7 Must-Read Life Lessons from a Baking Connoisseur

                Ben & wife Sharon. Photo: Penticton Western News.

               Ben & wife Sharon. Photo: Penticton Western News.

A beloved Penticton bakery has announced its closure due to the ALS diagnosis of its owner, Benjamin Manea.  (Ben intends to close Walla, unless someone is interested in taking it over.) Ben has built a loyal following over the past decade with his long-fermented breads at Walla Artisan Bakery and Cafe in the Cannery Trade Centre in Penticton. He summed up the “unexpected development” with a Yiddish saying, “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” 

[Since I always incorporate a song into a blog... Listen to a song from Ben's playlist while you read on...]

Ben was one of the original founders of the Penticton Downtown' Market. The Farmers' Market & Downtown Market has proven a lively adventure for foodies in the Okanagan. An adventure so big that even folks from Kelowna to Rock Creek travel to Penticton on Saturday's to do the journey.

“Despite my most careful planning, life took an unpredictable turn and perhaps this is one way that the universe signals to us that the perception of control is merely an illusion,” he wrote.

Walla has been part of my life as I spent much of my time working in the Cannery in the last 7 years. Ben is the type of man who would let me 'just come back later' to pay when I forgot change for a rosemary sea salt focaccia bun, he'll seem agitated at you coming in near closing and ordering food (but never turned you down) and he has what could be interpreted as a rough exterior - until I combed entire website and blog before I wrote this. Ben holds years of wisdom and drops life lessons in his beautiful food writing, and I've curated the best of Ben's lessons from his blog, to honour him and his role in our local (slow, real) food movement.

As a nutritionist I know how important the Slow Food movement is. Holistic Nutritionists' will carry on Ben's values. This blog is to honour Ben's life work and what he has done for our community and the real food movement in his time with us. His belief that "It takes more than an oven to craft a true artisan bread. It takes time… patience…and passion!" describes perfectly his dedication to real food, whole foods, with quality ingredients that are clean and his patience in honoring time-honored food traditions.

Lesson #1: Money is not Everything in Life; the Most Important Thing is to be a Mensch

"Mensch" is Yiddish for a person of integrity and honor. Ben's strong values are deeply rooted in his acts of service. This shows up in the way he prepares food slowly, he wants you to sit and enjoy. "Taking something to-go" is looked down upon in Walla Bakery (in the best way.) Ben didn't get into baking with the end goal of being able to drive a Lexus. His only goal is to share his love of food, his belief of traditional ways, his passion for sharing the most basic human trait - eating. He recognizes it's not just a business, it's a lifestyle and that if you want to break the mold the best way to do that is to make your mark and boldly go where no chef has ever gone before – go with a bang and make it memorable.

Lesson #2: Consistency

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Mr. Manea does not believe in the ’bad day in the kitchen’ story and it shows in his eye for detail when he explores eating out in other countries as well as around Penticton, and then writing about it. Ben believes that consistency should be the mantra in a kitchen - day in and day out. A military-like discipline is needed. No excuses. This is "old school" diligence that things of perfection are made of. Ben believes that "Practice makes perfect, and exercise makes excellence," This is a deep life lesson, consistency and "practice makes perfect" rings true whether it is business, sport or the art of baking. 

Lesson 3: Unorthodox Solutions

Sometimes you need to get creative in life, especially when it comes to food. When it comes time to clean out the refrigerator, Ben once decided for one time only to craft a unique loaf: using dough made with different modern, heritage and ancient flours to create a loaf that represented Walla’s pantheon of breads.

From Ben's blog: What name should this loaf be given, that incorporates wheat, whole-grain wheat, whole-grain organic Red Fife heritage wheat, whole-grain organic spelt, light rye, whole-grain organic rye, whole-grain organic Kamut and organic sorghum? After much thought about a name that would represent the inclusiveness of all these flours and flavours, the name ‘OMNIA,’ which is Latin for ‘EVERYTHING,’ came to me. And then I couldn’t ignore the humorous aspect of the fact that it perfectly rhymes with ‘INSOMNIA,’ which I sometimes experience as a baker.

Ben's words themselves reflect the unorthodox and unusual. In a world of fast food, fast technology and fast communication we must learn to slow down if we want to survive. Coming up with creative solutions to unique problems require a certain level of slow - stop, relax, think. Then act.

Lesson #4: At Grandmothers' Table

50 years ago, in a small Romanian town in the province of Moldova, called ‘Falticeni,’ Ben was born and raised in a ‘slow’ culture. The one our current "Real Food Movement" is emanating, copying, envying, striving for. Ben did not to know of canned soup, boxed ‘Mac and Cheese,’ or any other processed foods growing up. The term ‘organic’ didn't exist because everything was grown organically. Nothing was modified or altered. Everything was real, natural, home made. Ben has shown us that it is possible to maintain these values even today, it just takes a dedication and passion to do so. Is it easy? No. But lessons from grandmother teach us that the easy way isn't always the right way.

Lesson #5: Depth of Simplicity

According to Ben's blog, Walla’s cuisine can be defined as "sophisticated peasant food" which begs for you to just grab a piece of bread and ‘do the scarpetta.’ (the charming act of using a small piece of bread to mop up the wonderful sauce on your plate that you cannot possibly leave behind.) This is the art of food done differently. A simple + slow communication between human and food. At its core, this is the depth of simplicity that the whole foods movement calls for. Need I say more?

Lesson #6: Baking Croissants is like Doing the Tango

Mr. Manea says that baking croissants is like doing the tango: having the passion and counting the steps without practicing kills the dance. Unless you spend hours and hours folding and turning the pastry, all your knowledge and desire won’t deliver the perfect croissant, and you will be forever lost in the land of mediocrity, without redemption or parole. The land of mediocrity is not in Walla's vocabulary, nor is it a trait highly regarded. (see Lesson #2.)

Lesson #7: Flawed Perfection

 It's all about your perception. How you to choose to see the world. From Ben's blog "A Day at the Beach" 2016:

At some point in time, the sounds and visions morph into a spiritual experience and I cannot help but wonder how everything around me, in this flawed world – appears to be so perfect...

There is beauty and perfection in our human experience. Ben drops this line in a blog about an experience on the beach in the Mayan Riviera. Sharing a song he listened to on that beach, the one you're listening to right now, puts me right there with him. Aware, relaxed, open and accepting of the present moment.

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Ben will be doing a talk at the Shatford Center in Penticton.

April 9, 2018 at 6:30 pm.

A foray into non-traditional artisan baking and talking about his approach to breadmaking.

The Slow Food movement is key to supporting healthy bodies, our local economy and preventing the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions.  It forces us to learn to be aware, be diligent, have high standards and some level of responsibility about knowing where our food comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.

I promise you that my work within the Holistic Nutrition industry will carry on these slow food values. Thank you Ben for your dedication to real food, whole foods, with quality ingredients that are clean and honor time-honored food traditions. Thank you for your life lessons.

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