what she describes as "the lure of the croissant".
"It's very hard to describe unless you've experienced it yourself," says Ingram. "But it is like being in a relationship with somebody. When you work with croissant [dough], you realise it behaves in certain ways, like a person. It's a romance."
It was then that Ingram discovered that she wanted her own place. She'd always worked in restaurants and the turning point came when she realised she could connect with customers directly. "That was a totally different experience for me, because I'd always been stuck out the back in basement pastry kitchens. When I went to work at Bourke Street I just thought, 'Yep. This is what I want to do'."
And so, in 2011, Flour and Stone swung open on a quiet side street in Sydney's inner east.
Nadine Ingram's bakery is a place of warmth and serenity. Smells of fresh baked cakes and biscuits gently permeate the tiny shop, the counter groaning with panna cotta lamingtons, lemon drizzle cake and caneles. Little wooden drawers are filled with brightly iced gingerbreads. Her recipes are laced with stories, feelings, memories and experiences, expressed through flour, eggs, chocolate, spices.
She has scones to break bad news with, buns to cry by, cakes to keep you grounded, swiss rolls to make you humble. There's even a tart inspired by a mermaid who lives in the gulf of Napoli and is celebrated each Easter by locals with this spiced ricotta pastry. "There's a part two to that story," says Ingram. "The mermaid became besotted with this sailor. She sang all these beautiful tunes and the sailor blocked his ears up with wax because he wasn't interested. She basically sang herself to death."
Ghosting in the age of Ulysses, expressed through cake. Only Ingram could.
Music to cook to: Billie Holiday. It just relaxes me. I don't listen to music [in the bakery] because I want to be more focused, but when I'm at home it differentiates the "work" Nadine baker, to the "home" Nadine baker. It's just like oh, this is good. I'm at home now. I'm relaxing, cooking for my family.
After-midnight snack: I'm a baker. I don't eat after midnight. I go to bed at eight o'clock.
Kitchen weapon at work: An offset palette knife. I give them away at my workshops every time because I can't live without them, and I can't have anyone else living without them either.
Secret ninja power: I can generally tell if somebody's going to work in our team the moment they walk in the door. It's an energy you get from them.
Smartest person you know: My book publisher, Julie Gibbs. She's a well-rounded woman. She has just got everything sorted out. She's so kind, and she understands everybody for their imperfections, and she doesn't hold that against them. I feel like I'm at a stage in my life where I get cranky with people if they don't see things the way that I see them.
Flour and Stone – Baked For Love, Life and Happiness by Nadine Ingram is published by Simon & Schuster, RRP $55.