On Baking Without Ego and Smoking Flour With Ubuntu Canteen’s Myra Maston

Photo of Myra by Samuel Kelly

Myra Maston is the woman responsible for some of the Fraserhood’s – and arguably the city of Vancouver’s – best bread. As the bread honcho at Ubuntu Canteen, Maston creates and manipulates traditional sourdough and French-inspired bread and pastry recipes with consistently mouthwatering results.

The young chef recently filled us in on her career trajectory to date, as well as some of her thoughts about being a baker in Vancouver in 2019…

First of all, who are you and what do you do? I’m the head baker at Ubuntu Canteen. I oversee and produce breads and baked goods. I also organize recipe creating and testing.

How did you get to where you are? Tell me, in a nutshell, what your career trajectory has been thus far.

A long time ago I started as a dishwasher in a bar and grill in Halifax while I was going to NASCAD. It turned out I was more reliable than some of the cooks, so I was asked to join the line cooking and I did. This experience influenced me to transfer my studies to the Culinary Institute of Canada (CIC) in PEI.

In 2004 I moved to Vancouver after graduating from the CIC. I worked for many years at Lumiere and then Montreal’s Toque, honing my skills under many of Canada’s top Chefs. After filling in for the pastry chef for many months on her days off I realized I wanted to switch to pastry. This eventually led to me to Ronda Vianni at West and then Thierry Busset of Thierry who taught me so very much about pastry.

In 2011 I started my first sourdough starter (levain) and I was hooked on making my own bread. This is when I started thinking bread making is what I want to do for the rest of my career. I spent a year cooking and baking in France, then found myself back in Vancouver at Beyond Bread where Peter van Boekhout and Monroe Webb taught me the delicate and ever changing process of making sourdough breads. One day an old friend, David Gunawan, sent me a text asking about bread ovens and I didn’t give it much thought. A month later it hit me, what does he want with a bread oven? And does he need a head baker? As it turned out, he did.

There seem to be a lot of really strong women-run pastry and bread programs currently installed around Vancouver (Livia, their there, Flourist, Ubuntu (obviously)). Why do you think that is? The bakery world is evening out with more women in the industry. I think that more women are interested in baking, and skills are now more the focus than gender.

Is there a baking community out there? I wish there was more of a community… maybe there is, or maybe I just need to try harder to find it.

With so much amazing bread out there, how do you stand apart? Having worked under many talented and perfectionist Chefs I’ve developed a critical palate. Choosing my ingredients carefully I try to make bread with flavours that stand alone and are not just filler.

Bread and pastry is a combination of art and science…what is your background in both areas? Which area do you find the most challenging? What comes naturally to you? Funny enough, I did one semester of University in Sciences and then a year at Art School before going to Culinary school. Baking comes naturally to me, the challenging part was having the confidence to switch over from cooking. It took a long time to get where I am now.

Where do you find inspiration and how much creative freedom do you have as a baker? I find inspiration from the people around me and working with a great team. Having amazing local flour and produce helps too. I have a lot of freedom at Ubuntu, which I am grateful for. I am able to always be creative.

What has been your most exciting creation, to date? Your most disastrous? I don’t know about most exciting but my most disastrous was my attempt to smoke flour. Back in culinary school I was obsessed, not fully understanding the effects it would have on bread making.

“We’re trying to have a place where we lift people up, not bring them down. Remove ego from the equation and the positive change is remarkable.”

What are your favourite flavours or favourite season, and why? My favorite season is summer, no other season gives such a multitude of local fruit. I think pastries should be balanced like savoury foods with sweet, sour, salt and bitter all working together.

What do you do to unwind outside of the kitchen? I think biking to and home from work helps keep the two separate. So when at home, I can relax without thinking too much about work. Also I do yoga, which is important for mental and physical health.

What is your most invaluable tool? A bench scraper/dough knife – it’s probably the most used tool in a bakery.

What does your ideal kitchen scenario look like? A thoughtful environment similar to Ubuntu, where we respect our ingredients and have little waste. A place where everyone wants to be there and it’s not just a paycheque. If we had a bigger walk-in cooler and a bit more space, Ubuntu is the ideal. A kick ass bread wall like at Livia would be nice too.

Baking is traditionally a women’s field of work. What has your experience as a women working in your professional field been like? Have you experienced any sex-specific obstacles and/or how do you think that the ideas, attitudes and respect surrounding baking have changed (or not changed)? Is this even an issue, in your experience? Gender is always an issue. It’s hard to explain. It is definitely better now that I’m older and more confident. At Ubuntu it’s a bit different, because we’re trying to have a place where we lift people up, not bring them down. Remove ego from the equation and the positive change is remarkable.

What is the biggest misconception about your line of work? That it is easy and you create pretty bread and pastries all day. (Don’t get me wrong, we do produce pretty things.) The reality is that you often do the same things every day and spend a lot of time on your feet. It is a very physically demanding job.

If you had complete control over the music playing in the Ubuntu kitchen, what would you choose to be broadcast through the speakers in your presence? I do… I play a lot of Chances with Wolves radio and CBC Radio One keeps me company in the early hours before everyone else arrives.

If you had to be remembered with just one recipe, what would it be? That’s a hard question because nothing is new and everything has been done before, but I’m pretty proud of my sesame oat sourdough loaf.

There is 1 comment

  1. Proud of you Myra! Sounds like a wonderful place to work and visit!! Congratulations—> Remember Your Smile:) ?? ~ eem

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