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Rains Journal Vol. 12: Ruth from Black Isle

December 27, 2018

Words & Interview: Joshua Bredehoeft
Photos: Robert Rieger

In the uber-posh Berlin neighborhood of Mitte, you’ll find the unassuming, warm smile of baker Ruth Barry, owner of Black Isle Bakery. The space she calls her office resembles more of a minimalist’s art gallery on the Upper East Side than a flour-doused bakery. But it’s that sort of unexpected elegance that Ruth dreams into everything she does. We sat down with the gallerist turned baker to talk career transitions and the process of developing a perspective with baked goods as her medium. In her candid responses, Ruth’s honest portrayal of her journey is just as endearing as is it worthy of respect.


What was the inspiration to transition from the art world to the baked goods world?

I studied sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art, and after graduating I made my way to London via an internship in New York City. After some time spent modeling and some more interning, I took a position project managing the production of limited edition prints and multiples by leading contemporary artists. The experience was incredible, but ultimately I’m a maker at heart. I was restless and eager to work for myself, though I was also sure I didn’t want to pursue a studio practice. I spent a lot of time baking in my free time and it really made me happy. So I resigned from my job and started on the path towards becoming a professional baker.


What initially brought you into art?

My high school was very focused on academia, and though I’m deeply interested in how things work, I have a creative brain. I used to sit in science subjects and silently panic, I knew I was expected to be good, but it was so hard for me. I have a natural talent for music, and I’m a very visual person, I’ve just always been more drawn to the creative arts. I’m also mildly rebellious, I knew that pursuing art was to go against the grain somehow and that really appealed to me.



Why baking?

So many of my favorite memories center around baking – the birthday cakes my mum made us when we were kids, fresh morning rolls bought at the bakery near to the windy caravan site where we spent our childhood holidays, the bread and pastries at the German bakery I went to religiously as a student in Edinburgh, eating pirozhki in St Petersburg on a freezing winter’s day. Something baked has always been my go-to treat, and now I get to make treats for other people on a daily basis. There’s really no point baking unless you’re going to share the joy at the end.


How has your former career in the art world influenced your career as a baker?

I think there is actually a lot of cross-over between art and food. Making good art and making good food requires very focused attention to detail. My time spent working with artists at the top of their game taught me a lot about that – when you’re trying to create something perfect then you don’t take a shortcut to get there. Back when I was project managing I would sometimes spend weeks working with an artist and the printmaker simply trying to get the right tone of black in an image. I do the same with my recipes, I tweak and tweak and tweak, I’m rarely ever totally satisfied with a recipe. I’m never done learning or looking for improvement.


As an already established baker, what was it like to make a name for yourself in a new city?

Difficult but an important experience. In London I was fortunate to already exist in some kind of network that I could instantly rely on to support my business. In Berlin I was completely unknown, so I knew that if I wanted my business to be successful I was going to have to ask for that to happen. It forced me to be assertive and to reach out and make new connections. I slowly started to find clients, and soon enough clients started coming to me instead. That was the point that I knew things were going in the right direction.



What sets Ruth’s baked goods apart from the rest?

I’m totally motivated by the customer experience – if someone comes by the bakery and has a delicious slice of lemon drizzle cake, that cake has to taste as good every time that customer comes back. I’m not interested in elaborate decoration and trendy flavor combinations, I love to eat simple things that are made well and are balanced. That’s what you find on the counter at Black Isle Bakery.


What inspires the universe that is Black Isle Bakery?

Heritage and tradition are both sources of inspiration for me, and it was a challenge to place these things into a contemporary cultural context without it feeling contrived. The Black Isle is the peninsula where I grew up in the highlands of Scotland and now the namesake of my bakery. When it came to opening the shop, I asked my architects, to create a gallery-like environment to reference my background as an artist. Notes that I wrote referencing the Black Isle are displayed subtly throughout the space, more poetic than informational. Photographs that reference the paintings of the Old Masters hang on the walls. Basically Black Isle Bakery is inspired by things that I love – food, art, home, people. I’m really proud of the space, and I love that it tells a story.


Now that you have made a name for yourself amongst bakers and pastry chefs alike, what is your next big aspiration?

I’d love to write a recipe book. In bringing Black Isle Bakery to life I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with some unbelievably talented creatives and I think together we’d create a really special book. I’d love to get a retail line into production and I could envisage opening more stores in the future too. I have a fantasy of opening shops in all the cities I’ve ever lived in, and of course on the Black Isle…


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