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Early To Rise

La Morinda owner Sheri McKelvie has what it takes to bake.



Never underestimate the power of boredom. It's what eventually led Sheri McKelvie to open La Morinda, her Cooper-Young bakery.

About 10 years ago, McKelvie was housesitting in Oregon. "I was trapped on a really high mountain with nothing to do, but I had all the ingredients and equipment to bake bread and a book on how to do it," McKelvie says. "I made more bread than anybody could possibly eat, and that's how I got started."

While many people find baking challenging, especially bread, McKelvie was a natural.

"I didn't really think about bread baking as being difficult because I hadn't thought about it at all," McKelvie says. "I just needed something to do and I got lucky. My first loafs turned out beautifully. It just happened like that."

It kept on happening.

When she came down from the mountain, McKelvie continued baking -- at home first and later in different bakeries around Ashland, Oregon. Then she moved to Memphis six years ago and started baking for the now-defunct City Bread Company. When she left, she swore she'd never again work at a job which required getting out of bed in the middle of the night.

"As a baker you don't have much of a life, and you kind of know that when you get into the business," McKelvie says. She puts her flour-dusted hands to her cheeks to stress her point. "Look at me," she says. "I must have aged 10 years during the three years at City Bread when my days started at 3 o'clock in the morning."

McKelvie thought she'd never bake professionally again. She went back to school to finish her degree in elementary education but realized teaching wasn't her passion. What she wanted was a place to bake where she could be her own boss and begin her day at 5 a.m. instead of 3 a.m.

What seemed like an easy-enough quest turned out to be more of an odyssey. It began at La Tourelle. Glenn Hays offered her use of La Tourelle's kitchen and, much more importantly, its oven at night when the restaurant was closed. For five months, McKelvie worked through much of the night, taking catnaps while the dough was rising.

"Working like that was hard," she says. "I mixed the dough, went home to take a nap, came back to bake some more, and then took another nap while I waited for the bread to cool."

When Alice's Urban Market opened downtown, she began baking her bread there, but there wasn't enough room for both her and Alice's cooks to work in the same kitchen. Then her friend Elizabeth Boyd rented a space in Cooper-Young to start Dish Catering and invited McKelvie to bring her bread oven, mixer, and bags of flour.

While restaurants serve La Morinda's bread and Miss Cordelia's and Mantia sell it, the bakery is strictly for baking. There is no sign to identify the shop, and that's how McKelvie wants it -- at least for now.

"Because we don't do retail, there is really no reason to come in here," she says. "A lot of people think, 'It's so cool. I can stop by and watch her bake bread.' But really, it's distracting us from getting our work done."

Watching McKelvie mixing, shaping, and baking, you can see that the work takes a lot of concentration. Underneath her workbench are several buckets of dough sitting out to rise, and on one wall is a board marking mixing, proofing, and baking times. It's like clockwork.

Although McKelvie is baking behind the scenes, chances are you have tasted her bread already. Maybe it was her ciabatta on the sandwich you had at Miss Cordelia's or maybe you bought her focaccia there. Maybe it was the sourdough cheddar or cranberry walnut you tried at Otherlands or Café Francisco or Cielo.

Certainly, if you have eaten McKelvie's bread, you are glad she had that housesitting gig when she had nothing else to do but bake.

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