UMass pastry chef takes Bakeshop to new heights
“Your first mistake was thinking I’m interesting.”
The 17 awards and certificates hanging around pastry chef and bakeshop manager Simon Stevenson’s office say otherwise.
Classical music played in the closet-sized office as Stevenson pulled out the small pocket-knife he carries around everywhere and began to cut an orange. His “Baking Bible” sits prominently on his bookshelf adorned with various cookbooks and knick knacks.
“I came to the United States with just $200 and a 65-liter bag,” said Stevenson. “I swear to God that is true.”
Much has changed since his move from England after college. Stevenson now handles the day-to-day operations of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Bakeshop. He spends a lot of time in the office, but this has helped UMass increase the quality of their offerings to students.
“We are way more conscious of the ingredients that we use than we used to be,” he said.
“We source locally whenever possible, and this goes hand-in-hand with the Dining Services mission.”
Besides the office work Stevenson does, one of his favorite parts of his job is teaching students baking techniques. Whether showing new skills to bakers or hosting baking and chocolate classes, he is always interested in sharing what he knows.
“I love to engage with others that are interested in what I’m doing,” he said.
The dozens-long waitlist is a strong indication that these classes are loved by UMass students. The last Chocolate 101 class was held on Feb. 10, and with a cap of only 15 students, many missed out on the chance to learn how to work with the delicacy of chocolate.
Stevenson’s skills with chocolate were not developed overnight but his love for baking was.
Stevenson’s original career path was nowhere near culinary arts, having originally gone to college in England to be a photographer. He did some industrial and commercial photography before moving to the United States and finding a job with an agency looking to teach photography to special needs kids. He headed back to England and took odd jobs as a bartender at a pub and as a truck driver to make ends meet.
Then Stevenson found a job in a kitchen where he started out washing dishes and slowly made his way up to “salad prep.” One day he was asked to plate desserts for a 300-person event.
“For some reason I thought I could make it look better than the way the chef plated it,” he said. “At this point I didn’t know that I was just supposed to say ‘Yes, Chef’ and do as I was told.”
Stevenson was surprised to find that the chef liked his fresh take on the dish and hired him on the spot as a pastry chef.
His father was a chemist and his mother an accountant, but she was also a very good cook and he was able to learn a lot of his cooking skills from watching her in the kitchen.
“Still, I had no idea what I was doing and I’m surprised they didn’t just fire me,” he said. “Every waking minute was suddenly consumed with reading about pastry and asking all of these pastry questions—I wanted to know everything!”
His head chef recommended that he get a culinary degree so that Stevenson could have opportunities for growth in the field. Before he knew it, Stevenson was juggling the responsibilities of his young daughter, Sophie, during the day, a full-time job at night, and culinary classes on weekends.
“Since I was already working in the industry when going to school, I had a leg up on a lot of them,” he said.
He emphasized how hard it is to remain in the culinary business, especially when going to night school. “My first class was 25 people and it was called ‘Bread and Rolls.’ By the end of it, there were 12 people in the class. Out of that 12, I walked with four. Out of the four, I am the only pastry chef. It’s competitive.”
After becoming more prominent in the culinary community, Stevenson was approached by the executive chef of UMass Dining but was hesitant to take the position after working in fine dining for the past few years.
“It’s certainly a challenge but these bakers are some of the best bakers I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “They will turn their hands to everything and bring it every day.”
In 2014, Stevenson got the opportunity of a lifetime and packed up his things to go to Switzerland and create his own chocolate through Felchlin’s “Development of Couverture by Accompanying the Process from Beans to Chocolate” program. UMass currently uses Felchlin chocolate to bake with in the Bakeshop.
Stevenson believes the program is somewhat selective, with about 10 pastry chefs from around the world going to the factory and learning more about how this type of chocolate is made.
“We were able to make our own type of chocolate there and I volunteered to mix the ingredients for the chocolate,” he said. “The mixture was combined for 72 hours, which meant that it had an incredibly smooth texture and amazing taste. We were then able to buy some of the chocolate that we made and I still have a little left to this day.”
It’s safe to say that Stevenson has had an adventurous career path and he has filled his personal life with quirks as well. As a young boy, Stevenson was always interested in beekeeping and has kept bees in his backyard in the past.
“I spent a year just drawing out the garden and looking at the sun and where it hits,” he said. “I have a very healthy garden because of it.”
He doesn’t even do it for the honey, but refers to it as “a nice bonus.”
Stevenson’s family life is something he prides himself in and always looks to his family for the joy in his life.
Stevenson’s wife, Lynda Stevenson, sometimes likes to tease her husband about his obsession with food.
“Honestly, his knowledge of food and all things food-related ironically leads to one of my pet peeves about him…that he is extremely cautious when it comes to food safety and, in my opinion, goes overboard,” she said. “Another thing I often hear myself saying to him is, ‘I cooked for myself for 20 years before I knew you…it’s a miracle I survived!’”
Even though she likes to joke around, Linda Stevenson will never forget the first time she and her husband met at a get-together with co-workers.
“In walks this very handsome guy with the bluest eyes I had ever seen, and then when I’m introduced to him I hear the cutest British accent!” she said. “I was smitten immediately!”
Devyn Giannetti can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Devyn_Giannetti.