In response to the allegations leveled in a recent Record article (“BARbarians quest for the best square-shaped desert,” Feb. 19), Michael Menard can only admit that the College’s dining halls are near-permanently provisioned with a scrumptious supply of four-sided sweets. As the lead baker of the Williams Bake Shop confessed, “It’s just easier than making the cookies. We’ve been outed by the Record!”
Menard has been the mastermind behind such delicacies since he came to work at the College about three and a half years ago. He grew up around Springfield, Mass., where he ran cross country in high school, placing third in the Western Massachusetts finals his senior year.
He first began to bake when he was in his early twenties, soon after he had moved to New York City with the intent of becoming a writer. While living in the city, he got a job at a catering business called the Cleaver Company, and before long, he was going in early to help with the baking – his first stint in a culinary career that, in his words, he “stumbled into.” Since then, he has been the head baker for Sylvia Weinstock in New York City, the bakery manager for the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Berkshire County and is now the head baker in the Williams Bake Shop.
Menard no longer writes, although he said that there is a part of his mind that “still goes there.” He’s become involved in other, non-literary pursuits, like serving as the girls’ varsity cross country coach at Taconic High School in Pittsfield. He was also one of the founders of BURCS, the Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service. The idea, he said, “is that we’re not just a running group, but we’re also do-gooders.” BURCS organizes races in order to raise money for different causes.
Menard became intrigued with the world of ultra-running after a friend asked him to pace her for 30 miles of the Vermont 100. “I went there just to run 30 miles with her, but I kind of figured out how they do it,” he said.
Menard has run the Vermont 100 and several other ultra-running races in the area. “Whenever I come up against an issue,” he said, “I think, well, I ran 100 miles in a day… I can do this.”
Menard also harbors obsessions with chess and poetry. Right now, he’s focused on chess, which he might play online for several hours a day. Other times, he gets more into reading. His favorite poet now is Robert Lowell, though back in his twenties, he read a lot of Sylvia Plath and Samuel Beckett. “I really liked the existentialists,” he said. Eventually, however, he had to move away from that: “I was just kind of being existentially depressed around New York City, so I started going to the Village Zendo [a Zen Buddhist community] in Manhattan to clear my head.” (Indeed, this must have done the trick, for Menard says all this with his characteristic grin that betrays not a hint of Beckett-esque despair.)
Menard thought he would miss the city a lot when he moved to the Berkshires with his wife eight years ago, after she got a job at Jacob’s Pillow, a dance studio in the area. Now, however, he can’t imagine going back. He has fallen in love with the landscape and especially the trails. “I enjoy discovering them, getting lost in the woods and finding my way out,” he said.
He also really likes the College, and he hopes that his daughter, who is currently a sophomore in high school, will one day attend. As for his job here, he likes the freedom he has in the kitchen, which allows him to “fool around, experiment.” Menard and the two other bakers in the college’s Bake Shop are responsible for creating all of the dining hall pastries, ’82 Grill pizza dough, faculty house desert platters and even the bread for dinner and Grab’n’Go. The Shop also makes the gluten-free desserts. “I think we’re ahead of the curve as far as making things that are gluten-free, but also taste normal,” he said.
Menard’s personal favorite deserts are the vegan peanut butter cookies, which can be found daily in the Eco Café. “Anything with peanut butter is my idea,” he said, adding that, “If I could put peanut butter in everything, I probably would.” He enjoyed reading the Record’s ranking of the various dessert bars in the “BARbarians” article, although he was surprised that the Wilderness Bar, which was ranked last, fared so poorly. “I thought everyone would love that,” he said. “But we’ll make it better… that’ll be my goal.”
The article was spot-on in attributing some of the Knock-You-Nakeds’ magic to its sheer rarity. “I kind of set up this Knock-You-Naked infatuation because I took them off the cycle, knowing that they would become kind of a cult,” he said.
All in all, the College is lucky to have someone like Menard to assuage its collective sweet tooth – not only for his baking ability, but for his stock of stories, all served with a side of sincere good humor.