Working with two of Pittsburgh’s leading chefs, bakers Shauna Kearns and Geof Comings are honing their craft to transform flour, water and salt into the staff of life—and bringing the art of sourdough to Pittsburgh.
If you drive through Braddock on a Friday, chances are you will see Shauna Kearns baking bread—in the outdoor oven in the cold and snow. The 26-year old fell in love with the town’s community oven when she moved to Pittsburgh two years ago and has used it to make bread that she has been providing to the community ever since.
Kearns started baking when she took a bread baking workshop in the basement of a church in a small town in Ontario, where she lived. “We didn’t measure, we didn’t weigh and this very jovial German man teaching the course said you just get a feel for it,” Kearns recalls. She thought he was crazy. She didn’t get a feel for it.
She continued baking at home then moved to Somerset, England to apprentice at Tracebridge—with a family that has been baking bread for generations. “I lived in a 200-year-old cottage and worked for the family in exchange for food and a place to stay. And once I got my hands on 100 loaves everyday, I realized that I got that feeling.”
At Tracebridge, Kearns learned something else about bread. “Every Friday night the bakery would have these pizza nights—people would come and there would be music and just a great community. That was my introduction to the idea of bread being a powerful tool to bring people together.”
Back home, she continued at St. John’s Bakery in Toronto where the organic breads are based on centuries-old recipes from France. Eventually, her love for making bread led her to Chatham University where she enrolled in the Food Studies program to study community ovens.
This spring, Kearns will be baking bread for Kevin Sousa’s much-anticipated Superior Motors and starting an apprenticeship program with the restaurant’s youth training curriculum.
Sousa recalls sampling Kearns’ bread in Braddock and sensing her potential. “She was just starting out and she talked to me about building a bread oven and how she wanted to work with kids. She shared that she would love to have a bread class as part of the job training program [at Superior Motors] and I thought that was fantastic.”
It’s part of the journey for Kearns who wants to share her hard-earned skill with youth. “What I liked about St. John’s is that they don’t necessarily tout the story behind their bread—they have a job training program for marginalized individuals—they just make really good bread. And I think that’s how I want it to be at our oven—to make really great bread that also happens to support the community. “
Sousa adds, “She just puts love into it. I really think she’s onto something and she is in it for the right reasons.”
What is it about baking that incites so much of her passion? “It’s the simplicity of sourdough. The fact that it’s just flour, water and salt and that’s it—I think that is really beautiful and I love that.”
Geof Comings shares his love for the mysterious alchemy of flour, water and salt.
Comings left a successful career in community development to open Five Points Bakery in Squirrel Hill, right before Thanksgiving last year. Soon after, Trevett Hooper’s acclaimed Legume Bistro stopped making bread in-house and started serving Coming’s bread.
Last weekend, lines formed out the bakery door.
While the frenetic pace might be a little disconcerting to Comings and his small staff, Comings says, “it is the best possible problem I could be having as a business. As brutal as the line is outside the door, we can always make more bread but we can’t force people to come to the bakery.”
And people are coming for what Hooper describes unequivocally as the “best bread he’s ever had.”
Hooper and Comings have known each other since being students at Oberlin College nearly two decades ago.
“I always knew he was a good baker but I didn’t really realize just what that meant until our daughter Effie was born and he brought us a loaf that he had made at home.”
Comings was working in community development at the time, just as he was when he started working at a bakery in Ohio in 2002. He would wake up at 3:30 in the morning to work five hours at a bakery called On the Rise in Cleveland before heading back to Oberlin to work his day job.
“I hit a point where I wasn’t going to get any better [at baking] until I worked with someone who really knew what they were doing,” he says in defense of his intense schedule.
He also appreciated the immediate results he got making bread—which balanced the typically long timelines in his community development work.
“There is something very satisfying about that,” he says.
Since opening Five Points, Comings’ days still start at 3:30. “By 4 a.m. I am at the bakery and I start working on baguettes—and they always come out two hours later than customers want.”
Yet he is adamant about serving only bread baked the same day, a commitment that comes from what Comings calls his “bread neuroses.”
It’s this approach to bread that Hooper appreciates. “I think that Geof could be doing a lot of things—he is pretty successful in his other career—but he’s choosing to do something that he just loves for the sake of the craft. When he talks about bread, there is curiosity about working with something that unpredictable. He talks about it like a living document—he is always learning, there is always new insight.”