Claire Kopp McWilliams, Owner, Baker
This post is part of our portrait/interview series with Emily "Birdie" Busch. Birdie's challenge is to tease out candid responses from fellow artistic, industrious women. Painters, mothers, musicians, brewers, bakers, and more. What muses!
When I asked Claire Kopp McWilliams of Ursa Bakery when she wanted to get together for our Muses Surround Us shoot she cooly replied, “Well, I start baking at 4am, but you could come around 5.” I gulped quietly. As a musician myself we work better with post meridian schedules so to speak but I knew going to see the actual baking and not just the end result was the stuff of true inspiration.
I wanted to see the process and witness what has been her routine more or less for a decade of baking in some of Philly’s finest restaurants. She started Ursa Bakery as a side project in 2018, while still running the baking and milling program at Vetri Cucina. In her second farmers market season, she left the restaurant entirely and is now running the bakery full time, year round.
She sells her bread in the area at the Fairmount and Ambler farmers markets as well as some more localized home delivery that she does herself.
She greeted me in the pre-dawn in an N95 mask. This is all part of her normal routine even pre-Covid. Baking involves lots of flour and fine particulates so as far as transitioning in that regard she was already used to certain adjustments. I watched her move about the bakery with a swift grace, executing tasks like a ballroom dance that could leave the rest of us scrambly and frazzled.
The key to industrial kitchens are machines that allow VOLUME, ovens so big they stack on each other like a NY parking garage for bread. To operate them involves broad motion, pulling the racks out as if it was a tug-o-war rope. Taking photos I am always so aware of little shifts in light. With this experience, what started in the dark ended in a golden dawn, with the smell of bread seemingly floating in the beams of sun. And with her use of seeds and whole grains, there is a roasted toasted note that adds to the intoxication.
Claire wanted to bring fresh milled, locally grown bread to more people. She works with Pennsylvania grains in the belief they are not only sustainable but delicious and believes whole-heartedly in healthy localized economies. The art of her craft is in working with these parameters, and seeing what delicious bounty can come of it.
Recommended Claire Kopp McWilliams rabbit-holes:
Ursa Bakery has its own website where all info for where the bread is available is located-https://www.ursabakery.com/
Claire also just wrapped on a collaborative cookbook with Marc Vetri called Mastering Bread that you can pre-order here-https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/609030/mastering-bread-by-marc-vetri-and-claire-kopp-mcwilliams-with-david-joachim/
Following Ursa Bakery on Instagram will give you the most up to date info and pictures on all the bread whereabouts-https://www.instagram.com/ursabakery/
What is a career/creative moment you are proud of?
My personal independence day! I left the restaurant industry in May of 2019. It feels good to know that I now own the value of my work. I like work, and I'm a good employee, but my priorities completely shifted when I started the bakery. The give and take of running a small bakery is interesting and demanding and joyous in a way that outshone the daily responsibilities of restaurant work for me. I couldn't pretend I was invested anymore, and I wanted another baker to get to enjoy the sweet gig I'd had for the past four and a half years. So I cut the cord, even though it was a huge drop in income and stability. I even had to work part-time over the winter to make ends meet, but I felt like there was a certain understanding of my level of commitment when the arrangement was explicitly 'part-time' and 'temporary.' So moving forward, the goal is to be able to support myself with bakery income, but I'll do what I have to do to pay the bills.
Talking about my money as a way of expressing my passion seems somehow vulgar, but it's important to me that the whole system works. Unfortunately, no one can subsist on good intentions. I love bread, bakeries, bakers, and grains. I love our farms, farmers, and millers. I love all of it, and sometimes it feels like we're making something meaningful together. Sometimes it's just food, and that's also good enough.
For this series, Claire was photographed in the bakery wearing the bombshell top, and is shown here in a Signature Tee (fabrics change seasonally) and the Lounge Denim pant.
What are you listening to now? What are you looking at? What recipe you feeling?
Now that I have a few hours of deliveries every week, I'm suddenly listening to loads more happy vibes driving music. Lots of William Onyeabor, Dan Auerbach, The Fleetwoods, and Doja Cat. I try to keep Spotify off my scent, but everything tends to melt into the same playlist eventually.
While I work, I like to listen to podcasts and audiobooks. Some of my favorites are Ear Hustle, Criminal/This is Love, and Reply All. I need stories to take my mind off what's happening around me. It helps me maintain a certain pace and not overthink. I feel so lucky to have access to so much excellent material. Podcasts are a real blessing.
How do you define your own personal style or approach to clothes?
I had to go look into my dresser to think of an answer! When I actually am wearing something that makes me happy, it's usually plain, but nice materials, and just on the femme side of androgynous. In summer, I'm a big fan of outfits that I refer to as 'my linen bag' or 'my cotton bag.' Most of my best pieces were second hand, because I have a really hard time spending money on myself like that. I hope we can thrift shop again soon.
What would be your advice to a teenage girl clothing and style wise that you wish you had received?
If you have wavy or curly hair, or maybe even if you don't, learn how to cut it yourself. Mostly I just want them to know that they are precious and take care of themselves, mind, body and spirit. It's tough out there. It gets better.
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