From passion to profession

Izabela Stuchlik tells of the challenges and opportunities in her microbakery story so far. 

I am the owner and founder of a sourdough bakery in Stevenage called Leavened. As we celebrate our second birthday today, I thought it is a good time to share my story. I have always felt an urge to express myself through some sort of art. I found that my passion is for photography, which I felt I inherited from my brother, whom I lost to a brain tumour a few years back. It was as if the moment he was gone, I decided to pick up the camera and continue capturing the world around.

I set about turning this passion into my profession. Even though it wasn’t easy, I got a qualification in children’s photography and started my business. I would capture all those little precious moments for lovely, local families: tiny toes, natural smiles, connections. It was a truly beautiful and fulfilling experience and I was giving all those people I met something that they would be able to keep forever. 

My diagnosis

Then, in spring 2018, my hands started shaking all of a sudden and I couldn’t hold the camera steady. I was struggling to walk very far into the woods where I did my photoshoots and even holding my body upright was nearly impossible. The warmer it was outside, the worse my symptoms were. My GP told me it was due to anaemia, with which I’d recently been diagnosed, and if I took enough iron tablets I would get better. But I wasn’t getting any better. If anything, I was getting worse. I decided that I couldn’t be a professional photographer as I couldn’t get sharp images or stroll through the woods to take them – I just wasn’t reliable.  

Feeling that I’d been misdiagnosed, I knocked on a few doors. In the end, I was examined by a young Polish neurologist who said two words I hadn’t ever thought I would hear: multiple sclerosis. The world stopped - my world. I didn’t really know what MS was and what my future could be like. I knew that my mother’s sister had had MS and she’d always looked like she was very drunk (I only found out later that she hadn’t been!) and had died from it. In my head, I pictured being in a wheelchair soon and dead a few years later. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened to me. I am still very much alive and I’m not in a wheelchair (at least not yet) but I needed a new job, a new task to help me feel that I belong somewhere. 

Getting the baking bug

I’ve always believed I would enjoy feeding people and there had always been a lot of baking going on in my family home, so I decided I wanted to bake for more people. As I didn’t know how to go about this, I got myself a part-time job in a coffee shop so I could watch and learn. The job was exactly what I needed. I didn’t have to work too many hours, so it kept me active while still allowing enough rest for my body to deal with the treatment. I met some wonderful people and it was a blast.

Then the world stopped again. This time it was the whole world as pandemic hit everyone hard. I did what felt like half of the population was doing: I started making sourdough bread. It was hard at the beginning and I failed a lot. Sometimes I got stressed as I wasn't sure what I was doing and I made plenty of flatbreads - unintentional ones. Thanks to The Sourdough School founder Vanessa Kimbell, and my own determination, eventually I got it right.

With all that practicing, I was baking more than enough bread for my family, so I started giving it away. More and more people wanted it and soon I got to the point where my domestic kitchen just wasn't enough. I rented a space in our local indoor market and, together with my husband, designed the bakery. The truth is, you don’t really need a lot to make sourdough bread. mixer, fridge, large table and an oven. Oh, and passion. And determination. We bought a 20-year-old oven on eBay, invested some personal savings into other equipment and, with help of friends, created Leavened. I always say that it is made of sticks and cardboard as the walls are in fact as thin as paper and the outside of our counter is made from old pallets. After a few weeks of total mess, we were ready to open.

Not doughing it alone

This is when I realised my first mistake – I had thought I could run the microbakery on my own. I started prepping for the opening day but by the afternoon I was covered head to toes in dough and had tears in my eyes. What was I thinking? I am a very lucky person and there are always people showing up when they’re needed the most and it wasn’t any different that day. My friend was passing by and offered to help. From then on, I knew I needed to work with someone. I asked my mate Wioleta if she wanted to be part of my team for a while and happily she said yes! I also received a lot of support from my husband and my friend Monika, who came to the bakery very early in the morning to mix the dough and then went to work all day in a corporation.

Just like that Leavened came to life, we baked fresh bread from Wednesday till Saturday and people kept coming. I was working long hours, but the passion and people’s reaction kept me going for a long time. At some point, one of my friends decided that she wanted to pursue a different career path and I had to find my people again. 

In all my ‘bad luck’, I think you can call me the luckiest girl on Earth and people found me. I now have the most incredible team of four (if you count myself) and it is rather unbelievable that we are in this together. I work with Oli, a pharmacist by trade, who is a marketing guru and the best salesperson I have ever met. There is Laura, doctor of pharmacy, who bravely quit her nine-to-five job to become a baker creating the most amazing, sweet treats.

Completing the lineup is Charlie, a young man who patiently waited a few months until I could offer him a job. We all share the same passion for good bread, good food, learning and feeding people the best there is. It gives us all a great sense of community and we all feel that we contribute to the wellbeing of local people.

Finding a balance

Unfortunately, everything comes at a price. MS doesn’t like the heat, that I knew. Working long hours standing up, lifting heavy sacks of flour when I sometimes struggle to hold my balance, getting up early and not having enough sleep – all of those are my enemies. At the same time, making bread keeps me sane, gives me purpose, fills my heart with joy, brings me closer to people and makes me feel like I belong. A nurse told me that I had to stop otherwise my children “wouldn’t have a mother the way they needed”. I can’t and I won’t stop, though, not until my body says ‘no more’. I am still trying to work less and find a good balance. It is going in the right direction thanks to the support of my amazing microbakery team and my husband too. He knows nothing about sourdough, yet he is the fastest dough mixer of all of us!

I feel grateful for every moment and every person I meet. I feel like I want to do everything as soon as I can as my future will always be unknown. With very little energy (another ‘perk’ of MS) I’m living my life to the full. I have good and bad days. I hate the summer, when all I want is to hibernate and wait for a better time. Even though every day feels like a big fight against my body and its weaknesses, I will keep on going for as long as I can as I love every day of being a baker. I feel that I owe it to people, that it is a skill or a gift that needs to be shared and I hope that my customers can feel the love in every loaf they take home.

@_leavened_


Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 53, January 2023

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Main picture: Izabela Stuchlik (seated) and the Leavened team. Copyright: Ryan Etere