Many twenty-somethings moved in with their parents during COVID-19. Alec Samaras White, 27, was lucky to have the perfect home to return to after leaving a baking job in Brooklyn: He grew up on Holly Hill Farm in Cohasset, which has been in his family since the 1800s. He’s not loafing in his childhood bedroom, though. Instead, he launched Alecco Bakery, specializing in sourdough. He wakes up when it’s still dark outside to supply loaves to local shops and through weekly subscriptions, and he hopes to expand once the pandemic ends.
It’s a triumph for White, who is severely dyslexic and attended boarding schools for language-based learning disabilities. Although he has trouble reading and writing, bread is a source of delicious creativity.
Why do you love baking bread so much?
There’s a couple of things. First, I like hands-on activities. I don’t know the correct word. And, for me, bread changes every day. There’s something challenging every day. Fermentation and yeast act on their own time, and you just have to follow them. Every day, you wake up, and you don’t know the challenges you’re going to face that day — whether your bread is under-proofing or over-proofing. I just find it very simplistic, but then once you get into how to handle the dough, it gets very more complicated. And I love that aspect of it.
Tell me a little bit about your dyslexia. How is it influenced your career?
I will say this: Most of the time, when I have to do any type of writing — writing an e-mail, writing a text message professionally — I usually have my sister, a family member, or a friend write it for me. I just speak it to them. I feel so uncomfortable writing an e-mail or a text message. I think everybody has weaknesses in their life, things that they struggle with. And for me, it’s very much writing. That’s my weakness.
Something that helps me is just finding the people who are willing to help me and just advocating for yourself, saying, “I need help.” It felt like more of a barrier when I was in school than in my working life.
I felt it was much harder to overcome my dyslexia in school, just with how school is built and set up in this day and age. I think it got easier over time, because I’m 27. So, in my lifetime, we had Dragon, and all these speech-to-text programs that came out. They were just starting to get really good as I was going through high school and college. That definitely made it easier.
But to me, once I got out of school, I felt the door was wide open for me to do whatever I wanted because school taught me so well to advocate for myself. I felt like I had a pretty good grip on how to advocate for myself and how to handle my weaknesses, because it was such a hard struggle for me through life, through school.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to start a culinary career but might feel disheartened because they’re not succeeding in a traditional school environment?
I can’t offer wisdom. I still feel like I’m going through that whole process. I’m still so young. But I would say, and this might be a cop out: Don’t let the really down times affect you. Try to stay even-keeled as best as possible. For me, I struggled in college. I failed a couple of classes, and I would get really down on myself, but I just think you always have to stay even-keeled. My mom and my sister both have told me, sometimes you just have to laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
How did you get started in the food business?
When I was in high school, there were these waffle shops at Killington, and I really liked the waffles. I think it was a couple summers after, when I was in college after high school, that I decided to start a little waffle stand at our farm. I liked that so much, so I went to culinary school, and I fell in love with baking breads. I left culinary school because it wasn’t really the place that I wanted to learn baking breads. I decided to go out to a place called San Francisco Baking Institute, and it taught me all about bread-making, and I loved it. Have you ever heard of the bakery called Bread Obsession? It’s in Waltham. I worked there for a little over a year, and then I decided to move down to a French bakery in Brooklyn.
How did COVID-19 affect your career?
I was thinking of already leaving [Brooklyn] because I wanted a different experience somewhere else. When COVID hit, there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity out there for me to go find another baking job. So I came home. Fortunately for me — I’m very fortunate, I have to say — I live on a farm, and there’s this great farm stand. The person who was selling bread here stopped. I was very fortunate that this happened to be the thing that I love to do the most.
What’s the workday like on your family’s farm?
I just got some new equipment, but I had been waking up at one o’clock on a Saturday morning and starting to bake all the breads for the Holly Hill Farm farmers’ market in two little small ovens. And then on Fridays and Thursdays and Wednesdays, I would wake up at probably 3:30 a.m. and start baking and mixing all the breads. I sell breads to a lot of local shops around the South Shore. So, I drop the bread off, and my customers go and pick it up there. And I have about four of them as of right now, which do these with me.
It’s been a huge help during COVID that they support me, and they allow me to use their retail space to help me to help my customers pick up their breads.
I can’t have customers come to my house and pick up breads, and I don’t have the resources to buy a retail shop. I’m not even sure if that would be a good idea right now. So I have had to work with other local companies in this area or local food shops, and the customers have to order online, and then these food shops have their own pick-up at their places. So only a certain number of people can go into their shops. I don’t have as much direct interaction with my customers as probably you would think. When I think of a bakery, I think of it in a town, and people walk in, and it’s a little community in the town. I’m not getting that experience right now. I think that’s what COVID has really changed.
What do you think makes your bread special?
Sustainability, and trying to find organic and locally grown products. And it’s talked about in so many other places in the food industry, but I think in bread-baking, we can also do that. I can’t fully do it right now, but I am going to eventually get it done, where all of my flours are going to be locally grown in New England. And I really think that’s what people like about my bread. I use locally sourced flours from this region, and I think they’re the best flours for eating bread around here. I think supporting your local farms is really big. And I think that’s a differentiator.
What’s your best-seller?
So my best-seller right now is my sourdough. I call it Country Levain. And I think people love that bread. And I also sell a kalamata olive, which is also a sourdough.
Any advice for home bread-bakers?
I feel like, if you’re trying to make bread and trying to make your sourdough and you’re struggling with your starters, just keep at it. Just keep feeding your starters every day. That’s the best advice for sourdough bread-makers that I have. Your starter is like a baby; make sure you’re feeding your starter every day. Some of my friends ask me, ‘Why is my sourdough doing so bad?’ But I just tell them, you just need to feed it every day, and it needs to be like a routine. When you wake up every morning at eight o’clock, it needs to be fed.
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.