Braking to bake, Kate Reid designed race cars before perfecting the croissant

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Lamination is key to layered and airy croissants so Kate Reid devised a recipe for the home cook that doesn’t require expensive and large industrial equipment. Photo by Peter Dillon

Kate Reid was a successful Formula 1 engineer who designed race cars before shifting gears and to bake. Featuring recipes from her famed Melbourne bakery, her cookbook “Lune: Croissants All Day, All Night” is out now. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: Share a little bit about your beginnings and how you ended up designing race cars. 

Kate Reid: I think my love of motor racing, in particular Formula 1, started from a very young age. I'm really close to my dad, we've been best mates our whole life. And for me, Dad had loved motor racing since before I was born. And it felt natural to me that I was hanging out, probably sitting on the couch watching the Formula 1 races as they traveled around the world. But it wasn't until 1996 that the Grand Prix moved from Adelaide, which is in a different parts of Australia, to where I live, to Melbourne. I was about 13-years old, Dad bought myself and my brother a ticket to one of the practice days and took us along to the track. It was the first time that I'd seen a Formula 1 car for real. Maybe I should say I heard Formula One 1 for real because that happened before I saw it. And I just remember being so awe-inspired by this crazy technology that enabled a car to travel it. I knew at that moment that I had to be involved in the Formula 1 industry.

This is an amazing career – you're  getting to do something that you've wanted to do your whole life. And then what happens? You're in France, and you have a life changing croissant?

No, actually, I think the story is slightly darker than that. But as you said, I'd worked up until that point my entire life to get into Formula 1. That represents about a decade of focusing on the math and sciences at school, going to university, and getting an aerospace engineering degree. At the same time, trying to get experience in lower classes of motorsport, to make myself more desirable to the Formula 1 teams. So at 23-years old, I finally ended up with my dream job at the Williams F1 team. I think teenagers can be pretty imaginative, and I was no exception to that. So at 13-years old, I painted a pretty, probably unrealistic picture of what it looked like to work as an engineer in a Formula 1 team. I think the reality when I finally got there was quite different to that picture that I had painted. 

But I'm a chatterbox. I love collaborating with people. I love working with my hands and being in a really dynamic environment. But when I finally got into F1, the team that I was working at was definitely mid-pack, so not leading the races. I think because there's just so much money behind Formula 1 and the expectation to be at the front and to be winning, a lot of pressure is applied on everyone working in the teams to put all of their energy and effort into making the team get closer to the front of the pack. So we're working stupidly long hours. Working 16 to 18 hours a day, typically in front of a computer. We were discouraged from conversation in the office and the things that I told you that make me feel really great that I love in a job. I wasn't actually getting that stimulation.

I thought, “I've got to earn my stripes.” So I worked pretty hard in the first year. And I actually moved to another team after a year thinking, “maybe it'll be different if I move to another team,” but it was actually worse at the second team. I think the reality started to set in that the environment wasn't really conducive to making me happy. So I developed depression, and then actually an eating disorder. It wasn't because I had bad body image issues, it was purely because many aspects of my life were out of control. And inadvertently, I started to control the two things that I could, which was eating and exercise. And ironically, at the same time, my only moment of happiness in the day was deciding throughout the day at work, what I would bake when I went home, and I'd take it into the office the next day, and I would see how much joy even just for 10 minutes at morning tea, that it would bring everyone in the office. And ironically, that was the thing that would sort of make everybody come together and stop their work and put a smile on everyone's faces. So I was getting this joy from the baking and then also from seeing how happy it made everybody. 

It's so important for young women to hear these kinds of stories. I appreciate you sharing it.

I really think so too. And just to touch on that, there's still a bit of a taboo around eating disorders. And I think if we talk about it more and normalize the sharing of stories of recovery, people that are suffering from it out there can see that there is life and hope beyond an eating disorder. And it's not something that you should hide away from. It's something that support needs to be improved in the area. And the wonderful things can come beyond that. 

What was your first experience with actually making croissants? Did it happen within the context of a class or or did you just teach yourself?

When I finally came back from Melbourne after my few years in Formula 1, I did decide that I wanted to pursue baking, but I got jobs at little cafes baking fairly simple things like cakes, tartes and biscuits. But after a period of time, I was getting a little bit not bored, but not challenged by the easier recipes. I'd started to do some investigation about French pastry. And I ended up buying a book on Amazon called “Paris Patisseries History and Recipes.” It's this beautiful coffee table book. I came home from work one day and it had arrived, and I sat down on the floor of my lounge room and randomly opened the book. And the page that I opened was this double-page spread of a photo of pain au chocolat croissants.They were all piled up on each other. And it was a real macro photo where you could see the beautiful lamination and detail in every single pastry. And I was so enamored by this, like not just wanting to reach into the page and eat it but also the technicality that it took to produce those pastries, that I closed the book, walked to the nearest travel agent and booked myself a ticket to Paris. 

A few months later, I was in Paris and I wanted to go to the bakery where I'd seen the photo taken. So I walked in and told them the story. They gave me a whole lot of free pastries. I was so enamored by the experience that the next day I emailed the bakery and I said, “Oh look, you just gave me this incredible experience. I don't suppose you would ever consider taking me on as an apprentice.” And the bakery owner wrote back to me very quickly and he said, “Look, you don't speak French. We're a very small bakery, we normally wouldn't. But I can see the same passion and motivation in you that is in me. When do you want to start?”

So my first experience of making croissants was actually in the best bakery  in Paris, which is crazy. I worked in the bakery for a month doing an unpaid internship. I feel like I just lived in a movie for a month. Not that the actual work wasn't glamorous, it was incredibly physically challenging. I was learning this brand new craft in a language that I didn't speak so I had to be so visual and in learning and watching what was happening. I'd never been so fulfilled and stimulated by work in my life. So for me that month in Paris really solidified the fact that I picked the right path to follow. And in particular croissants just captured my imagination because not only are they so delicious, they are so incredibly difficult and technical to make. So that was like hitting off all the markers for me of you know, an aerospace engineer needing something technical that challenges them.

Talk about how you ended up back home in Melbourne. You're kind of reverse engineering what you learned in France, so you could produce it there.

So when I came back from Paris, I thought, I'm going to try making croissants at home. Surely I know everything there is to know about croissants. I've worked in a bakery in Paris for a month. So I bought a couple of books that had recipes for the home baker in them. And the two times I tried it, they were complete disasters. And I was a bit surprised. But when I was sort of reading through the recipe, I wasn't sure if the dough felt right, it felt a bit crumbly and dry. And maybe it felt a bit too cold to work. And I was struggling with the butter. And they definitely didn't come out of the oven like the ones had in Paris. So interestingly, on the back of those two tests at home, I decided to open a bakery that specializes only in croissants, which I think some people thought was completely crazy. 

I love this story so much. 

So I quit my job, I signed the lease on a tiny little shop, and I spent my life savings on bakery equipment. It's important to note that my job in Paris, considering I'd only been there for a month, was to make the croissant dough. So I was excited the first day that the bakery was ready to go and I could start my testing. I made the dough. I pulled it out of the fridge the next day. And I remember looking at it on the bench and thinking, “Oh my God, I've actually got no idea what to do next. I don't know how to use this bit of equipment. That's a laminator. I don't know how to create the layers in the croissants. I don't know how to prove them. I don't know how to bake them. Maybe I know 10% Of what I need to know.” 

So yes, when you say reverse engineered, I'd already established a business, I couldn't really afford to leave that behind and go back to school or do an apprenticeship. So I thought well, okay, I'm an engineer. And it's not like I'm going to put a croissant in a wind tunnel and test its aerodynamic properties. But maybe I can use the engineering process to figure out how to make these. So I imagined what my perfect end product would look like. And then I sort of started with a base level idea of how I needed to do it. And then every day, I just changed one variable at a time. And over the course of about three months, I ended up on a process that gave me what my perfect end product was what I dreamed about. So I reverse engineered the way to make croissants, but because I did that I ended up on a process that's very, very different to the classic French way of making them, you end up with a beautiful French croissant at the end of it.

You went through this reverse engineering process as you opened your business. Now you're confronted with writing a book for the home cook. So I'm just imagining that that requires a completely different set of engineering problems. So how does the Lune croissant differ from the recipe in Lune the cookbook?

I think I described those two experiences that I had at home, trying to make croissants from books for the home cook. I think when I embarked on writing the book, it took me nine years from founding Lune, to deciding to write a cookbook. I mean, I've been approached many times in the past few years, but nine years in I thought there's enough history behind Lune to write about the story of Lune, we've got a great collection of recipes that we've developed over the years. And I also feel like maybe I'm ready to tackle that. Trying to figure out how to make it at home because it was definitely PTSD from those two experiences prior to starting Lune. 

I had some ideas about how I could change laminating the butter into the dough, which in a commercial bakery, you have a piece of equipment called a laminator which really gently and consistently rolls out your dough and butter to allow you to get it thin enough to fold it again and roll it out and create those multiple layers. But at home, nobody has a laminator. It's a huge piece of equipment. And the equivalent that we have in our home kitchens is a rolling pin. And when humans use a rolling pin to roll out dough, we impart a lot more strength into the dough than a laminator does, which means the gluten bonds strengthen. And as you're trying to roll it out thinner and thinner, those strong gluten bonds pull the dough in and make it want to stay tight. So it's really hard to get it rolled out. And when you're pushing really hard on it, you often break the outer layer of dough and butter pops out, and you have to sprinkle flour on the bench. So your dough is not sticking, and then you've changed your perfect ratio from your recipe. And suddenly, it's a mess, your layers are bad, you've got more flour than you want. And you end up with a really bad product at the end, which is what I experienced.

I had this idea that maybe rather than creating a block of butter that was solid and was laminated in, you could soften the butter, not melt it, but just to spread consistency. And you could do the work on the dough, getting it rolled out and then apply the butter for the first time but also laminate the butter in two stages rather than one which you do in the commercial setting or as we do at Lune. So I was testing out these ideas. And they were working to a certain extent, but I was still finding the dough, those gluten bonds and in the dough were developing to be too strong. I really felt like I was beating my head against a brick wall. And finally, I had this realization that I'd been using the dough recipe for Lune. And I thought, “well maybe the problem is actually like for the home baker, we need to have a recipe where more extensibility or the ability to roll out the dough is easier for the home chef.”

So I actually went back right to the start back to square one. And I completely wrote the dough recipe from scratch for the home chef as well. So in the book, we create something called a polish, which is a pre-ferment, the polish is 100% hydration. I'm getting quite technical here.

That's good. 

So this polish is 100% hydration, which means it's the same, the same percentage of water to flour. And when you add that in when you create your dough, it actually creates a far more extensible dough. Once I tried this new recipe with the polish, then all the techniques that I was testing out with the differences in laminating the butter into the dough started working perfectly. I thought, “Well if I was doing this from an engineering perspective, you can't rely on one test to prove a whole theory.” So I tried it several times during that week. And each week the result came out perfectly. And I thought to myself, “I think I've actually figured this out.” Once I'd figured out the recipe, you then have to write down what you're doing and actually put that into words for the home chef and I just decided to leave no detail, unspoken. But then after I'd written the recipe I thought some people don't learn through words some people learn visually. So when we were doing the photo shoot for the book, it was really imperative to me that every single step in the process had a photo attached to it. So those people that learn visually could reference the image if the words weren't getting through to them as well.

Do you have a challenge looming in your brain, something that you haven't been able to perfect yet that is just niggling away at you that you must take on?

There are a couple of pastries that are definitely on my radar that are non-croissant related. One is the sfogliatella. It's been an obsession of mine for five years now. But knowing the energy and effort that I had to throw behind the croissant, sometimes I'm a little bit terrified to dip my toe into the water of a new challenging pastry. Also, I’d like to try the panettone, which I think is probably one of the most challenging baked goods to make really well in the world. Given that they are two of my favorite things to consume, that thrills me. 

Kate Reid worked her whole life to get a job with a Formula 1 team before confronting the unrealistic picture she painted in her head about the perfect career. Photo by Peter Dillon

“Lune: Croissants All Day, All Night” is the first book by Kate Reid featuring recipes from her famed Melbourne bakery, geared to the home cook. Photo courtesy of Hardie Grant.