Changing Focus: Norman Jean Roy of Breadfolks

a black and white self portrait of norman jean roy

Even on a grey, desultory day with a fine rain misting down, you will find a line outside Breadfolks on Warren Street in Hudson. Among the Victorian brick houses and rampant gentrification (this is a small town with a scatter-cushion glut) there is a bakery that sells food driven in purpose by a singular determination: to be world class.

The man behind the rows of handsome baguettes, crusty sourdough loaves, and billowy croissants is Norman Jean Roy, who is turning his hand to baking after a career creating exceptional photographs of A-listers that include Johnny Depp, Gisele Bündchen, and George Clooney. “I love the experience,” he says with baking-wonk enthusiasm. “Every day I am responding to tiny changes—the temperature, the humidity, the barometric pressure. I get to experiment all the time.”

The products are so easy on the eye they make ideal Instagram fodder—particularly the Cruffins, coils of golden croissant dough stuffed with lush, thick, intensely flavored custards that ooze out after one bite. One hallmark of his dough is the level of crazy-ass lamination (flaky, risen, layers of dough) he achieves. And he does this (as with all the baked goods they sell) with a moody sourdough starter, instead of predictable commercial yeast.

An Eyeful. While Norman Jean Roy has left the world of high-end photography for baking, the Breadfolks Instagram page scans like an art show.

“It’s all about paying attention to the details and tinkering with ratios,” he says, voice almost shrugging, like it’s no big deal when most bakers know that getting a decent rise with a rich, buttery dough is a challenge. He adds with a laugh, “Here at Breadfolks, we are at the far reaches of how much butter we can add to our dough,” noting with pride “We like to push it—I mean, we really like butter.”

While his life now looks very different from his glamorous past, he sees a connection between his two career choices. “I’m not necessarily someone who’s interested in knowing exactly how to do something,” he explains. “It’s more about manipulating whatever medium I’m working in, whether it’s photography or bread dough. I like the chemistry.” With the advent of digital, photography became increasingly idiot-proof; Roy admits that, for him, that predictability made the medium less intriguing.

Yet it was a far more important and painful life event that he credits for his profound shift in gears. Roy’s father died nine years ago and during regular visits to see him in the hospice, a major reassessment of his life occurred. He read the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying and what struck him, he says, was one regret in particular: “I wish I had lived a life true to myself, instead of the life others expected of me.”

This helped to push years of discussions with his wife into building a new reality. “Once we decided to move away from a life focused on accumulating wealth, we got rid of any sort of luxury—expensive watches, suits, leather bags. We gave them all away.” He continues, voice clear and strong, “I never really needed them. Life? It’s about experiences and meaning.”

Not that the shift has been easy. They launched the business three months into lockdown and then had to shut it briefly—his restaurant space remains closed. “People were scared and apprehensive. Nobody knew how to navigate this.” And yet, he says, eventually a bad situation ended up having upsides. “The fact that everybody and their mother decided that they were bakers … actually helped,” he says dryly, “because people realized how incredibly difficult it is to make a really great loaf of bread. They developed a deep appreciation for the work.” He continues, “In a sense, what many people figured out is ‘Yeah, in a way it’s very easy to make bread, and yet … it’s very hard.’”

Roy himself was a quick study with baking: He started playing around with sourdough in earnest about six months before he took a summer class at the San Francisco Baking Institute. He came out of confident in what he would do next. “I always know exactly what I want to make, what I want it to taste like, what I want it to feel like.” And the work of baking offers a connectedness that was lacking before: “There’s a real paying attention to the details; your fingers tell you what the dough requires, what needs to happen. It’s an incredibly pleasing process if you can give yourself up to it.”

He hopes his customers follow his lead. “If you’re here because of what the Cruffin looks like on your social media feed, honestly, you’re not getting it,” he says with just a touch of exasperation. “It’s about how you feel biting into it. That transcendental moment where it stops being a product and becomes an experience.”

This story was originally published in November of 2021.