It takes a lot of careful planning and long days to get the job done well

Dec 08, 2021
Chef-turned baker Michael James at home in the garden

You know Michael James, even if you think you don’t. There’s hardly a sourdough enthusiast without his seminal The Tivoli Road Baker book, co-written with wife Pippa James, on the shelf. Missing a copy? Don’t worry it’s just been republished in paperback, along with the couple’s latest, All Day Baking: Savoury, Not Sweet (Hardie Grant).

After growing up in Penzance, Cornwall, then working at London’s prestigious two-Michelin-starred restaurant Pied-à-Terre under both Tom Aikens and Shane Osborn (where he also met Pippa), Michael moved to Sydney and turned his gastronomic eye to baking, forging a distinguished reputation championing local grains and small millers. Here, fellow baker and pasty maven Lizzie Crow speaks to Michael about his career and new life as part of the Melbourne and regional Victorian food scene (because – surprise! – Sydney’s not for everyone).


What made you move to Melbourne and set up business there rather than Sydney?

We lived in Sydney for two and half years and didn’t love it. The city is very beautiful with amazing beaches and the harbour, but life is not all about beaches. We just didn’t connect with the city. But I had a great job at Bourke St Bakery, which at the time was small – a place I used my cooking background to get a job in and learn all about sourdough breads and viennoiserie.

I find the food scene and, in particular bakeries, much more open and willing to help or support each other in Melbourne. We have been in Melbourne for over ten years now and are very happy with the city – from its diverse range of cafes and restaurants to the arts and culture, which are more suited to our life. 

What motivated you to do this book on pastry?

There were a few reasons. I felt like there were not a lot of books on savoury baking. The Tivoli Road Baker book was a snapshot of what we did at that bakery, and I felt at the time there were at least two or three books that could come out of that first book – from breads to savoury, pastry and preserves. So, I thought about taking the savoury chapter from The Tivoli Road Baker book and making a whole book on savoury baking.

It’s also the culmination of my time as a chef in high-end restaurants in London, and in cafés and bakeries here in Australia, combining cooking and baking to make a savoury baking book that covers pastry, preserves and all the savoury fillings in between.

It is also what we do at home, as the book is more veg heavy, with less meat and more high quality and sustainable meats like kangaroo and rabbit and showcasing them in pies and sausage rolls. Pippa makes a lot of fillings from meats like wallaby and kangaroo or the plentiful rabbit. They may take a bit more work, but it’s definitely worth it. And they are easily interchangeable with other meats in the UK or USA. 

What does your writing process look like? 

Oh gosh, well, lots of notes to begin with. I find it easy to compile the recipes in the first place, then its all about getting it down in the computer once it been tested at home. I like to do this straight away as it is fresh in the memory. I add the intros as I go and, if I’m not inspired, will add them later.

Writing in lockdown was challenging, as it was hard to be upbeat and positive and write an interesting intro about using this or that recipe for your party or picnic with friends.

Once the recipes are typed, Pippa compiles them all and makes sense of my nonsense, then she will organise them all into Dropbox. They get revisited lots during testing, retesting and editing before the manuscript gets sent to the proof-reader and editor.

With All Day Baking, we signed the contract during the first lockdown in March 2020 and it had to be delivered by November 2020. It was a case of compiling all the recipes, then making a plan to test two or three per week to have a chance of getting it all written and tested in time. We’d go to the farmers market at the weekend, buy what we needed for the week, and test the recipes, making notes and observations as we went. Then repeat that for weeks, as the time frame was so short, and add in home school and work…  it was tough but we had an amazing team at Hardie Grant, from the editor Anna Collet, to Lisa Cohen and Lee Blaylock on the shoot, and Andy Warren and his design team. They all got the brief and helped to make the whole process work well in an uncertain and challenging time for all. 

Is there anything you find particularly challenging about producing a book?

Mostly the amount of time to actually complete the manuscript. Both The Tivoli Road Baker and All Day Baking were less than a year to deliver the manuscript, in addition to doing the day job and caring for a young child. So, it takes a lot of careful planning and long days to get the job done well. And agonising over whether it’s good enough and people will like it – it’s definitely a labour of love to share all these recipes. But we’re so grateful to have the opportunity to do so, and to share what we do in our professional and home lives with everybody. 

How are the ingredients different in Melbourne? How has the multiculturalism of Victoria influenced your cooking?

A lot of what is grown here is definitely influenced by European culture. Coming from the UK, I have discovered a whole new palate of flavours here in Australia – from native plums, wattle seed and myrtle, to native grasses. We are rediscovering and using more and more of these indigenous ingredients to support the local communities. Indigenous ingredients are something I started to use at Tivoli Road Bakery years ago, as it’s important to use what is around us. I feel that is reflected in both books as well and, in recent years, it’s definitely more appreciated and widespread here in Australia.

The Melbourne restaurant and café scene is influenced by its Greek, Italian, Asian and particularly the Vietnamese populations, which is what helps to make it such a world-class food city, and I have learned a lot from that, as my general knowledge of Asian food was poor before I moved to Australia.  

Are you still enjoying what you do? Which part of your work do you find the most satisfying?

Yes. Running a small business brings a lot of demands and pressures. I have been doing a lot of hands-on sourdough baking classes and consulting in between the lockdowns here in Australia. I’ve enjoyed sharing my knowledge and helping other bakers either with their new bakery or an existing bakery. I find it very satisfying to help others improve their baking as it can be such a challenge and the work can vary from day to day, so I’m always happy to help people gain more knowledge and skills. 

What have you been able to do to promote your work in the USA and other countries given the pandemic? And how does that differ from what happened with your previous book?

It’s been completely different with this book – all the events were either postponed or cancelled here in Australia, and going back home to see my family and promote the book wasn’t possible given the international borders were closed. So I did a couple of IG Lives, one with Sourdough Sophia in London, another with Bonnie Ohara from Alchemy Bread in California.

With The Tivoli Road Baker there was a whole month of promotion in Sydney with TV and radio and a launch and in Melbourne at various venues and book stores and after that trips to the UK and USA, where we had a few events or book signings with local book stores and bakeries, which was the fun part of the book making experience. But I love promoting and supporting the local independent book stores we have here and in the places that I visit. 

Is there anything you miss about food from Cornwall or the UK generally?  

I miss someone else making proper pasties! Seriously, I do miss the Cornish fish. I don’t eat a lot of fish, as we have sadly all eaten too much from ocean, but I love the local mackerel and sea bass. The Cornish food scene has come a long way in recent years, a lot more of the produce stays in the county and there are many good places in Cornwall where you can get a quality meal made with the local produce. So I really appreciate coming back home to experience the change, and the appreciation of good food in general. Also, I do miss the excellent charcuterie and cheese that can be found in the UK. Things are starting to happen in Australia, with a few good small suppliers and artisan cheesemakers popping up in the regions. 

What’s next for you?

At the moment I’m still consulting, helping to set up bakeries and helping to support existing ones here in Australia, as well as doing baking classes here and there.

I’m also working part-time at Redbeard Bakery in Trentham using a beautiful 130-year-old scotch wood-fired oven and setting up and producing sourdough croissant for them. One day I would like to have a bakery in a nice community in the country using local grain, milling it myself and teaching others all about baking from what I have learned.

📸 Lisa Cohen

Follow Michael on Instagram @michaeljamesbakes

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