Edible Bozeman

Zen and the Art of Pain Au Chocolat with Mark Sinclair

Years ago, during a visit with friends on South Cottonwood, Robert Pirsig expounded at length on instruction manuals, states of mind, and the distinction between knowledge and old-fashioned know-how. This conversation—recounted in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig’s iconic philosophical narrative—may seem esoteric in summary, but anyone who has looked back and forth between a recipe and an unrisen loaf of bread has encountered similar concerns.

Half a century later, just down the road south of Bozeman, the artisanal baker Mark Sinclair tells me a story that Pirsig would have appreciated—and one that helps explain all those loaves of unrisen bread.

On one of his teaching tours of Europe, Sinclair was invited to consult for a bakery in Grudynia Wielka, a small village in southwestern Poland. His host there turned out to be the best baker Sinclair had ever seen. What made him so good?

“When I see somebody working with dough, right away I can tell if they know what they’re doing. It’s like seeing somebody pick up a guitar. You can tell if they know how to play it just by the way they hold the instrument,” Sinclair says. “This guy, he has forty years’ experience, and you can just tell. Inside and out, it’s in his blood. I spent almost ten days with him, and every day he inspired me. He screwed up sometimes and he just fixed it. He could come into any environment and make it work. He was a real master.”

The admiration in Sinclair’s voice is unmistakable. It comes through, too, in the video he made at the bakery. “Piekarnia Cukiernia Smolorz Bogdan, Grudynia Wielka, Polska”—so named for where it was filmed—is representative of Sinclair’s cinematic style. It’s minimally shot—no text, all sound diegetic.

The camera lingers over the tactile stuff of baking: human beings, their ingredients, and their tools. It’s so simple, yet so tender, so full of appreciation. Sinclair’s videos, which he posts to social media (search Sinclair Bakery), have earned him a global following and regular invitations to travel and teach. Sinclair is rolling dough as he tells me this, and it’s easy to notice how closely his video and baking aesthetics align. We are in the warehouse where Sinclair bakes. Behind us, stored for the winter, is the trailer that Sinclair designed and from which he sells his breads and pastries at summer markets.

As I’m watching him work, I have to wonder if it can possibly be as easy as he makes it look. He doesn’t hurry. Every movement is controlled, precise, efficient. He’s a man at ease in his work, taking pleasure in his movements the way Steph Curry and Roger Federer did in their primes. Greatness is literally in the air. Sinclair was a few songs into Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks when I arrived, and we’ll be well into Desire by the time I leave.

I have to wonder if it can possibly be as easy as he makes it look. He doesn’t hurry. Every movement is controlled, precise, efficient. He’s a man at ease in his work, taking pleasure in his movements the way Steph Curry and Roger Federer did in their primes.

Born in Alabama and raised mostly in Pennsylvania, Sinclair had wanted to bake since visiting Switzerland as a teenager and being enchanted by the cafés he discovered there. For years, before the rest of the country caught on, he dreamed of bringing European café culture to the U.S. In college, Sinclair studied hospitality management at Syracuse before switching to psychology. After college, he moved to Rutland, Vermont, for graduate school in education and to be a snowboard bum.

Degree in hand, he found himself overqualified and underexperienced to land a full-time teaching position. So he went over to his favorite bakery and offered to work for free in exchange for learning to bake. The owner declined the offer but hired him anyway, giving Sinclair the chance to work nights, develop his bread skills, and fall in love with baking. Th is experience would prove instrumental for Sinclair, but it would be years still before he would bake professionally.

He and his now-former wife went from a job fair in Boston to teaching positions on Molokai, Hawaii, where they stayed six years. Due to the cost of living in Hawaii and their desire to one day live in Montana, the couple bought property in Kalispell and found new teaching jobs. Sinclair built a log cabin on the land, a skill he would turn into another career a few years later when he was ready to be done teaching. And all this time the thought in the back of Sinclair’s mind was that what he really wanted to do was bake.

When he took the leap, he was untrained in pastries but confident that his experience with bread dough would allow him to teach himself. He began baking at home with his wife’s assistance when the school year was out. “That was the beginning,” he tells me. “That was a really big thing.”

This backstory unfolds at the pace of Sinclair’s work: steady and deliberate. The dough Sinclair has been rolling is now a flat sheet. He is cutting rectangular sections with a rolling knife. Only when he produces a box of chocolate bars do I realize he’s making pain au chocolat—my favorite pastry. And yet I’m not overcome by the desire for him to finish so that I can try one; I’m entranced by the mastery I’m witnessing.

After his divorce, Sinclair moved to Bozeman and went all in on baking. He took careful notes on what worked and what didn’t and continued to improve. It wasn’t long before his skills were recognized and the invitations to Europe started coming in, an important validation for Sinclair. “I’ve seen a lot of bakers around the world and I have a lot of respect for them and they have a lot of respect for me, even though I don’t have any real baking background or formal training. I’m not a chef. I never graduated from a culinary school. I didn’t go through an apprenticeship like they do in Germany.”

On one of his European tours, Sinclair met a woman in Spain who became his girlfriend. As well as things were going in Bozeman, he decided to ship his trailer and move to Madrid. But Spain proved a bureaucratic nightmare. Unable to bake, money was running out, and in late 2019 Sinclair returned to Montana. His girlfriend was scheduled to fly over in early March. The night before her flight, travel was shut down for COVID-19; Sinclair hasn’t seen her since New Year’s. As he tells me this, I have to wonder if you, reader, will believe me that “Buckets of Rain” is playing.

But Sinclair is unflappable. He has the equanimity of a person who is doing exactly what he’s always wanted to do. And he’s confident that he can work around whatever obstacles COVID-19 presents. Right now, he alternates weekly between deliveries and selling his breads and pastries at the Bozeman Winter Farmers’ Market.

Whatever notes Sinclair took when he was teaching himself pastries, there is no trace of them in his workspace now, except as knowledge has become know-how in the movements of his hands.

The pains au chocolat are laid out on trays now, ready to go into the oven Saturday morning. “One More Cup of Coffee” is playing. It’s a good note to leave on. As I get on the road, there is plenty I want to take with me.

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