When you bite into the crunchy crust of one of Laura MacLeod’s perfect baguettes or savour every rich bite of a buttery croissant at The Old Apothecary Bakery and Cafe, you are sampling flavours and textures of a life full of twists and turns.
MacLeod’s bakery, which she runs with her daughter Katie (also MacLeod), is one of Halifax’s most delightful culinary destinations. Soon offering a menu of supper dishes with wine and beer pairings on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, TOA After Dark will bring us more of her inspired creations. Seeing MacLeod at work, this all seems so natural, but living in HRM and owning a bakery was never part of her plans.
Growing up in Dartmouth, all MacLeod could think about was getting the hell out of the Maritimes. “I was that girl who would go out to the airport to watch the planes take off. My plan was to become a famous fashion designer and go to school in London,” she says, admitting her plans changed when she became pregnant at 17. She found herself working in fashion retail, then meeting her soon-to-be husband, getting married, having another baby, and moving away for her husband’s work. They lived in New Zealand, Germany, and the US, but when the marriage ended, MacLeod returned to stay with her in-laws in Windsor, needing to reboot in the middle-of-nowhere for a while.
Before leaving Canada, MacLeod had been an interior designer and carried on with that line of work wherever life took her. Once home, though, she wanted something different but didn’t know what. While watching football one night, her father-in-law said, “You’ve always been a fantastic cook. Why don’t you just go to culinary school?”
On a whim, MacLeod signed up for classes at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Vancouver, where her son was about to graduate. “I drove across Canada in December, probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life; I almost died so many times. I put my cat in the car, and all the stuff I brought with me from Germany, which was pretty much two suitcases, and started culinary school in January,” she explains. “I went intending to open a restaurant; I wasn’t really into baking at that point.” However, after graduating from the culinary program, MacLeod took baking classes and found it was the perfect blend of design and cooking. “It caught me off guard how much I loved it,” she says.
In January 2015, she rented the original location for TOA sight unseen. She had always loved the Renaissance Building (she remembered it as a funky clothing store, though it had originally been an apothecary and chose to name the bakery for that history). After three months of renovations, they opened their doors on a sunny spring Saturday for Open City, serving up eclairs and Vietnamese coffees. And so TOA began; MacLeod’s fresh start was up and running. She and Katie kept chugging away, building a loyal customer base and growing their business, spreading to take over the corner of the building once it became clear they needed more space.
Starting over is never easy, and life keeps throwing curveballs. The Old Apothecary moved to its new location in the Brewery Market on Lower Water Street just before COVID hit and immediately had to shutter due to the pandemic—but MacLeod knows that coming home and starting this business was the right move. “I’m so glad to be back here. This is home, and I had to live in all those other places to get the perspective to appreciate this place,” she says. And the longer we talk, the more excited she gets detailing future plans for TOA.
Living in Germany, MacLeod fell in love with the rich, hearty, flavourful and nutty sourdough. All but two of TOA’s breads are sourdough based, as she models her recipes on the intense fermented style that she loves. “They are in no way like a San Francisco style sourdough, and I don’t intend them to be,” she says. The presentation wasn’t what locals were used to, though, and initially, that affected MacLeod’s baking process.
“We were baking the bread to the right colour, but people kept telling us it was burnt, so we had to dial it back and then slowly get it to where it needed to be,” MacLeod laughs, “I used to say it was like boiling a frog, slowly getting it to be a dark enough bread as people got used to it.” When people are used to supermarket bread, soft and white (even the sourdough and baguettes, baked to please everyone rather than connoisseurs of great bread), sampling authentic bread is an adjustment.
These days, MacLeod says that most people get it when it comes to her bread. Most of the time, anyway. “I just moved into a new apartment building, and I was in the elevator with a baguette in my arms. A man asked where I got it, and I told him The Old Apothecary; he responded, “Well, I hope you like baseball bats,” MacLeod recounts. “I told him that I own the bakery, and his face dropped. He said the inside was fine, that was soft, just the outside was hard. (As it should be!) So yeah, there’s still some understanding about what real bread is supposed to be.”
Customers also had to get used to the bread selling out by 2 p.m. most days (if not earlier). Partially due to space constraints—there wasn’t enough room at the original location to make or store more bread. “It was tricky to get people used to the fact that we wanted the bread to sell out too. I have no interest in selling day-olds, I want my bread eaten fresh and at its best,” she says. Back in Germany, MacLeod says that if you didn’t make it to the bakery by noon, you were out of luck. “The cashier is looking at you with this disappointment, like why are you even walking in here at this hour? You should know better.”
The delectable pastries at TOA are definitely French, though, inspired by the trips MacLeod took while living in Germany. They showcase her technical skill and eye for detail—though these days it isn’t just her and Katie running the show; they have an excellent team that leaves them more time to work on managing and growing the business (at the start, the two of them did it all).
Incidentally, Katie was already in Halifax when her mom opened the bakery as she’d been studying photography at NSCAD and was convinced to manage the bakery. And she says she couldn’t be happier. “It’s so much fun working with my mom,” she says, “We’ve always been so close.” MacLeod’s son Donald worked at TOA for several years, too, but has since moved on to other things—“I knew we were too similar to work together for long, but it was great when he was here.”
All the Right Moves
MacLeod admits that she rented the original Barrington Street location with her heart, not her head, and as adorable as it was, it wasn’t entirely practical. There wasn’t room to bake enough bread to fuel her regular customers’ desires and supply restaurants looking to carry TOA’s goods. “We had outgrown Barrington Street. When there, we had to turn down restaurants coming to us asking for bread, so we moved to this new location and put in a whole big commercial kitchen,” says MacLeod. “Providing restaurants had always been at the back of my mind since opening, and this location is so much better for growth.”
Trout Point Lodge, Gio, and Obladee are a few of the restaurants serving TOA’s sourdough and baguettes, and MacLeod loves when she gets to collaborate on menu items with chefs. “I love sitting with them and having them say we have this menu item, what bread would go with this?” she says, then going on to describe a dulse sourdough made to accompany a mussel appetizer for the Hop Scotch Dinner Club after such a sit-down.
MacLeod had been working with Katie on TOA After Dark for many months, and, after the forced pandemic-pause, they are ready to get going. The pairing menu features creative dishes paired with beer and wine, like beer with their play on French onion soup (sliced baguette topped with a heavily reduced broth, thick like gravy, caramelized onions and gruyere) or Cabernet Sauvignon accompanying chocolate terrine with olive oil and sea salt. “I want to take the intimidation out of choosing a wine to go with dinner. Make it a simple thing between getting off work and going home, and keep most pairings under $20,” she says. “Everything will be very approachable, just like when you come to our bakery. The menu is fancy without being pretentious; we just want everyone to enjoy themselves here.”
MacLeod loves that the new TOA location lends itself so well to the After Dark concept and is excited to see how people react to the menu. While studying at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, MacLeod took the beer and wine program too, and this is the first time she will be putting all of her culinary education to use on one menu. “Seeing people enjoy my food makes me probably irrationally happy. I love seeing the reaction that
I hoped they would have in my head actually happen in front of me,” MacLeod says, “I created a menu full of things that I really like, and I can’t wait to share them.”