‘The bakery is like a family to me’: the asylum seekers and refugees building a new life on sourdough starter

When Tseten Dorjee arrived in Sydney from Tibet five years ago with his political refugee father, he had, understandably, never heard of sourdough. “At home we eat momo, filled dumplings and flatbreads made with barley flour.”

Now a graduate of the Bread and Butter bakery social enterprise training scheme, he says “my favourite product is the Kalamata olive bread.”

Dorjee is one of 53 artisanal bakers who have graduated into the hospitality industry – his fellow alumni hail from Sierra Leone, Mongolia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and, increasingly, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Ma Du fled her home in Myanmar’s troubled Karen state after Burmese soldiers burned down her village. She spent 10 years living in a refugee camp on the Thai border with her two children, before coming to Sydney in 2007. Brought up on unleavened bread that resembles naan, today she specialises in pastry making, training the new intake in how to cut and fold butter-rich, yeasty dough to make perfect croissants and pain au chocolat in a technique known as laminating.

Some Bread and Butter bakers who want to work closer to home find jobs in more traditional outlets – many, like Ma, have stayed with Bread and Butter long term.

Somprasong Srisungnern, another trainee turned teacher, says “the bakery is like a family to me”.

And what would a family be without nuptials? Paul Allam and David McGuinness, the duo that launched Bread and Butter, as a social enterprise offshoot of their successful Bourke Street Bakery business, did not see their roles as matchmakers. But their venture recently celebrated its first wedding, when two trainees-turned-employees from Iraq and Syria tied the knot following an in-house romance.

Other successful alliances have also taken place, uniting Bread and Butter’s artisanal small batch approach with large retail clients – including Harris Farms and now, Woolworths, who have rolled out in-store Bread and Butter “bread bars” in Metro stores across Sydney.

The shift from wholesaling to the hospitality industry to retail was prompted by the first wave of Covid in 2020 – a marriage of convenience which kept the trainee bakers employed when restaurants and cafes closed.

The first bread bar, which opened early in 2021, soon beat the sales records of all other artisanal breads. At Easter, their hot cross buns outsold rivals by an enviable margin.

Back in 2010, Allam was unfamiliar with the term “social enterprise” when he received an unexpected request from an orphanage on the Thai-Burma border. Could he come and teach local Burmese refugee women how to use a new oven to make bread? He took up the invitation and returned from the experience fizzing with ideas about starting a similar project back home.

Realising that there were virtually no paid opportunities for asylum seekers and refugees, Allam and his business partner, McGuinness, met with representatives from western Sydney communities who were falling through the cracks of traditional employment schemes.

Within a year they set up 12-month paid traineeships which are Tafe accredited. At the same time, trainees received intensive English language support from retired ESL teachers, together with work experience opportunities in different bakeries and kitchens across Sydney.

The process was a learning curve. For instance, sacks of flour had to be halved in weight to make them easier for female trainees to carry – a small adjustment for a big result.

Ten years on, there are still adjustments to be made. Now, many trainee bakers live in high risk LGAS. Like all food production workers, they are tested for Covid-19 every three days.

But the current lockdown has hammered the business. “We’ve lost 40% of our most profitable channel,” says Bread and Butter chair Cindy Carpenter.

“It has really whacked our cash flow and threatened the training program. We are going to launch a crowdfunding appeal to raise $250,000 so we don’t have to delay the next intake of 10 trainees. We took in several Syrian refugees, and would like to take Afghan evacuees if we can.”