As we talk at C&S Sourdough in Fishergate, York, Paul continues making his bread, cutting off and weighing the dough, swiftly shaping the loaves before putting them to rest or into the oven.
It’s a vile morning outside, with cold rain hammering down, but the bakery is warm and comforting, smelling of newly baked bread and fresh coffee. The shop is shut and Paul is in full-on baking mode, having made about 80 kilos of dough overnight, all by hand.
That adds up to about 130 loaves. Large plastic tubs, like the kind used by builders to hold cement or rubble, are filled with resting sourdough that pops with languid bubbles. He has his own method, developed from reading baking books, including the sourdough bible Tartine by Chad Robertson and The Tivoli Road Baker by Michael James. “I went through all the recipes I could find and realised I just like doing it how I do it. I do it all by hand, I don’t use a mixer. I can’t afford one and don’t have space for one,” he says.
Paul, 36, is from Australia – Ballarat, about an hour from Melbourne. He trained as a chef and moved to England seven years ago with his partner Janet, who is from the UK.
They lived in London for a while and Paul worked at Michelin-starred restaurants, including at St John, under Fergus Henderson, staying there as a chef for 18 months. “I loved everything about it, to be honest,” he says.
They moved to York when Janet was studying and Paul worked around the city, including at The Bow Room in Gray’s Court for four years.
Then he had his accident, slipping on water, falling badly and snapping his hip. “Where the ball meets the femur I’ve got three massive screws in my hip,” he says.
His injury and the pandemic brought a desire for change. During lockdown he started making bread at home in the South Bank area of the city, selling to friends and through Instagram.
People liked his loaves and that gave him the confidence to open his bakery. Paul also realised he could plan his own hours and sit down between loaves, whereas being a chef is more full on. “You’re on your feet all day for 14 or 15 hours,” he says.
Paul and Janet – who co-runs the York children’s theatre company Story Craft Theatre – have two sons, Vinnie, four, and Ernest, 19 months. Ernest was born eight weeks prematurely, with a hole in his heart and Down syndrome.
This made Paul look at life again. “There was a big moment when I found out what he’d gone through,” he says.
Vinnie and Ernest are in the name. The C&S stand for Cosgriff & Sons and Paul hopes to build something he can hand over one day. “They theoretically own half the business,” he says.
Although he was mostly a meat chef, he liked baking bread and this has now become an obsession and his life. In the past year, he reckons to have made about 5,000 loaves.
His one-man bakery is the first in York with sourdough in the title. It is also the first to concentrate only on sourdough, although the Haxby Bakehouse and Bluebird Bakery, which now has a popular new bakery and café in Acomb to add to its market shop, do make sourdough bread.
Paul has been impressed by Phil Clayton’s loaves from the Haxby Bakehouse – “his bread’s phenomenal”.
Paul is dedicated to making sourdough, which is made without commercial yeast, using a natural starter instead. “I don’t want to do any yeast because I like sourdough. I like its health properties as well. It’s much better for gut health. People who can’t eat store-bought bread because of intolerances can eat sourdough.”
A typical loaf begins with the starter being left for 12 hours, before the loaves are shaped and rested for five hours, placed in the fridge for 12-18 hours, then baked. His minuscule bakery contains two electric bread ovens, one British, one Belgian. The British-built one let him down at a crucial moment.
“It’s a great oven but it decided to break down on my opening weekend,” says Paul. “All the elements at the back burst. The guy who built it for me had to come out and rebuild it at four in the morning.”
He sells five types of bread: the house sourdough, a loaf with 20 per cent dark rye, a porridge loaf rolled in oats, a fruit loaf with mixed fruit soaked overnight in apple juice and a malted seed loaf. Prices start at £3.50.
He also makes sourdough doughnuts and cinnamon buns and brownies and serves coffee from North Star Coffee in Leeds.
His loaves are French in style but only up to a point. “What I’ve found is that Italian people eat it and go ‘This is just like the bread we used to have at home,’” he says.
“And then Polish people eat it and say ‘It’s just like the bread we used to have at home.’”
As Paul continues cutting and shaping, while twisting and turning in the confined space, I worry that being interviewed might be slowing him down.
“No, I am happy to keep talking. I could talk under water with a mouthful of golf balls,” he jokes.
And he is content in his work. “I love doing what I do. I loved being a chef. It was a perfect career for me from when I started doing it about 20 years ago and it took me across the world.
“But this is the happiest I’ve been at work because I am doing my own thing and because I am doing something that hopefully will be taken on by my sons.”
C&S Sourdough, 36 Fishergate, York, is open Thursday to Sunday, from 7am until the bread sells out.