City Bakery's Caitlin Mandigo: "I've never really understood cake pops"
This is part one of my interview with Caitlin Mandigo, bread baker at City Bakery; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Food "is in my family's blood," says Caitlin Mandigo, the bread production manager at City Bakery. Born and raised in St. Joseph, Michigan, Mandigo spent her early years hanging out in the kitchen. "My brother is a chef, and my dad is a great home cook -- cooking came naturally to them -- and when I was young, I looked up to them both and always wanted to be right next to them in the kitchen," explains Mandigo, who began working in professional kitchens when she was just thirteen, first as a dish monkey and then as a prep cook for a steak-and-seafood restaurant in her home town.
When she was in her late teens, her family moved to Minnesota, and Mandigo continued to cook, although a fascination with teeth briefly derailed that career. "I graduated from high school and decided to go to Albuquerque to pursue a degree in dental assisting -- I have this obsession with teeth -- but I was like, ick: The classes were boring, I was used to having high-energy jobs in the kitchen, and I missed the fast pace and adrenaline rush of working in restaurants, so I dropped out, moved to Wyoming to be with my boyfriend -- now fiancé -- and went to culinary school instead," she recalls.
And that's how she ended up in Denver -- and in the bread-baking business. "I enrolled in the Art Institute in Denver to get a degree in baking and pastry, and while I initially wanted to concentrate on wedding cakes, I realized I didn't have the creativity or patience to do precise design work," she says. But bread was everything cake-decorating wasn't -- and more. "I took one bread class, and absolutely fell in love with everything about it," says Mandigo. "I knew that after than one class, I wanted to explore baking; I loved how I could control how bread proofs, the crumb and the texture and how light or dark it is." And that class taught her something else, too: "While I was always around great food when I was young, I still grew up on regular sandwich bread -- white and wheat from the grocery store -- and when I took the bread class, it was such a revelation, because I realized that there were so many different styles of bread and so many different ingredients you could add. It was really an amazing experience, and I knew that bread baking was the direction I wanted to go."
A classmate introduced her to Michael Bortz, the owner of City Bakery, and after a successful stage, Bortz hired Mandigo in 2012. And Bortz has been nothing but patient with the novice bread maker. "He's never once gotten mad at me, and believe me, I've messed up a lot of stuff -- but rather than yelling, he'll stop what he's doing and come over and help. I've never had a better boss, plus he's funny and makes us breakfast every day," says Mandigo, who in the following interview gives a shout-out to her favorite local bakery, admits that she doesn't get the allure of cake pops and reveals that she never skips the bread basket.