TORRINGTON – It didn’t surprise local physician and baker Ezdan Fluckiger when he learned his teacher and mentor was going to be the subject of a documentary film project.
“Marda has taught us so much,” Fluckiger said. “Her life is so fascinating.”
Marda is Marda Stoliar, the Bend, Ore., baker and instructor who taught Torrington’s “Bread Doctor” his baking skills. Stoliar was back in town last week, along with an independent film crew, to work on a portion of the documentary that started in Stoliar’s own bake shop in Bend.
“The focus is about how one person can have a ripple effect on people’s lives and how they can spread some goodness through that passing down of knowledge,” Kate McMahon, the co-producer of the film, said Thursday.
A former Oregon Public Broadcasting filmmaker from Portland, Ore., McMahon heard about Stoliar from a former OPB co-worker.
She recalled thinking: “This is such a sweet story. I would love to make this film.”
Stoliar’s teaching method is unique. It’s more of an apprenticeship, working with one student at a time, customizing the teaching to fit the needs and desires of the learner.
“I think I’m the only one who teaches one student at a time, whatever they want to learn,” Stoliar said. “Usually I go to wherever they’re going to open the bakery and help them open.”
Her International School of Baking has taken Stoliar around the country and around the world. She was teaching in China in 1986, in fact, when she learned of plans to send six students across the Pacific to her school. The only problem was, she didn’t have a school – yet.
“I had to start a school,” Stoliar said. “That’s actually how I started. I had the school for six months before I named it.”
Stoliar was working in the fashion industry, designing shoes, when she took up baking. Based in New York and working in Europe and Asia, she designed shoes by day and learned to bake bread in Italy and pastries in France by night. Stoliar did both – working long hours in her own bakery in Bend and flying around the world for her shoe designs – for 25 years, she said.
“I commuted between Oregon and China, working for the Department of Agriculture,” Stoliar said. “I made more than 40 trips to China, teaching bread making and opening bakeries in China.”
Fluckiger was working as an emergency room doctor at Banner Community Hospital in Torrington. He was thinking about his daughter, Eleanor’s, future, who was in high school at the time.
Eleanor was born with Down Syndrome and, though she did well in school, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her own future, Fluckiger said.
“I felt she needed an opportunity for when she became an adult,” he said. “I just thought about, ‘What could we do together that I could continue to do in retirement, eventually? Something our whole family could work with.’
“It wasn’t clear what Eleanor wanted to do for the future,” Fluckiger said. “But I wanted to have a plan, I wanted to have something for her.”
One thing the family shared was a love of cooking – particularly baking – he said. Fluckiger started looking into the idea of formal training, to see if his advanced amateur skills could be elevated to the next level.
That’s where the Fluckiger family’s path and Stoliar’s path converged.
“I went to Marda’s school in Bend to see if I even had the abilities to do more than bake at home,” he said. “Or to see if I could develop those abilities. She taught me quite a bit.”
And the Bread Doctor was born – first as a home business, then, about four years ago, a brick-and-mortar mainstay in the heart of Torrington’s downtown.
Willing to help
Fluckiger still works part of the week in the emergency room and part of the week at The Bread Doctor. He said he didn’t have to think twice when approached about filming a portion of the documentary at The Bread Doctor in Torrington. He saw it as an opportunity to give back to someone who gave his family so much.
“Marda has taught us so much, I’ve heard so many of her stories,” he said. “Her life is so fascinating.
“In fact, today, she told me, ‘Oh, did I ever tell you I made Christmas ornaments for the Clinton administration, for the White House Christmas tree?’” Fluckiger said. “I said, ‘No, you never mentioned that.’”
And that’s just one of the stories and events in Stoliar’s life that attracted McMahon to the project. Filming started in Bend in October, and Stoliar told Fluckiger’s story to McMahon.
“She told us about Ezdan and how he changed lanes in his life from being only an emergency room doctor and adding becoming the town’s baker,” McMahon said. “The reason for why he did that blew me away – it’s to give his daughter with Down Syndrome a real future, a real occupation, somewhere she can be a part of the world.”
This was Fluckiger’s first foray into the film industry. The toughest part, he said, was carrying on the regular routine of mixing, baking and decorating under the ever-watchful eye of the camera.
“It took a little while to get used to having them around,” he said. “They told us to just ignore them, to pretend they were a fly on the wall – that’s not a natural thing at first.
“The only thing that really surprised me was how sensitive they are about noise,” Fluckiger said. “The bakery is a very noisy place and I didn’t realize some of those sounds would be intrusive when they’re trying to interview.”
All in all, though, it was an enjoyable experience, he said, one they wouldn’t hesitate to do again.
“It was fun to see someone else’s reaction to what we do here, someone who was new,” Fluckiger said. “They seemed really excited and interested in what we were doing. And that felt good, because it felt like we were doing something that was interesting.”
And there was also the opportunity to help someone who’d given them so much, he said.
“I thought this would be a great opportunity to help Marda and to be involved in a project that features her contributions to this art of baking and to the food industry,” Fluckiger said. “I was willing to do anything they needed us to do to help this project move along.
“She’s had a direct effect on how we’ve developed as a bakery and how I’ve developed as a baker,” he said. “Everything I know I learned from her.”
But what does Stoliar think about her pupil?
“Ezdan? He’s probably the best student I’ve ever had,” she said. “Bringing his medical background to his baking, it’s made it so he is so focused on giving the customer the best, every single time.
“That’s unique, to have that kind of focus and intensity in both medicine and baking,” Stoliar said. “He’s been just a great student. I’ve become part of their family.”