In the time of COVID, Sitka’s ‘bread guy’ is building community one loaf at a time

Owner of Southeast Dough Company, Andrew Jylkka reads a recipe out of “The Bread Bible” before testing out a new loaf. (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

American food writer M.F.K. Fisher once wrote that the smell of good bread baking  is “indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.” That may seem like high praise for what’s essentially the scent of yeast and sugar, but standing in the tangy, sweet aroma of Andrew Jylkka’s bread, Fisher’s words ring true.

For Southeast Dough Company’s Jylkka, baking bread is not just an occupation but a way of connecting, especially in an age when human connection has never been more tenuous.

“I’ve been transient for a lot of my 20s. I lived in a lot of different places. And that was always how I found folks was either through the food industry or just getting people together for food,” Jylkka said. “And I found that once I started doing the bread, that happened even quicker.”

When Jylkka came to Sitka last year at the height of the pandemic, he had no plan. He’d been working as a field guide in Wrangell for Alaska Crossings, but he needed a change. He didn’t know what to expect, but he knew bread, and he knew his way around a kitchen.

His first break came when local restaurant owner Rene Trafton hire him as kitchen staff at her restaurant, Beak. Trafton introduced him to the food scene in Sitka and even let him feature some of his own recipes on the menu.

“I was working for her and then also just starting to bake out of my home,” Jylkka said. “And then I would hand loaves to people and go “Hi, I’m Andrew, here’s a loaf of bread. And that’s kind of how it started. I had a lot of folks come up to me and say, ‘Oh, are you the bread guy?’”

Seven freshly baked loaves of break sitting in their pans on a stainless steel table
Jylkka’s cornmeal, orange and cranberry loaf (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

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Jylkka talks about bread with reverence, about the way it’s nourished us through the ages. He loves his bread and the people he makes it for, but if you asked him several years ago if he’d be making it professionally, he probably would have said no.

“My friend gave me a sourdough starter. And I’ve been a cook all my life but was a terrible baker. But there was something about the sourdough starter — I really enjoyed it. I started making loaves, they all came out looking like frisbees,” Jylkka said.

He didn’t always have a baker’s touch, but he persevered.

“Oh, it was joyful to get, like, my first loaf that had good consistent rise on it hadn’t blown out the side and didn’t have any weird bulges or anything,” he said. “And of course that was then followed by the, ‘How do I recreate this? How do I do it consistently?’ And I mean, that’s been that’s been the journey of the whole time. I still feel like I am learning something every single week.”

When he finally did get that perfect loaf, it didn’t take long for people to catch on. Jylkka started giving his bread out to friends at first and then dropping his loaves off at local businesses.

“I didn’t have any intention to, like, sell bread. I still had another job. But a friend who owned a little shop there tricked me into giving her some loaves for a tasting. And then the next day came to me saying something like, I need 20 loaves a week now. And that’s how Southeast Dough Company started,” Jylkka said.

Today, Jylkka moves methodically around the kitchen on the Sheldon Jackson campus, juggling trays of cranberry orange loaves and English muffins with ease. But as easy as he makes it look, the process is arduous.

A baker standing at a large oven, checking loaves of bread
Jylkka checks the internal temperature of his seasonal cornmeal, orange and cranberry loaf — a recipe inspired by his mom’s baking. (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

Sunday afternoons, he begins the baking process by refreshing his starter, affectionately named Audrey Two. After building up the starter, he leaves it overnight. On Monday mornings, Jylkka starts mixing and shaping his dough. After letting his loaves rise for a few more hours, he’ll finally start baking on Monday night.

Jylkka often delivers his bread directly to people’s homes, something he says can take upwards of four hours. But for Jylkka, it’s all part of being Sitka’s “Bread Guy.”

“During the pandemic, people really wanted some sort of interaction and something that made them feel cared for. And I think being able to deliver bread directly to folks throughout that achieved that goal,” Jylkka said. “People were often saying that that was like some of their only social interaction that they got, which was really touching.”

For Jylkka, making bread is as much about the ratio of flour to starter as it is the intention behind it. Starting a micro bakery in a new city in the middle of a pandemic only cemented his commitment to keep community and connection at the forefront of his business.

“I think it comes down to seeing the looks on people’s faces when they would get a fresh, warm loaf of bread,” he said. “There’s something about bread in general that touches people like in their heart, not just their stomach.”

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