Out of Print

How Do I Pronounce Stagiaire?

by Miguel Ortega
Photos by Tim Serrano

For some, Panaderya Toyo—and its parent restaurant, Toyo—is seen as the highlight of Karrivin Plaza. For others, it serves as a waypoint to those looking to find themselves.

he Alley at Karrivin Plaza — which is usually filled with people — is silent save for the steps of a solitary guard walking down the path. Its pet cats are still asleep as well, either sprawled out or curled up in their respective nooks. Even the compound’s parking lots are empty, apart from a few trucks delivering goods to a neighboring commissary.

It’s 5:30 A.M. and I’m waiting for someone to open the lock to Panaderya Toyo. I had arrived 30 minutes early, excited for my first day as a panadero — one that had little to no experience working with bread.

A couple of weeks before this, I had left my job and hadn’t bothered looking for a replacement. This wasn’t the first time this has happened and my wife, Michelle, was dismayed to say the least. There were bills to pay and, most important of all, two dogs to take care of. She hated these spur-of-the moment decisions I often make, more so during a time when industries were still reeling from a global pandemic. So, after updating a long forgotten resumé, along with promises to send out as many applications as I could, I set about looking for a job. The search would end quickly, though, thanks to another impulsive decision.

During the pandemic, countless home cooks were born, hoping to make — and sell — the next big trend, sushi bake platters, ube cheese pandesal, and, of course, sourdough bread. Michelle and I were party to this. We tried selling pizza from home, an endeavor that would eventually be interrupted by our day jobs. So, I decided that I would learn how to properly make bread. After dropping my other applications, I assured Michelle that this would work. I would be getting something better than a job. I was going to be an intern.

An internship in a restaurant is called a stage (pronounced “stahj”), while stagiaire refers to the actual trainee. These are but a few of terms I picked up during my stage, terms globally used thanks to Georges Auguste Escoffier who revolutionized the kitchen by introducing the brigade system or the brigade de cuisine.

Before entering the oven, each Pan de Coco gets a nice brushing of coconut cream. Not only does this add a nice toasted-coconut crust but the streaks from brush strokes also resemble coconut husk fibers after baking.

As an intern, a stagiaire works for free and, in exchange, is able to learn skills, see how a restaurant operates, build a network with other cooks and chefs, and maybe even find employment somewhere down the line. There are certain expectations, however, especially for top restaurants around the world, where internship applications are almost as difficult as applying for the actual job. So, I was thoroughly surprised when—after half-heartedly floating the idea to them—May and Jordy Navarra, the owners of Toyo Eatery and Panaderya Toyo, were fine with the idea of me messing about in their kitchens.

I had met the Navarras through Michelle when they opened Toyo Eatery back in 2016. I had written about Jordy and May, and Toyo Eatery, and Panaderya Toyo in various publications, and have, since then, developed a close friendship with them. Despite that, I was caught off guard when Jordy said yes. But then again, he’s the type to make spur-of-the-moment decisions too.

After strolling around Karrivin, I decide to wait awkwardly on a long wooden bench beside the doors of Panaderya Toyo. The guard, now suspicious, asks what I’m doing there so early and I simply point at Panaderya. He gives me a nod and just walks away. A few moments later, Sam, one of the head bakers zips past me on her scooter. She parks her ride by the side of the door and goes straight for the lock. As she tries to open it, she asks if I had been waiting long. I lie and tell her I just arrived as well. To be polite and also so I don’t look too eager, I guess?

As we enter, Sam begins the morning ritual: she turns on the lights, followed by the air conditioners, and then the two enormous ovens, one stacked over the other. She then heads to different chillers and proofing areas, checking the different kinds of dough they had prepared the day before. Had they risen? Were they underproofed? Are they ready for baking? She hands me an apron, just as the other bakers come in, and the day finally starts.

You can tell that the bread is good in a restaurant when you hear diners ask where they can buy more of it. This was the case for Toyo Eatery prior to 2018, when they were serving black rice sourdough, milk loaves, and their cult tocino roll. With a rising demand, a lack of space to produce more bread, and an opportune vacancy at the front of The Alley, Panaderya Toyo was born. It would take its cues from the local panaderia and challenge the traditional concepts surrounding it. There are common names on their menu: pandesal, pan de regla, pan de coco, bicho, and kalihim. But there is nothing common about them. I know. I’ve made some of them

“I would spend the next couple of days in fear of this dough. It would taunt me.”

My first task is to shape the Potpot Pandesal together with the other bakers. Sam cuts a portion of it and plops it on the weighing scale, which reads only a gram or two off the desired weight. She then shows me how to shape and tighten the pandesal using this solitary piece. Her hands are too quick for me to follow, so she slows it down so I can better see how it's supposed to be done. I don’t know how she could tell—we were all wearing masks—but my face looked dumbfounded. She smiles, or at least I think she does, and tells me to try shaping one.

I reach for a piece of dough and try to mimic the movements of the other bakers, but my hands are unfamiliar with the motion and how much pressure to exert. It’s a very wet dough. Fortunately, it just came out of the chiller so it’s easier to manage. Unfortunately, it quickly warms under my clumsy hands as I continue to struggle with it. I end up overworking it and it turns into a goopy mess that clings to my hands and to the table. I groan in frustration.

I would spend the next couple of days in fear of this dough. It would taunt me. “You can’t do it, stagiaire!” I would hear it say. There were days when I would try to avoid it and pretend to be busy with something else. There were days when I had no choice but to resign myself to goopy hands. So, imagine my elation when I finally managed to properly shape and tighten one. I was overjoyed so much that when no one was looking, I bent down the table and whispered to the perfectly rounded dough ball that just left my hands, “Take that you little bitch.”

Everyone and everything moved with purpose in Panaderya. At the start I would constantly be amazed at how smoothly they loaded the dough into the ovens, or how nimbly they assembled the bichos, or how skillfully they packed the bread. I would end up staring at them for long periods of time. I wasn’t really observing them to learn, I was fixated because I was mesmerized — like a trashy show you can’t stop watching. I would do this, especially, when tasked with mixing the dough. I would stare blankly as the spiral mixer gyrated, pushing and pulling the dough. I would do the same with rotisseries slowly browning lines of chickens. If they had a show featuring just those two, I’d probably watch that too.

I would eventually find my step in the kitchen. Repetition is a powerful teaching instrument but so is having teachers willing to throw you in the deep end of the pool. Throughout my internship, the phrase trial by fire is one I would often hear when the bakers talk about interns. And, trial by fire really does work.

I learned how to properly make dough, understanding the principles of the “treat it like a baby” methodology. I learned how to maintain a starter, which was quite fun when you’re mixing three or four kilos of it by hand. I learned how to make sourdough loaves from start to finish, which has turned me away completely from making sourdough at home after discovering how long and complicated it is to do right. I learned how to make bichos and how to intricately lace the dough together to form that distinct look. The cheese is my favorite.

I learned how to pack bread, how to wrap half a dozen pandesals, how to properly tie a bread box, or how to package a Leche Pan loaf. I learned to make tangzhong—a milk roux used in Asian breads—by myself, in the middle of a busy Toyo Eatery kitchen. All the burners were on and so were the hot plate, grill, and oven. I lost a lot of water weight that day. I also learned how to make Italian meringue, which was quite complicated and also scary if you don’t have a proper thermometer. But also, cool it with the meringue, Italians, why not just make it like the French do and call it a day.

I made cookie dough for our Alfajors despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of sweets. I learned that when lifting something like, say, a sack of sugar, you should lift with your legs and not with your back. Also, I learned to not be afraid to ask for help, like, say, when lifting a sack of sugar.

Left to Right: Notes scribbled across the chillers are commonplace. They can be messages to one’s self or messages to the entire team. Sometimes, though, they’re just terrible doodles and caricatures; The Pan de Coco rests after baking, sitting comfortably between freshly baked Bagitos (little baguettes) that are also resting, and stacks of Bichos, all puffed up and waiting to be fried in the Toyo kitchen.
Throughout my stint as an intern, I would also slowly get to know the bakers, learning from them and about them. There’s plenty to talk about when we’re all huddled together making a hundred bichos—much like aunties gossiping while preparing food for a party.

There’s Sam, who has been working with Jordy even before Toyo Eatery opened up. She manages Panaderya. She has a culinary background which pairs well with her methodical approach to bread, making learning from her very intuitive. She would carefully explain each process, while adding the science behind each step.

There’s Sherwin who, like Sam, had been with Jordy even before they moved to The Alley. He works mostly with the laminated dough, which is basically dough layered with butter. He’s also the resident tinkerer. I’ve seen him MacGyver a temperature control setup for the proofing areas using a couple of wires, a heater, and a digital thermostat he bought online. I would eventually find out that he used to repair home appliances back in his home province.

There’s also Ria, whom everyone aptly refers to as Mama Ri. She’s an actual mom, but everyone has taken to calling her that because of her motherly demeanor towards everyone in Panaderya. She was the first official baker to work under Panaderya specifically, so she knows it all. Whenever anyone has a question about what to do or how to do things, they go to Mama Ri. Whenever anyone screws up—like I did when I used the wrong starter for the Bagito (little baguettes)—they come running to her for help. But also, I don’t know if it was a joke that wasn’t explained to me or if people just don’t realize it but her nickname sounds a lot like mammary. It adds another layer to her being called mama but at this point, I’m too afraid to ask people about it.

May and Jordy place a lot of trust in their people, which sets the tone for the culture both in Toyo Eatery and Panaderya. I would discover that, like me, some of the cooks, bakers, and other interns also had no culinary background. I then found out the difference between being able to cook, and wanting to cook.

When I started, I would be apprehensive whenever I needed to ask questions, especially stupid ones—which I did a lot. But I found that people both in the kitchen and the bakery were eager to help out and take the time to explain things. There’s a genuine culture of helping out one another and it’s far from the usual oui-chef portrayal you see in the movies. But it also doesn’t mirror Anthony Bourdain’s sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll depiction of his time in the kitchen.

The Toyo kitchens place the same premium on people’s ability to learn and grow, as they do a person’s talent and skill. Because, really, how far can your food go on talent alone?

C. Clockwise from Top Left: The Pan de Regla, Kalihim, and Koral, all make use of laminated sourdough, where butter is folded into the dough creating flaky, airy layers; Baking begins first thing in the morning and usually finishes around the same time Panaderya opens; Bonding while assembling Bichos, where discussion can range from one’s past, one’s future, along with the occasional obscure questions; Mama Ri makes tangzhong. Flour is cooked in a liquid, in this case milk, to form a roux, which is then added to the bread dough resulting in not just a fluffier bread but also a longer shelf life.

I interned for a bank once, back in college. It was a requirement. I was working in human resources and, one day, I was assigned to arrange things in the filing room. It  was filled with boxes leaving me with a space no bigger than a phone booth. For you young readers, a phone booth was where superheroes would change costumes back in the day.

So, there I was, filing things, surrounded by stacks of paper when I suddenly burst into tears. I was unexpectedly hit with an existential question I didn’t know how to answer: is this what you really want to do? 

The person assigned to me saw this, despite me trying to wipe away my tears. He took pity on  me, brought me down to the canteen, and treated me to a shawarma. We both ate in silence, my eyes still red from crying.

I would go back to this memory frequently as an intern in Panaderya whenever I considered going back to my life in the corporate world. Sure, the hours are long and it’s a physically demanding job, but the gratification and pride you get from working with your hands, and seeing your finished product, is unparalleled. You make something on a daily basis and, when you apply yourself,  you can see tangible proof that you are improving. That in itself is electrifying, and I wouldn’t trade that feeling for all the shawarmas in the world.

Two months into this life detour as an intern, and I’m still hanging in there. It’s now 5:30 P.M. and guests are starting to arrive. The parking lot across is packed with cars and the Alley cats are up and about, strutting around like they own the place. We just had our staff meal and daily staff meeting in Toyo Eatery. While everyone is eating dinner, we discuss the previous night’s service, issues that need to be addressed, and commend people that went beyond the call of duty. We return to Panaderya to finish any leftover work. The day is practically over and they’re telling me to go home. But, I decide to stay for just a little longer.︎

Miguel Ortega is a freelance writer and current intern at Panaderya Toyo.