A chat with Ann Arbor's food guru, Keegan Rodgers
ANN ARBOR – The name Keegan Rodgers is synonymous with delicious food and culinary education in town.
Rodgers first made his mark when he became the head baker at the People's Food Co-op eight years ago and developed its line of tempting treats in the display case at Cafe Verde.
Then, his impact spread when he began teaching monthly gastronomy classes at the Ann Arbor District Library. Hundreds of people show up to learn his tips, tricks and philosophy on food.
We sat down with him recently and picked his brain about his career, love for the kitchen and his newly-opened, personal bakery in Chelsea.
What's your background?
“I went to Schoolcraft College. And after Schoolcraft, I worked for a while for Courtney Clark at Cake Nouveau. I was one of her bakers, and her cakes are amazing. The art is just awesome. But I'm not that, and it wasn’t a good fit professionally. So, we parted, and that’s when I got the job at the co-op. It’s been amazing.
"Before then, I was living up north and I was doing a job I didn’t like. I left everything up north, moved down here, went back to culinary school. I knew I wanted to own my own bakery, and I knew a bank wouldn’t look at me for a business loan if I didn’t have credentials. I went back, I was 40 at the time, in culinary school with all these kids. And it was fine because I had the experience."
You’ve been with the co-op for 8 years. Tell me about your time there.
"I started as the baker. I was it. I was hired to build the bakery, and I had free reign. The co-op was like, 'As long as people are going to eat it, it has clean ingredients and it makes money, do it.' It took me a few years, and I hired some people. I finally got a key to the building to get in early enough to make fresh muffins for coffee at 7 a.m.
"Over four years, it became a department of six people. When I started, it was $300 a week in sales, then it went to $500 a day in sales. There were like three things they had that they've kept, but everything else is mine."
How did you develop the pastry line?
"A really dear friend of mine, her son is allergic to everything. I feel so bad for this poor little kid. He knew he had the allergies and knew to check with his parents if he could have something. I mean, everybody has to have a treat. Everyone. Doesn’t matter what it is, doesn’t matter what your dietary requirements are. You need a treat.
"So it’s my job to use the creativity that I have about baking and pastries and the chemistry to come up with something that everyone can eat, and that’s really what I do.
"There's five lines of items that we carry (at the co-op): Conventional, which is full-everything; gluten-free; vegan; gluten-free; and vegan and raw."
How did your relationship start with the library?
"I absolutely love working at the library. It’s got to be four or five years now. The outreach coordinator for the co-op was looking for classes and a way to expand, and one of the principles of the co-op is education. I firmly believe in teaching, and I have such a passion for baking and pastries, and I love to share that information. So, I came up with a couple of class ideas and I met with Erin from the library, and she and I sat down and she walked me through a couple of them. Now I do two classes a month every month."
Do you come up with all the concepts?
"A lot of them, but Erin will say, 'These things are on trend right now, can you cover a class on that?' One class coming up in November is soups, stews and chowders. I love soup!"
What’s that experience like teaching people of all abilities?
"It’s challenging but it’s also really cool because, depending on what the question is, I can tailor the answer to someone who’s a little less experienced as well as someone who’s a little bit more experienced.
"A question I get all the time is, 'Why can’t you just not use sugar?' Sugar has seven different functions, and only one of them is sweet. So, depending on why you’re removing the sugar, you have to replace that function, somehow. Baking is chemistry, and that’s what I like about it. It’s really regimented, precise, detailed. Because if you think about a cookie and a cake -- flour, sugar, butter, eggs -- what you do to them is the difference between a cookie and a cake. It all matters.
"It’s wild, but the most complex thing is a cookie. To get a consistent, perfect, round cookie every single time is really difficult. That, and bread. The fewer ingredients with bread, the more complicated the process."
What have your favorite workshops been at the library so far?
"The French macaron. I love doing that one. The first time I did the French macaron was at the Malletts Creek Branch, and there were 250 people. It was amazing."
What are your favorite items that you’ve developed at the co-op over the years?
"Our pumpkin coconut mousse is amazing. It started out seasonal, but there was such a demand for it that we started to do it year-round.
"The NBC, which is a cupcake. It’s soy-free, dairy-free, nut-free, wheat-free -- which is how I came up with the name because it’s 'Nothing But Chocolate.' The other thing to think about is Depression-era baking. They didn’t have access to eggs or butter or sugar. A lot of it anyway, they just didn’t have it. So they came up with creative ways to still bake cakes and cookies without using those items."
Tell me about your personal bakery.
"It’s called The Lakehouse Bakery. It took me a while to come up with it. I was sitting on my back porch, and I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. There’s the lake, there’s my house, and there’s the bakery.' I love puns.
"I moved in in June, and I had my first test class with my neighbors – who are the most phenomenal people on the planet – in March. I’m self-funded. The classes average $60 a class per person. They’re two to three hours, depending on what we’re doing. This is an introduction, so you get the idea and you go home with some stuff and you have fun with some friends.
"The Farmers Market in Chelsea started in May. I had six weeks vacation being built up at the co-op. I asked if I could take Friday off all summer long so I can do the farmers market. So I took every Friday off, I worked in my bakery and made whatever I could, and then sold it the next day at the farmers market downtown."
Is this something you’re hoping to do full-time eventually?
"Yeah, the co-op knows that. I’ve been completely upfront with them. Transparency is critical for me. I think it’s really important. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it’s going to happen. And they know that, and they’re okay with it."
Do you have any final thoughts?
"I love and am passionate about food and food justice and making sure that the food we eat is sustainable and that it feeds not just our body, but our souls. Food can be such a beautiful thing, sitting around a table with your family, whether they’re by birth or by choice, and just sharing that time together is so important. It really matters.
"And food is the one thing, no matter what, whether you’re vegan, vegetarian or not, you’ve gotta eat. So why put junk in your mouth? Make it things that you can pronounce, make it things that you enjoy the flavor of and make it things that you can share, want to share and are excited about eating."
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