Restaurant News: Artisan baking a labor of love for Meadowdale grad

Conor O’Neill

Bread making has become a favorite past time for many of us as we try to figure out what to do with ourselves while we stay at home. Yeast and flour seem to be in very high demand, and social media pages are filling up with pictures of proud bakers and their delicious-looking creations.

After baking a few loaves, a person really begins to appreciate what artisan bread makers are able to accomplish. One such artisan baker lives right here in our neighborhood. Edmonds resident Conor O’Neill has proven to be surprisingly productive. With his Rofco B-40 oven, he’s able to bake 12 loaves in a batch, and churns out 150 to 300 baked goods for each pop-up food stand that he hosts in the Edmonds/Lynnwood area.

You’ll find him most Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the corner of 76th Avenue West and Olympic View Drive, across from The Hook restaurant.

Most recently, he’s also begun selling bread Wednesday afternoons from 4 to 7 p.m. on the deck in front of Kelnero, 545 Main St. in downtown Edmonds.

The coronavirus has him observing social distancing guidelines, gloved and masked, with customers waiting patiently 6 feet apart as they take their turn and return home with carefully packaged, fresh, beautiful and delicious baked creations.

A Meadowdale High School gradate, O’Neill’s love for baking began as he transitioned from the dorms to his own apartment at Washington State University, where he majored in communications. “I can’t pinpoint an exact moment. But when I moved out of the dorms I found that I really enjoyed preparing my own meals,” O’Neill said. “For me, it was a natural progression to eventually turn to making bread. I remember putting the first loaf in a cast-iron Dutch oven. I began reading and watching YouTube videos about it. You cross your fingers and hope for the best. After that I was hooked. I was fascinated by how each loaf would turn out.”

While vacationing in Paris, O’Neill spent time visiting boulangeries and bakeries, studying just what goes into making great bread. He has high praise for Sea Wolf Bakers and for Columbia City Bakery, where he spent a year immersed in the business and “mostly shaping bread“ — an important step in the process.

Almost a year ago now, he was ready to hang up his own shingle and The Cottage at Blue Ridge was born. His current business model is the simple pop-up food stand, but who knows where this might lead.

O’Neill loves the simplicity of creating something amazing from flour, water and a little salt. Combine those ingredients with time and a great deal of energy, and you have O’Neill‘s delicious breads and pastries.

He chooses to use Skagit Valley’s Cairnspring Mills products and is particularly enamored of yecora rojo flour, which comes from a hard, red, spring wheat.

With an emphasis on heritage grains, Cairnspring produces minimally processed, fresh, stone-milled organic flour, sourced from their favorite local farmers. Cairnspring and O’Neill stay in touch with the WSU Bread Lab in Skagit as they pursue ways to promote and grow heritage grains.

You might be miffed at your local grocer for not having yeast, but O’Neill won’t be running out. He prefers the naturally leavened technique. All the rage at the moment, it’s actually an ancient method that uses the naturally occurring yeast found in the air, or on wheat grains. You may know it as natural starter or sourdough starter. Once you get a good starter going, you just have to maintain a workable temperature and add flour and water. Sounds easy, but he’s had to share starter with friends sometimes several times before they’ve gotten the hang of it.

It might interest novice bakers to know that ONeill is happy to share his starter with others, and loves to talk about bread making with customers.

Before Kelnero closed due to the governor’s stay-at-home orders, Chef John Perez recognized him having a cocktail at the restaurant and came out of the kitchen to meet him.

“He said, ‘Hey! You’re that bread guy!’ We started talking — Kali and Chris Kelnero have the same commitment to great, locally sourced foods. So that’s how our Wednesday pop-up got started.”

O’Neill has an impressive work ethic. For a Wednesday pop-up, he starts Saturday night after a day of baking and selling bread. He cleans up the kitchen, and feeds his starter. First thing Sunday, he builds his menu, then it’s off to collect needed ingredients. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday he’s up at 3:30 a.m. making the softer brioches first — since they maintain their freshness better. Sourdoughs are prepared on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then crating, pre-bagging, transport, set up, and break down. Wednesday night, after returning from a very long day, the process begins again.

The most laborious part is the mixing and shaping, and there’s a lot of waiting involved.

Here’s a quick video of O’Neill shaping a batch:

O’Neill says one of the most satisfying things about the job is selling this thing he’s worked so hard to create to “unknown people,” only to watch them come back again and again, obviously in love with the bread. “That’s what makes the long days not so bad. I’m super grateful I get to do this.”

Learn more at cottageblueridge.com

— By James Spangler

James SpanglerThe furthest thing from a finicky eater, James Spangler insisted on trying everything on the table from the earliest age. At 13, he prepared Baked Alaska for an entire classroom and has had an insatiable appetite for good food ever since. He’d rather be in the kitchen cooking for the people he loves than doing just about anything.

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