Kyulmyeongja and roasted corn tea; purple carrot; rye, malt and honey; black sesame tangzhong milk bread — these are just some of the loaves Katie Choi has been baking from her Sydney home.
The chef turned to bread-making last year when she was faced with lockdowns and an unexpected surgery, and the hobby led to the creation of some of the most-coveted buns in the city.
Choi talks to Hospitality about expanding her culinary skill set, balancing baking with cooking and what’s next for Fizzy’s Bread.
Katie Choi trained as a chef in New York City where she completed culinary school before joining the Merivale group in Sydney. Choi worked alongside Dan Hong and Jowett Yu at Ms.G’s before moving to Mitch Orr’s Acme and Bar Brosé.
“After that, I took some time off and was working here and there for friends and filling in at Don Peppino’s, but my last full-time job was at Cafe Paci in Newtown,” she says.
Choi made her first loaf of sourdough at Cafe Paci, and the chef was faced with a new set of challenges. “It was stressful because sourdough is inconsistent and there are so many variables like the weather and the temperature of the water,” she says. “It was so busy at the beginning [when Paci opened]; I never had time to think or appreciate what I was doing — the bread was something that had to be done every day.”
The chef soon got into the swing of things, making the restaurant’s bread according to Chef Pasi Petanen’s methods. However, an unexpected surgery meant Choi had to stop working at the Newtown restaurant just before the 2020 lockdown commenced.
But the hiccup marked the beginning of Choi’s bread journey, which led to the chef delving into all things bread. “I was at home by myself during COVID most of the time, and that’s when I had the time to really get into sourdough and experiment,” she says.
Choi scoured Instagram, tapping into the wealth of knowledge available on the platform from professional and novice bakers alike. But it’s a rabbit hole: “The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know,” she says. The chef also began buying small quantities of flour on Amazon.
“Wholegrain Milling sells ancient grain flours including emmer and kamut and they change the flavour so much,” says Choi. “It’s a bit geeky, but I get really excited about flour.”
Access to heritage flours has led to plenty of experimentation, with Choi baking everything from five-grain porridge to khorosan loaves all made with a starter named Seri. Choi says her ‘give it a go’ attitude towards utilising different ingredients stems from the beginnings of her hospitality career.
“I don’t know if it’s my cooking background, but it’s influenced by where I’ve work,” she says. “Mitch [Orr] always puts a spin on things or uses ingredients that wouldn’t typically be used in pasta, so I think it stems from having a play. Cooking is my background, not baking, and everything else [besides Pasi’s sourdough] has been my own experiments and learning myself. I still get surprised every time I open the oven; it’s always this little thrill, a rush.”
Choi definitely found herself in a whirlwind during Easter this year, when a few gifted hot cross buns led to a four-week blitz at Potts Point eateries Room Ten and Pina. “I’m friends with Andrew and Yuvi [Room Ten and Pina owners] and I brought them some buns I had just baked,” she says. “Yuvi said they should add them to the pastry cabinet and it started off with 24 buns.”
Sydneysiders soon caught wind of the inaugural buns, which Choi describes as “light and fluffy — not too heavy on the fruit”, and the following four weeks were an absolute blur, with the chef balancing part-time work with bun-making. “I did it Thursday to Sunday and made 400 buns a day in the last week,” she says.
A pandemic purchase originally made to support her sourdough “hobby” turned out to be the key to churning out thousands of hot cross buns. “The only reason I could do it was because I ordered Rofco B40 ovens from Belgium,” says Choi.
So what’s next post-bun-blitz? It’s a question Choi is still figuring out, but bread is definitely involved. “When I bake, it goes to friends and family and that’s keeping me busy enough at the moment,” she says. “It’s a bit scary to ask people to pay for my bread. But I would love to do something where I deliver a few times a week.”
Here’s hoping Fizzy’s Bread hits tables soon — until then, there’s always Instagram.