Jim Witty

arda Stoliar has creativity down to a science.

Wherever you look in her well-appointed kitchen, order prevails. Bins of ingredients - flour, powdered vanilla, cornstarch - are placed just so; she'll never have to take more than a couple of steps to find what she needs. The same goes for her industrial-strength, up-to-the-minute appliances - the water-infused gas-fired French bread oven, gleaming silver-tone refrigerators (there are six, strategically placed around the house), tabletop induction burners, a biscotti slicer, a blast freezer. Her formulas (”recipes” to the Betty Crocker crowd) are based on years of trial and occasional error and solid molecular chemistry (Stoliar can tell you the crumb structure of a croissant from 50 paces).

According to the 64-year-old teacher-consultant and world-renowned baking expert, a cook can't soar to new heights without being grounded in the basics.

”A well-run bakery is like a ballet,” Stoliar says from the headquarters of the International School of Baking inside her spacious Bend home. ”It's beautiful to watch. If it's not well run, it's like a circus. An angry circus.”

Stoliar's raison d'etre is to choreograph the ballet, to calmly build a better blintz while chaos swirls just outside the kitchen door. She imparts that confidence-building expertise through individually tailored sessions, one baker at a time.

They come to Bend from the far corners of cupcake Earth and pay $500 per day to make sense of the baking business or some offshoot thereof. There's the cookie maker from the Isle of Man, the promising pizza chef from Portland, the wedding cake artist from the East Coast and the Indonesian-born pastry entrepreneur from North Carolina. And that's just a few upcoming weeks in July.

Stoliar has coached Chinese bread makers, Italian sweet cheese dessert chefs and American doggy biscuit bakers.

”I love it,” says Stoliar. ”I can become totally immersed in a different culture for a month or two weeks right here in Bend, Oregon. My students become good friends.”

But not because she goes easy on them. Stoliar has a reputation for a vigorous work ethic and relentless attention to detail. Students spend eight to 10 hours a day honing their skills - say, bagel making or chocolates - and are assigned four hours of reading each night.

”A bakery school is only as good as how successful a person is after they leave,” Stoliar says.

Stoliar's assistant, Zion Yerman, met Stoliar while taking one of her community education classes at Central Oregon Community College.

”The classes are amazing because you're getting this international cooking experience right here in Bend,” she says. ” ... She has groupies waiting for classes to come on line. She works you hard.”

For good reason, says Stoliar.

”I want people to go back and be able to think their way through Aunt Suzie's old recipe,” she says.

Not all of Stoliar's students are intense professionals bent on perfecting their craft or starting up a new business. One couple Stoliar taught recently traveled from San Francisco to Bend to learn how to bake cookies with their grandchildren.

Which brings us to Aunt Suzie and the stuff that goes into all those goodies. Stoliar has hundreds of formulas for pastries and bread, chocolates and biscotti that she shares freely with clients. When those clients are in Bend and cooking with the master, they're also using the best ingredients money can buy. For instance, Stoliar stocks 18 types of sugar and the finest vanilla available (the world market for premium vanilla recently slipped from $800 a gallon to $600).

Stoliar, who cooks through life with the burners on high, says it was never her intention to become a world-class baking instructor. As a child growing up in Portland, her dream was to become a shoe designer. And, after graduating from the Pratt Institute in New York with a degree in fashion design, Stoliar became just that - a high-end women's shoe designer - breaking into the difficult industry and eventually forming her own successful company.

”It was such a rarefied target,” she says with a smile. ”It was a challenge ... I never wanted to do something just OK.”

Stoliar married businessman David Stoliar, moved to Tokyo and ended up manufacturing all the Buster Brown children's shoes along with several other lines.

She and David moved to Bend in 1972.

”David had never lived in the United States,” she explains. ”When we toured Bend, David was impressed. Next to Monte Carlo, this was a place he could retire.”

For the next seven years, they commuted between Tokyo and Central Oregon and spent a lot of time in Europe on shoe business. It was in Paris (pastries) and Venice (breads) that she learned to bake in the European way.

Back in Bend where ”the air smelled fresh, the water tasted good and it was quiet,” Stoliar phased out of the shoe business and got heavily involved in the Humane Society of Central Oregon. Stoliar spearheaded a fundraising bake sale that raised $2,000 the first year, $4,000 the second and $7,000 the third year.

”I wanted a one-day bakery, not a bake sale with green pies,” she recalls.

That led to Stoliar opening Breads of France, a European-style bakery she operated from 1979 to 1983 in the building that now houses Toomie's Thai Cuisine restaurant in downtown Bend.

Stoliar eventually closed up shop to repair her hands, which were wracked with carpal tunnel syndrome, a hazard of the baker's trade.

Today, her International School of Baking, with a heavy presence on the Internet, keeps her flying. Literally. She's off to South Korea in the next couple of weeks as a representative of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Bookending that trip are baking-related journeys to Arkansas and Nevada, then back to Bend for more one-on-one mentoring.

”This is just the way my life is,” she says. ” ... I have a ball. The only time I'm not happy is when I have a student who is not happy.”

Which happens infrequently, she says. Sometimes it's because they're here because someone else wants them to be. Sometimes they just don't have the passion to learn baking from the bottom up.

But that's the way it has to be.

”Once you capture the science,” she says, ”then you can create.”

Jim Witty can be reached at 541-617-7828 or jwitty@bendbulletin.com .

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