OKLAHOMA CITY —
If you ask John McBryde now about crust, he’ll talk about his latest loaf of five-grain levain or offer a sample of sonnenblumenbrot, a German-style yeasted loaf with sunflower seeds and cracked wheat.
A few years ago, McBryde might have described crust terms of the igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks that comprise the outer layer of planet Earth. McBryde’s ingredients now wouldn’t even be a blip on the geological scale of millions of years that he used to study.
McBryde has been the owner-operator of Prairie Thunder Baking Co. in the Midtown district of Oklahoma City since 2008. A self-taught artisan baker, he is passionate about his breads and tends to leave the other products in his store — pastries and a cafe lunch menu — to a small staff headed by Alison Martin.
Of all the differences between careers in geology and baking, that’s probably the biggest, McBryde said: managing employees instead of being a one-man operation.
Well, that and working before sunrise. Fresh bread demands harsh baking hours so that the product is ready for breakfast customers and deliveries to other restaurants. As the first blueberry scone and pain au levain are being rung up for sale at 7 a.m., McBryde is dusting the flour off his apron and walking away from the oven.
When McBryde entered college in the 1970s to study film and television, he would never have guessed that his career path would take him to a bakery. He left Trinity University in San Antonio with two bachelor’s degrees — geology was a course adjustment when he realized that after the Watergate political scandal the job market was already flooded with journalists. He followed up with a master’s degree from the University of Austin.
The next 30 years would find McBryde working as a geologist for Mobil and then as an independent contractor at Mid-Continent Minerals Inc. in Oklahoma City. He also worked on a few projects with his father, a petroleum engineer who is still active in the field. Along the way, he raised two sons with his wife, Marla, and then began looking ahead to what his retirement would be like someday.
McBryde wasn’t ready to settle in. He’d seen too much of the world in his work, or more specifically, too many bakeries. By 2005, he had a new plan.
“At the time, there was not an artisan bakery here in Oklahoma City,” he said. “It was one of the things I had come to really enjoy when I traveled to other cities, so I looked around and thought, ‘Why not?’
McBryde told The Journal Record that he was lucky to ride the crest of a wave of development of three major components: the Midtown renaissance, a boom in new restaurant openings and more people moving into the inner city. He supplemented his bread-making business model with several restaurant contracts for dinner rolls and other products, and the triangular retail building on NW 10th Street near St. Anthony Hospital has proven to be a nexus of activity.
Moving from geology to baking wasn’t as much of a conceptual shift as people might assume, he said.
“I’m basically still a scientist at heart, even here in the bakery, with my analytical skills,” he said “Geology isn’t just about static measurements. If you’re doing it right, you’re outdoors or in the earth, trying to get a sense of it with a deeper understanding than most people imagine.
“And there’s a fair amount of creativity in prospecting geology,” McBryde said. “You bring together all the information you collect and then you interpret it, looking for the patterns and how it all fits together. Really good bakers think the same way about time and temperature and how different processes change the way ingredients interact with each other.”
Laura Grisso, campus director at Platt College in Oklahoma City, said McBryde’s perspective makes sense. Bakery students are the chemists of the food world, whereas culinary chefs remind her more of artists. The school’s program coordinator, Gene Leiterman, has a background in zoology, she said.
“They have to be a little more exact in what they do — and I know the culinary people are going to get mad at me for saying it — because they can’t just throw everything together and make it work,” she said. “If you put too much garlic in a dish, for example, you can still serve it. But your bread might not rise.”
Grisso also confirmed that McBryde’s career timing was good: Platt’s most recent data shows a 78-percent placement rate for bakery students, about half of whom are working in small retail shops and half in larger corporate kitchens. The industry benchmark is 66 percent. She said the market has been steady with a slight increase.
Bryan Tapp, the chairman of geosciences at the University of Tulsa, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see other geology students make big second-career shifts like McBryde. Geologists are more than science wonks, he said.
“Life is about much much more than just rocks,” Tapp said. “A lot of times you’ll see geologists with interests in the arts, and if they choose to go in that direction, it’s fantastic. A lot of kids are very artistic and take additional coursework in music and art and languages. It’s up to the individual to pursue what enriches their lives the most.”
On the other hand, Tapp said the geology field now has more job openings than students to fill them.
McBryde said he has no intention of ever going back to that work. He also entertains the possibility that he might even pick up another interest before he’s ready to retire with Marla — he did all the woodcraft decor on Prairie Thunder’s walls himself, for example. McBryde said he enjoys staying busy.