Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Joe Bowie, Jr.: The Stuff of Life

Joe Bowie, Jr.: The Stuff of Life

interviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

Joe Bowie, Jr.
(photo by Amber Star Merkens)
You can tell people, over and over, how much you love something, but when they see you doing it, they see the love. 
Bread is life, and it's living.
I'm a real bread nerd.

My mother ran one of the cafeterias at Michigan State University, and my father worked for General Motors. He started on the line and worked his way up to white collar, middle management--both very hard workers. I have one sister who is a year older, and we are thick as thieves and always have been.

I was a little bit of a strange and nerdy kid, loved school, loved learning. My parents taught us how to read at a really young age and how to write. I remember it very fondly. Basically having a good time and making good friends, though my sister was probably more social and socially at ease than I was.

I liked things on tv like The Brady Bunch. I liked anything with magic: Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie and My Favorite Martian. I'd play with my friends, and I'd be, like, "You can be Captain America, and I'm going to be a warlock!" I just wanted to be a big ol' witch!

I played tennis a little, but my sister was really athletic--better at baseball and things than I was. I wasn't bad, but they put me on the team because she wouldn't play unless I played.  So I was always like stuck out in right field where no one hit the ball. She was the best first baseman in our city at ten, eleven years old.

Tennis, though, was one of the things that felt natural to me. I liked all the things that felt graceful--ice skating, rollerskating. I watched all the conventionally clich├ęd gay male sports like ice skating and gymnastics.

In junior high, I was the “Smart Black Kid.” I liked coaching and teaching anyone who needed tutoring. I played volleyball and tennis. I played in our school symphony and our city’s junior symphony, playing the double bass. I was the smallest kid and played the largest instrument.


When I was a kid, I had all the doctor toys, the doctor kits and a [Milton Bradley] game called Operation. My great grandmother used to call me "Doc," and my family would let me prescribe candy pills for them.

I was always going to be a doctor and loved science. And so it was really strange for me to love to do other things like art. I drew really well and wrote a story that won a citywide award when I was ten. But you kind of put those things away, and my parents were very practical.

For college, I settled on Brown University's pre-med program for African-American students. All summer, studying science--really, really fun.

It was strange to be away from home. You could make all your own decisions as far as what courses to take and whatever. I had always done what was expected. I'd never done anything that would cause anyone pause.  You'd never look at me and say, "He's going to rebel," because I never did.


But, in freshman year, I had a friend who dared me to go to a dance class. So, I went. I took the dance class. And boy! It really threw me for a loop because I kind of liked it a lot.

I had danced around a lot when I was a kid, and I watched it on television and loved it. My mother used to take me to shows– Eubie! and Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, Ain't Misbehavin' and The Wiz. But my parents really weren't into the dance thing. There were all those stigmas attached to it.

I never enrolled in a dance class, but the head of the department--wonderful woman, Julie Strandberg, Carolyn Adams's sister--was the teacher, and she would just let me come in and take class. There weren't very many men dancing, and there were a couple of student companies.

I would just go to the studio and dance. My world was turning around. I had gone in with a plan, and now the plan was changing because I was changing, and I didn't know how to express that, how to articulate it to my parents.

My grades dropped for a moment, and I had always done well. It was partially rebelling. I didn't go to class as much as I should have. I had a physics class that I barely went to. (I never liked physics.) I was trying to be me for the first time, and it wasn't easy.


Fortunately, Brown was, for an Ivy League school, very liberal and open. They told us early on, in the pre-med program, that you can major or concentrate in something else. You don't have to be a Bio major or Chem major. I could take advantage of a curriculum that allowed me to explore other things I liked.

I started taking literature classes--in particular, poetry. And still did the science thing, sort of on the side, and started dancing more and going to dance class more. I was in both student companies. I spent any time I could in the dance studio. I would even write my papers in the studio. I don't know who I thought I was or what I thought I was, but I was really kind of happy with myself for the first time. It wasn't about an achievement or an award. I really felt good in my skin.

At that time, my parents didn't know people who were actors and dancers in our city. People sang in church, had great voices, but we didn't know of anyone who was in a show. It was really frightening for my parents to spend all this money for me to go to college and then not come out on the other side with a degree and accolades and a profession that everyone expected.

After college, I spent the summer at Jacob's Pillow with The Jazz Project. I worked with Milton Myers and Otis Sallid and Lynn Simonson--all these great people--and then I went to New York and said, "I'm going to see what happens."

So, when I got into Paul's company, I remember my father asking me, "Well, do you have a salary?" And I said, "Yes."

"Do you have health insurance?"


And that's all they needed to know, even thought they didn't know who Paul Taylor was.

My first year with the company, we performed at the University of Michigan, an hour and a half away from my parents' home. So, my parents came. Paul was really great about making sure that, if you were in your home state or your home city, you were in everything. They were going to get to see you. I'm pretty sure I was in every piece in the program. I was, like, 23. Everyone wanted to meet my parents afterwards since they hadn't come to the shows in New York.

My mother, my great aunt and my dad came, and I walked out of the dressing room, and my mother looked at me, and she was crying, and she was shaking me, and she was saying, "You are really, really good. You are really, really good." And my dad was standing there as a proud papa. He wasn't the most emotional... And he was, like "You know, it was great to see you up there. That was really beautiful."  That was the first time they really got it.

You can tell people, over and over, how much you love something, but when they see you do it, they see the love.

And so my mother, she knew I loved school because of my grades. Saying I love dancing was like saying I love the clouds, to my mother. It didn't resonate at all, and then when she saw me up there with full joy in this company. I was the only Black face up on the stage in that company, and they were exceptionally proud. That's where it sort of turned, and they started to understand it.

I left Paul's company to join Mark's company. Whenever Mark saw my parents, he was so sweet to them, and our executive director Nancy Umanoff would always make sure that they had great seats at shows.


They started to understand a little bit more about what I was doing, and I think that the only worry was, “How much longer can he do it?” With other professions, if you do something for twenty years or whatever, you've got a pension, retirement. For dancers, what comes after is not so evident.

There was a part of me that could have continued to teach for Mark and set pieces for Mark, be assistant director for operas and things--which is really fun for me--but I always loved to bake. It's stereotypical, but I won a Home Economics award when I was 14!

I once baked cupcakes for one of my colleagues in Mark's company because I didn't have time to buy him a gift. I had the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook and made cupcakes. They fought over them like five-year-olds at a birthday party!

I was, like, "Here, John. These are for you. You can do whatever you want with them." He said, "Thank you," and they were gone!

I was, like, Oh!

So, I started baking for people’s birthdays. I would try to figure out what they wanted or their personality. Or I would say, "Give me an ingredient, and I'll make something for you." I'd bring in pecan pies, something like that. Towards the latter part of my dance career, baking was always around.

I went on a tour of the French Culinary Institute for their pastry department. I even sat in on a couple of classes. But I said, "This isn't for now."

It was also $45,000 for six months, and I was, like, "Wooooo! Did anyone tell you what I've been doing for the past twenty years?"

I'd ask some people "What did you do before this?" And they’d say, "I managed a hedge fund, and I decided to bake." And I was, like, "I chose the lucrative career of being a dancer, and now I'm choosing the also-lucrative career of being a baker!" They’d say, "I work for JPMorgan during the day, and I come and take these classes at night." And I was, like, "I don't do that! I work for a dance company!"

In the company, all of my friends were gone or going. I still had a few close people. The toll on your body....  I'd danced for quite a few years, and it's not that they weren't beautiful. But you start to look at it and say, “What can I bring to this? I think you should take me out of this. Choose him. He's dying to do this, and I've done it for so long.”

So we started figuring out, how much I wanted to dance or go on tour. Sometimes, you won't go on tour; you'll stay and do this or go to such-and-such university and do this for the company. That’s what I do. I never had any designs to choreograph, but I am a very good rehearsal director. That's something I love and do well, and I like to coach people and nurture them.


Career Transitions for Dancers held a day at our center, the Mark Morris Dance Center, and showed us that we could apply for $2,000 grants. Knowing how little we make in our careers, they wanted to see if we could try something that we really were interested in without spending our own money and then deciding that it wasn't for us.

I'd found an interesting artisan bread baking class for five days at the French Culinary Institute, but I didn't have $1,500 to spend on it.  So I wrote my essay, sort of connecting baking to dance. I wish I had a copy of it! I was very happy that I had spent a lot of time with words up to that point in my life, because you can make connections--and, in the arts, you are more likely to make connections between things. I remember something about "a safe haven of baking and dance" or something! I don't know. But I submitted it, and that was that.

And then I got a call from Career Transitions: I was one of the finalists and had to interview. I wasn't in New York at the time, but they had just opened up an office in Chicago, and I was setting one of Mark's pieces in Milwaukee. So, they had someone call me and interview me there. Then I got a letter of congratulations. They gave me a check for 1,500 bucks! I think in my account I still have $500 left. You're given the full $2,000, and the rest remains available to be used.

Bread is the staff of life. Almost every culture has bread. It's not like having a cookie, which is a treat. Bread is life, and it's living, and it's different all the time.

I can let red velvet cupcake batter sit there. It will still make a cupcake, but it will ferment and won't be delicious. It won't be beautiful. [Bread making] had an aesthetic point of view, because you would score it and shape it and bake it and it would come out as this beautiful thing with varying colors and textures because they were naturally blooming out of the flour and yeast and the salt and water. The four ingredients were like magic. I'd always wanted magic.

When I put these things together, nothing that comes out of this oven looks like what I put in, and that's why I like baking more than cooking. If you put a chicken in the over, it's going to come out still a chicken. But baking was like alchemy, so fabulous.

That it's a living thing can also be frustrating. You can't control it, and that’s also exciting. In my career, I've worked in situations where it's really stressful, like when you work for Chef Daniel Boulud, and you have bread to get out, and it has to be perfect, because every French chef has an idea of what a baguette looks like–the one from his region or the one from his favorite bakery. And you have to appease all of these people. And if it doesn't come out perfectly, we put it on the family table, or we throw it away, and then there are people who would be dying for this piece of bread that I'm making. There are things like that that are hard for me at times.

It's arduous. You're on your feet. People are, like, "Oh, you've been on your feet all day as a dancer." But I was moving around. When you're in a bakery, you're standing there for nine, sometimes ten hours. It's tiring but not in the same way as moving or jumping around in dance. It's hard on your body. I'm not 22 lifting these things; I'm 49.

The actual bread making itself is pretty much always a joy, even though there's a routine to it. I like that routine. It's like taking class. You might not want to, but you need to go to class to do what you love.

I need to scale out and mix these ingredients to create what I love--a decent bread. That's part of it, not separate from it. People say, "Oh, I don't go to class." Different things work for different people but, for me, it was always that I liked the idea of maintaining so that, when I got on stage, I could worry about other things besides where my body was. The thing about taking a class was, "Let me feel where everything is."

When you get to take a loaf of bread from start to finish, you get to know where everything is moving. You get to check in all the time. I like that aspect of it.

It's endlessly interesting to me that I'm a nerd. I'm a real bread nerd. I watch videos on shaping things. I read about the proteins that make the gluten structure. I can't stop it!

My first job out of school, I was in a research and development kitchen in a little bakery run by Le Pain Quotidien. I always loved to teach; it was a natural fit for me. I got to do production and learn more about bread baking. The woman who ran it, an instructor at French Culinary, we hit it off. I knew how the bakery worked. We were a small team. I worked there for a year, then left because I thought I should go experience other things. And now I'm going back to help develop classes there.

It's a wonderful ride. I learned so much about myself. I learned a lot about patience. I can't control the bread. I can know all the variables around it that will help me have an idea. Dancing was a wonderful thing, but the idea of putting my hands in dough is gorgeous.

You know how it feels when it's not going right--also,when it's not doing what you want it to do. The same thing with your body: "Oh, I used to rebound more quickly after these shows. This didn't hurt as much."

In this profession of baking, you realize the process is so important. It echoes, many times, how you're doing personally--not that I bring my personal life into work, but some days I feel impatient, work is particularly arduous, or days when it feels like I'm as light and airy as the baguette I just baked. What a beautiful crumb!

Although a baguette is not my favorite bread! My favorite bread is called a miche–an old country French bread. Not everyone has an oven. So, you'd bring your bread to a communal oven, and you'd cut it or score it in a way that would mark if for your family. That scoring also helps the bread rise. They would bake them all together, and later you would come and get them.

You can get a lot of volume with miche bread, and they're full of flavor. They're all naturally fermented. I used to make this one with starter wheat and rye, cooked and fermented for a long time, and there are these coffee and caramelly kind of flavors in it. And it's just bread. The crust is dark, and once you let it cool, you taste so many different things. That is my favorite bread to eat and to make.


Do I bake off-duty? I do! I'm that crazy guy! My boyfriend always says, “I can't believe that, on your days off, you're baking!”

In the past maybe three and a half months, I've been making more sweets, but when I was baking more bread, I would bake sweets at home--and sometimes bread, but mostly cookies and cakes and stuff like that.

I have beer and cheese bread that people tend to like, and also I would make challah for Fridays, things like that. I love to bake at home.

I can usually tell when it's a job that I'm not loving, I don't bake at home. It's funny, when I'm happy at work and feel great about what I'm doing there. I tend to bake all the time. When I feel blocked in some way, I don't bake as much at home, and it feels like a chore. But when everything is sort of aligning, I'll bake all the time. I'll bake until the ingredients go away. No more eggs. No more chocolate. No more flour. I will.


I think they're okay with it. With this, at least. My mother bakes. My grandmother, great grandmother--incredible cooks! My mom is from South Carolina; my dad is from Mississippi. In South Carolina, where we would spend our summers, I mean, they would throw down! And they didn't have a lot of money. But the food...!

Baking, my mother kind of gets it. "Hey, you said you were going to send me that recipe." Or, I'd go home, and I'd get a list of things I'm supposed to make: "I want a red velvet cake, and your aunt wants one."

I remember when I was dancing and, at one point, my mother was, like, "Show me what you do." And so I taught her a little ballet barre. She was so sweet about it.

She really doesn't bake bread, but she knows that I also bake other things. So we have more to talk about in that way. And if I'm ever feeling down and blue--and I'm not necessarily a blue person--but if I get a bit worked up, she'll say, "Why don't you go bake something?"

They wouldn't have been happy if I had gone to culinary school out of high school: College was where I was going. But now they like it because they get to eat it in the same way that they had the joy of watching their son up on stage and being proud of him, which is beautiful. My dad loves to be the center of attention. I remember walking into a restaurant after a performance in Ann Arbor, and they applauded me, and my dad started bowing like it was for him. He takes pride in his kids.

I don't get to see them as often as I would like. It's more difficult with a baking career. When you're dancing, you have layoffs. With baking, it's pretty much all the time. You may have some vacation. My parents, though, have been great supporters. My sister is my biggest support in everything I do. She is my biggest fan in everything, and I am hers as well. We adore each other.


Here's my chocolate-chip cookie recipe. My friends and family love them. You'll need a small scale to make them; we rarely use volumetric measurements in the bakery.

Flour  639g
Baking soda  5g
Salt  7g
Butter (room temp)  340g
Brown sugar  569g
Eggs 125g
Vanilla extract  18g
Chocolate (semi-sweet or bittersweet)  551g, chopped

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium-sized bowl.

Cream the butter and sugar together in the bowl of your stand mixer, using the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using the regular beaters of your handheld mixer, until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs and vanilla extract, and mix until just combined.

Add the flour, baking soda, and salt mixture in two additions, mixing until just combined each time.

Mix or fold in the chopped chocolate.

Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour to allow the gluten to relax.

Preheat your oven to 350-375 degrees, and line your cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Portion out the cookie dough into 75g balls (make the balls by rolling the dough between your palms).

Bake at 350-375 degrees for 12 to 14 minutes, rotating the cookie sheets halfway thru the baking time.

Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets for ten minutes and then de-pan onto a rack to allow them to cool completely.

Store in an airtight container for 3 or 4 days. If you feel as though they're getting stale, warm them slightly in a toaster oven or at about 250 degrees in your conventional oven.


Joe Bowie was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan. He started dancing when he was a sophomore at Brown University, and graduated with honors in English and American Literature. Joe moved to NYC in 1986, and danced in the works of Robert Wilson, Ulysses Dove, and for two years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, before he moved to Belgium in 1989 to join the Mark Morris Dance Group. He danced with the Mark Morris Dance Group for twenty-one years. In 2010, Joe received a grant from Career Transitions For Dancers to pursue his second passion: baking. With the grant, he took a five-day artisan bread baking class at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center), and fell in love with it. Using this momentum and newly-found love, he enrolled in The Art of International Bread Baking, the French Culinary Institute's professional artisan bread baking course in 2011. Since graduation, he has worked as both a baker and instructor for Le Pain Quotidien, in its research and development bread bakery; for world-renowned chef, Daniel Boulud, in his Prep Kitchen's bread bakery; for Dean & Deluca, in both its bread a pastry kitchens: and as a baker for a small, but growing, Brooklyn-based bakery called Ovenly. He will soon return to Le Pain Quotidien to develop bread baking classes for their Bleecker Street Bakery.

1 comment:

  1. You have just interviewed the best dancer/baker in the whole universe! Although I know the story, thank you for sharing it with others have not been as fortunate to know this young man up close and personal.


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