Inside one Montreal bakery's nightly toil for daily bread
Concordia University/CBC student journalism series explores Montreal's stories after the sun goes down
Leo Calderone was just a small child when he started helping out his dad at the family business.
"My nose didn't even reach the counter," recalls Calderone, who now leads the nightly baking operations at San Pietro, the Villeray-area bakery that his Italian immigrant parents, Pietro and Carmela, set up in 1979.
A bakery's work remains mostly unseen by those asleep at night. But the simple morning routine of a warm croissant with coffee is only possible because bakers like Calderone work through the early morning hours.
Like hundreds of small businesses across Montreal, San Pietro survives because its owner is not afraid of hard work.
Calderone's sisters, Pina and Connie, deeply appreciate his effort, which often means working 12 to 15-hour-a-day shifts.
"Oh my God! I don't know how he does it," says Pina, who started at the bakery at the age of 12 and now makes custom cakes.
Kneading through the night
In Calderone's father's days, the "night shift" began at 4:00 a.m.
Because San Pietro's production has more than doubled since then, the bakers now come in just before 1:00 a.m.
By the time they grease the trays and feed 120 kilograms of flour into a huge, 200-litre dough mixer, Calderone walks in.
Coffee and a review of the night's wholesale orders, mostly from hotels and restaurants, are the first items on his task list.
By 1:30 a.m., the massive oven that Pietro Calderone bought second-hand is hot and humming, ready for the first batch of pastries. It will keep running for another 12 hours.
Less than an hour later, a mountain of dough is heaved from the mixer onto the expansive work table.
Calderone and his men quickly portion it out for various breads and arrange it in proofing boxes to rise.
"Most breads are made from the same batch of dough. Different shapes are what give them different tastes and textures," Calderone explains.
At 3:00 a.m., the Danishes are prepped, followed by the multigrain breads. While the bakers knead away at the work table, a pastry chef prepares chocolatines, apple pies and other delicacies in a back room.
The whirring of the dumbwaiter, the drone of the mixer, the click of the dough roller and the splats of dough on tables are the music of the melee.
Barely audible is the bubbling of eggs that someone set to boil around 4:00 a.m. They are not ingredients, but fuel, scarfed down in a hurry by hungry bakers.
At around 4:45 a.m., two bakers emerge from the backroom with wide drapes of dough over their arms.
Laid the length of the table and filled with sausage meat or spinach and cheese, these become scrumptious savoury rolls.
Barely 15 minutes later, an employee stirs tomatoes, olive oil and seasoning into a sauce. Its richness stands in stark contrast to the industrial bucket and blender used to make it.
Leo slathers the sauce generously on the pizzas. It is one of the tasks he makes sure to supervise closely.
A family tradition
The senior Calderones have retired, but their tradition of craftsmanship and camaraderie live on.
The third generation is now stepping up. Connie's three daughters help out during busy times, as do two of Pina's three sons.
Calderone's young son Peter is keen to follow in his father's footsteps.
"I want to bake like my dad, but I have a lot to learn," he says eagerly.
It's evident the Calderone family goes beyond kinship when you watch the four to five night-shift employees. Leo rarely has to issue them any instructions. The work proceeds with practised ease, despite its relentlessness.
As coffee flows freely and work continues non-stop, conversations range from the Habs' fortunes and Italian idiosyncrasies to China's rise and religious tensions.
The bakers share the mutual respect and deep friendship that are hallmarks of close-knit teams. They also share an intense pride.
"San Pietro makes the best pizzas in Montreal," declares baker Vincent Gioia, not boastfully, but as a simple statement of conviction.
"It has to be perfect," says his colleague Rui Ramos, rekneading a panini that was not shaped to his satisfaction.
Conversation, though friendly, is not plentiful. There is too much work to do.
"If you lose focus for five minutes, you can mess up four hours of work. There's a lot of pressure," Leo says.
San Pietro does not open until 8:00 a.m., but employees start stacking the shelves right after dawn. The first customers, mostly regulars, are used to being served when they arrive, not when the store opens.
Just before 6:00 a.m., Victor Sanchez walks in with a cheery, "Buongiorno!"
Wafting from the warm croissants he buys is an aroma that Calderone stills finds irresistible.
"I love to eat the stuff I bake," he says. "But I'm on a low-carb diet now."
MTL After Dark is a collaboration between the Department of Journalism at Concordia University and CBC Montreal.
Undergraduate students and graduate-diploma students in a graduate-level multimedia course found and produced original stories on the theme of Montreal after dark.
Working in small teams, they spent the winter semester developing their stories in text, audio, video, photography, infographics, and maps.