What happens when a physicist and an engineer combine forces to make bread? Baking Business chats to Melbourne-based Michael Rakov from Baker in the Rye to find out.
When Michael Rakov’s daughter was a teenager, she walked into her parents’ bakery to find her father mixing dough. He called her over and asked if she could see the dough changing from white to off-white. After saying she could, he went on to explain that was due to the disulphide bonds—a structure in DNA—forming in the dough.
“She replied, ‘Dad, you know far too much about baking!’ I mean, few bakers in Australia are going to know that’s what’s going on,” Michael says.
True, it may not be an observation commonly overheard in a bakery, but it is one you would expect to hear from a former physicist who made his way to the baking industry after retiring from teaching.
However, how Michael and his wife, Mara, came to be part of Melbourne’s baking scene is also not your average story.
It begins in the former USSR in the 1940s.
A survivor of both the Holocaust and Nazi occupation of his hometown, Minsk, Belarus, Michael and Mara both suffered further under the subsequent Soviet rule that systematically discriminated against Belarusian Jews from 1944.
So, in 1976, with only $240 in their pockets and books packed in their suitcases, the couple left for Italy, where they lived for 10 months while waiting for their paperwork before making the journey to Australia and settling in Melbourne. They were travelling blind, with the decision between relocating to the US or Australia made on hearsay about the high crime rate in the US and how peaceful the land downunder was.
However, life in Australia wasn’t necessarily going to be easy at first for the duo.
Back in the USSR, Michael was a radio physicist and Mara was a mechanical engineer, but here they had to learn the language while simultaneously trying to make ends meet.
“We did odd jobs at first. We sold cabbage rolls at Victoria Market and helped build one of the pylons on a bridge in the western suburbs. We sold stockings and Mara also worked in a chicken shop,” Michael says.
“We had to learn the language before it was possible to find jobs in our fields. Then I finally got a job as a laboratory assistant before moving on to become a teacher at Ivanhoe Grammar School, where I taught for 23 years.”
At 70—a time when most people would be considering retirement —Michael and Mara decided to sidestep into baking, purchasing a bakery called Golden Rye International in Balaclava in 2002.
“I’ve always had a fascination with baking because of the science and physics behind it. Also, being European, it was pretty hard to find what we consider to be good rye bread in Melbourne,” Michael said.
In 2006 the business was renamed Baker in the Rye—a play on the bakery’s specialty product and the duo’s love of literature—before it was relocated to the new shopfront last year.
However, you won’t find your run-of-the-mill lamingtons and vanilla slices lining the display cases at Baker in the Rye. Rather European pastries and pirozhky (savoury doughnuts) sit side-by-side next to rye bread and imported Russian biscuits and candy.
“We also have lots of European dairy like quark, and things like kefir, which is on-trend at the moment but Russians have been drinking it for eons,” Michael says.
“In terms of back-of-house, I’m pretty much in charge. I create the recipes and have hired bakers to assist me that are good at molding and know how to work a mixer and shape dough. However, Baker in the Rye is very different to some mainstream bakeries where the bakers might open a bag mix, add flour and pop it in the oven, because sourdough is a very temperamental beast. You have to know when to prove it, when to take it out, all the temperatures, the right amount of water to use. Things like that.
“And I like to be really hands-on in my research. I’ve got dozens of books on bread.”
The proof, as they say, is in the eating of the pudding. When the Rakov’s first took over Baker in the Rye, its clientele was 80 per cent Russian immigrants. However, in recent years that figure has been turned on its head, with the bakery now attracting customers of all ethnicities.
“I think two things are the main contributors to that change in clientele. One is that our shop is now way more welcoming. It’s not your typical hipster bakery with subway tiles and crate furniture, but is really modern and warm and welcoming. But even beyond that, we now attract a lot of Aussies because rye bread is good for you. It’s fermented and good for your gut and is low GI,” Michael says.
“People are a lot more health conscious these days, and they also want artisan food. I think it also comes down to the slow food movement—they don’t want the cheap, white, fluffy, mass-produced kind of bread anymore.”
Describing Baker in the Rye as a traditional bakery that has no plans to expand beyond its current premises, Michael says nevertheless they have had to do very little marketing to spread the word about the business.
“I think we had a good product, and then people realised these products were niche and started coming to us,” Michael says.
“Balaclava, population-wise, used to be 100 per cent Russian Jews. That figure has since changed, but we have always eaten rye bread and then it became trendy. It’s always been around, it’s just that people are now aware of it.”
Looking to the future, Michael, now 84, says he and Mara have no plans to retire anytime in the future.
“No I don’t think we’ll ever retire,” he says.
“The work keeps us young, nimble and sharp.”