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Pastries and cakes before 6 a.m.: A day in the life of a professional baker

We asked Megan Hirdman, a professional baker at Levain Bakery in New York City, to share what a day in her life looks like.
Kara Birnbaum/TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

“What do you do?” It’s the question you might get asked when you meet someone for the first time. We all have our go-to answer: I’m a lawyer, I work for a start-up, I teach preschool — but we actually want to know the details: When do you get in? How do you spend your day? Tell us, really: What do you do?

Meet Megan Hirdman: She's a baker from Brooklyn, New York, who has been baking professionally for the last 12 years. For the past five months, she has been the head baker at Levain Bakery, a New York institution with five bakeries famous for its signature 6-ounce cookies. (We're partial to the chocolate chip walnut variety ourselves.)

We tapped Hirdman to give us the details about her profession by sharing a diary from one day in her life.

What does a professional baker do?

This career is not all glamour like people may assume: It requires very early hours. It's a very physically, mentally demanding job. You're working with your hands all day long and if something goes wrong, it's because you did it wrong. So you have to be on point every moment you're working. The main ingredient is a basic passion for the job and self-motivation...You definitely need a lot of patience.

Kara Birnbaum/TODAY

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Why did you decide to become a baker?

I don't envision myself anywhere else. I enjoy waking up super early when the city is still quiet. I get to open up the doors, turn on the oven, turn on the lights, and it's a very calming environment. It relaxes me.

I love the fact that with baking it's almost like a science and you have to be very precise. I enjoy looking at raw ingredients and thinking about what I may create from that. And it's fun to be a part of the process from start to finish.

I've never felt like I've worked a day in my life because I enjoy what I do so much. I'll be practicing this craft for the rest of my life and getting better and better.

Kara Birnbaum/TODAY

A day in the life of a baker

3:30 a.m. Alarm goes off. This may seem obvious, but if you’re not a morning person, then becoming a professional baker probably isn’t for you. Even on my days off, I can't sleep past 5:00 a.m.

3:55 a.m. I get on the subway. I’ll switch between different bakeries around the city, but it usually takes me about an hour to get from my neighborhood in Brooklyn to one of our bakeries in Manhattan.

5:00 a.m. I arrive at work and open the kitchen. This is also when I have my first coveted cup of cold brew of the day.

5:15 a.m. I check in on the deliveries as they come in, making sure the delivery matches the order.

5:30 a.m. I'm the first baker in for the morning. I begin my day with the first round of baking off our breads, rolls, pastries, cakes and muffins.

Kara Birnbaum/TODAY

6:00 a.m. Other bakers begin to join me and I delegate some tasks to everyone.

7:00 a.m. The bakery actually opens and customers start coming in for their morning pastries and coffee.

8:30 a.m. I call all the bakeries to touch base with the bakers and see how their days are going. I manage around 30 employees, so this is when I check in with them. We're a very tight-knit family, basically, because we spend a lot of time together. So if I see any sort of situation in one spot, I broadcast it to the team to spread that knowledge to all of the bakers, whether it's something that came out beautiful or if maybe an ingredient was left out of something.

Since I've been here, I've always taken advantage of a mistake as a great growth opportunity for all bakers so that they can be conscious of it moving forward.

9:00 a.m. I'm setting up for "pizza party" (that's what I like to call it). I begin by portioning out dough and rolling each pizza out by hand. We make four delicious flavors. Usually, when we can smell the pizza, we know our day is halfway done.

10:30 a.m. I'm finishing up with the pizza bake-off and beginning the next round of baking more pastries, cakes and muffins for the afternoon.

Kara Birnbaum/TODAY

11:30 a.m. I move on to baguettes. I portion out dough for our baguettes.

12:00 a.m. I take my lunch break, which for me is my second cup of cold brew for the day.

12:30 p.m. Now we begin baguette shaping. These baguettes will be baked and sold tomorrow.

1:15 p.m. I take inventory of our stock room, seeing what quantity of ingredients we have and what we need to order. Then I place ingredient orders and adjust any budgets or numbers I need to.

1:30 p.m. Done for the day!

Kara Birnbaum/TODAY

2:30 p.m. It usually takes me about an hour to get home. I may run an errand or two one my way back to Brooklyn, but I try to get home as soon as possible so I can start cooking dinner.

3:00 p.m. I start cooking dinner. I actually went to culinary school to become a chef, not a baker, so even though I spent all day baking, I love coming home and putting in another hour or two of cooking. They're different in a lot of ways, so each one sort of flexes my culinary muscle in a different way.

5:00 p.m. I eat whatever I created for dinner.

5:30 p.m. I do some housekeeping around the house or watch something.

7:00 p.m. Bedtime! I seriously need a full eight hours of sleep, so I'm usually in bed by 7:00/7:30 p.m. in order to be up for that 3:30 a.m. alarm.

How does the day you've described compare to your standard day-to-day?

My day-to-day is ever-changing. Being the head baker, I'm training and working with different bakers each day at multiple locations each week. The workload also varies depending on what day of the week it is and which out of the four different stations you're working at. On the weekends, we also have additional items offered on our menu.

Kara Birnbaum/TODAY

What have you learned most about yourself through working as a baker?

I can take on a lot more pressure than I thought. I'm very calm when things get stressful.

I'm also a lot more patient with myself — I realized that I'm human. I used to get genuinely upset if something came out a little bit wrong because I set the bar so high for myself. I always want to put out the best, but I've learned to not nitpick the smallest little things.

Still, if I'm going to wake up so early in the morning and work so hard, I want to bring 120% and I want to showcase that through the product I make. This is my life, my career and my passion that I've built from scratch every single day, so I'll always push myself.

I always try to up the ante with each new challenge, but I'm also easier on myself through that process.