Although Tiller Baking Co. supplies an impressive and growing list of restaurants in Charleston, including Fig, McCrady's, Edmund's Oast, Wild Olive, and Babas on Cannon, the artisan bread maker keeps a relatively low profile. "We are not very outward facing," says owner Joe Shea, who purchased Root Baking Co.'s former space from Chris and Nicole Wilkins when they decided to move their business to Atlanta in 2018. Indeed, emailing with the baker to set up an interview, he might even be described as reticent. Greeted by his bright-eyed and cordial children and wife upon arriving at their kitchen on Savannah Highway, the reason for his reserve starts to become a little clearer. It is obvious Tiller Baking Co. isn't just a business or brand, it is a family affair.
"I get to work with men that I consider my brothers. I get to support them with the work that we are all doing, and we each, in turn, get to serve one another. That is something unique," says Shea, describing the community he's built with Tiller. Later, another baker will come and begin baking off loaves. He, too, says Shea, will be joined by his wife. "We're very much about family here. It is why we are all doing what we are doing."
Like other notable bakers who Shea counts as inspiration — Jim Lahey who thought he was going to be a sculptor, Steve Sullivan who started baking bread in his college dorm inspired by his travels, and Peter Reinhart who, before becoming a celebrated baker, obtained an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte — Shea's passion for baking was first stoked during his liberal arts studies.
"I started baking when I was in college studying philosophy. I went to Roanoke College in Salem, Va. I had a professor there who would bake bread. He was kind of a renaissance man. I just got really into it from there."
After deciding that he preferred learning a skill to strictly intellectual work, he moved to Colorado where he began baking bread and pastry in Telluride. He then moved to San Francisco where he completed course work at the San Francisco Baking Institute and worked at a wood-fire bakery for about two years in Oakland. After marrying, he and his wife made the decision to return to the Southeast (Shea is a native of Alabama). In Charleston, Shea worked for two-and-a-half years managing the bakery at Butcher & Bee and then worked at Root Baking Co. for another two before starting Tiller.
"I want to make the best bread that I can and hopefully do it consistently, and then create the space and environment to build up other people," says Shea of his goals for Tiller Baking Co. Currently there are five people that make up the staff at Tiller, with two full-time employees. The majority had no previous experience baking before joining, something Shea considers a "boon and a burden."
"You've only got three to four ingredients you are working with," says Shea, "so a lot of it comes down to feel. That's the thing that is the hardest to teach. So much comes down to a manual dexterity thing. You just have to get the reps in, and do it over and over and over." Thankfully, he adds, doing it over and over again is an essential part of the job.
- Ruta Smith
- Early to bed, early to rise for the bakers at Tiller
The simplicity of the ingredients also makes choosing them critical to producing an exceptional product. "We mill 20 percent of the flour we use," says Shea. "The thought is that fresh milled grains make the bread taste better, and coincidentally it's better for you." Tiller also believes in using fresh local ingredients when possible. Not simply because it appeals to the Whole Foods crowd where their bread is also carried, but because the local ingredients they use happen to be excellent.
One source they count on is Geechie Boy Mill, which has been milling grits and growing, packing, and shipping grain and other freshly grown produce for over 40 years. For example, Tiller incorporates Geechie Boy's seashore black rye, grown on Wadmalaw Island, into their rye bread. It produces a product that is "really delicious, has an extra earthiness and spice, and a really rich, dark color," Shea says. They also have a special loaf that incorporates cooked Geechie Boy grits into the dough for a unique, thin crust, and dense, full-bodied, delightfully grainy texture.
Of course, Tiller Baking Co.'s breads, in addition to tasting delicious, look beautiful, from the braided ridges of their baguettes to the expertly drawn scores that create the impression of fern petals on their dense loaves. Shea is humble describing the technique that goes into his bread designs.
"I like to think about the distinction between artistry and artisanship. I think what we are really doing is artisanship because artists create new things and artisans hone simple things. The quotidien nature of the job pleases me ... there is beauty in the simplicity."
Shea says that he hopes to continue doing his part to educate and elevate the palate in Charleston for naturally leavened (sourdough) breads, and continue to push away from softer, white breads. It is a worthy endeavor. As Julia Child once said, "How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?"
Follow Tiller Baking Co. at tillerbaking.co.