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Living (and baking) with passion

Starting in New Zealand, Dean Brettschneider's impressive career took him all over the world and eventually brought him to Denmark - and to brand new challenges.

Photographs: Claus Peuckert / Dean Brettschneider

Text: Michaela Medveďová

Dean's love for baking and entrepreneurial spirit has earned him many hats throughout his career - a global baker, published author, New Zealand's celebrity baker, business owner of an international bakery chain, and most recently, trying his hand at property development.

And just as he says in his autobiography's title - passion is the main ingredient for all he does.

Destined to go overseas

Dean's surname certainly does not suggest he's a New Zealander. Five generations ago, his great-great-grandfather emigrated from Poland and ended up in Holland, where he got married. His father is then Dutch and emigrated to New Zealand in the early sixties. "My great-great-grandmother was actually a baker, but that has nothing to do with me being one," laughs Dean.

According to Dean, New Zealand is very multicultural, and if one has a European heritage, they are naturally drawn there. "We're a young country, so we're reasonably inquisitive on what's out there." So, in his early twenties, he travelled to Europe for the customary New Zealand OE - overseas experience. "As a young New Zealander, being so far away from the rest of the world and being a part of the British Commonwealth, you are destined to go - and obviously, England is the first port of call. My OE was specific - I worked in and around the UK and Europe - I was a baker who had done well in New Zealand and went and learned more overseas."

This experience usually comes after a young New Zealander reaches their 21st birthday, which used to be the age when they were allowed to drink, vote, or drive a car. "It was almost like you got the keys to life. Normally, what would happen is that you would have a big party for all your relatives and your friends and your great auntie you haven't seen for 17 years. But my father said - you can either have a big party or you can have the money to go overseas. So I ditched my friends and went overseas."

Embracing the outside

But it's still his home and his people, wherever he is. "It's just a connection. I'm an immigrant here, and while I live and breathe my Danish life, it's still culturally very different from New Zealand. We were in Italy for a few days with some good friends from New Zealand - suddenly, I felt familiar."

Denmark feels like a less open country once you're on the inside. Dean finds Danes you meet outside of Denmark freer. "I met my wife in China, where she was an expat, and when we returned and started living in Denmark, I thought: Is it the same woman, really? Here, everything is a bit conforming. Janteloven is still a thing. You're brought up in a certain way, socially. New Zealand is a young country - less than 200 years old - and many people emigrated there. Because we're so far away and our culture is so young, we're always embracing the outside and bringing the outside influences back in. When you have an old, rich culture, there is a way you do things."

It was a bit harder for Dean to break into the culture because while he's been in Denmark for 12 years now, the first ten were in the role of a visitor, and he only became a resident two years ago. Travelling between Denmark and Singapore for business reasons made getting involved in society and making friends difficult. "For the last two years, it's been difficult for me to break into people's circles. Everyone already has their friends they've had forever. When I ask people to do something, they say: Yes, but we're already doing this with my other friends. It's not even a language barrier - they just don't need new friends." Dean also realises that his retirement does not fit other people's calendars. "It's a struggle to fit into the daily life." Luckily, his wife has travelled quite a bit, so she understands him - even though Dean says she's often more Danish than she realises.

Passion and focus

Food-wise, Dean sees a similar trend. "Don't mess with the food, if you know what I mean. Danish food culture is very Danish. There are some great restaurants, but they're not everyday Danish." That's one of the reasons why he doesn't want to open up a bakery in Denmark - which is something he gets asked often. "If I come in with what I call my new world baking mind, I would want to do all sorts of products. And people would try them and like them - but then, they would just like to have rye bread, bread rolls, and cinnamon rolls, and marzipan is everything. It can be a bit one-dimensional."

However, there's another reason - baking is really hard work with long hours. And after all, Dean had been at it for decades before deciding to retire. "I was passionate about many things - before baking, it was sports - but I was very focused on whatever I chose to do. Once I found baking, I found it very easy - there was something industrial, artisan, and technical. It's what made me get up in the morning. For some, it was mountain biking - for me, I was getting up and doing baking."

The first thing he ever baked was with his grandmother, Nana, who taught him about food and inspired his love for it. "You didn't go out and buy a packet of biscuits or a cake - you made them and put them in tins." He spent a lot of time with her as he cooked, preserved, or made jams - and she taught him how to bake scones. "She was a grandmother and a farmer's wife. But she said: When you're making scones, it's all about being light and fluffy. You're dealing with baking powder, and that's a chemical reaction, little Dean. You cannot mix the dough too much because that develops the protein in the flour, which holds back the carbon dioxide produced by the chemical reaction. It was the science behind that scone that really tickled my mind."

The business side of baking

He was able to continue exploring his interest in baking during high school. When Dean was growing up, attending university wasn't common in New Zealand - students had to pay tuition, and student loans were not that common. Another option was to do a trade. "I was at school at 16 and doing home economics - nutrition, sewing, lots of things. Cooking was a big component. I was the only boy in my year doing home economics. So when the baker from my town came to the school wanting to hire a male apprentice, I was the only boy in class by default. He happened to be a Dutch baker, by the way, and he knew my grandmother."

So Dean spent the following five years in a baking apprenticeship. Afterwards, he travelled quite a bit - with the New Zealand baking competition team and during his overseas experience - and continued learning. He also worked as a corporate baker and technical research and development baker and studied further at the American Institute of Baking before returning to New Zealand.

At around 23-24, he borrowed money from his parents and opened his first bakery. "I wanted to put everything I had learned overseas into practice. Running a business was waking up at 1 in the morning, going to work, and going home at 6 in the evening. But I wanted to sell it in five years - take it over, make it better, do things my way, and sell it to move on in life. I didn't want to own a bakery for the rest of my life and then hand it down to my children or anything."

But running a bakery does not stop at baking - Dean had to think about the business side, too. "I remember going to my first meeting with my accountant, and I prepared my budget for the next year. I'm not financially trained, but he said, You're like an executive baker! Most bakers just turn up almost in their aprons and hand over many receipts, asking him to sort them out for the next year. I went to him with expectations of how much I wanted to make by the end of the year because I thought about wage costs and food costs and sales."

A global baker

Over his impressive career, Dean has always understood what business's non-baking side is - people management, brand development, customer service, and marketing. At one point, he ran a big technical centre in China for one of the biggest bakery groups in the world, running the research and development site. He always had another side to him that was more interested in the technical aspects of baking.

But he could also combine all of that with a marketing understanding. "Book publishing came into it. I wrote my first book on baking 20 years ago when no one else was writing them. My business started to grow because I was published and seemed to be an authority on baking. That then led to television - I was a judge on a show in New Zealand called The Great New Zealand Bake Off. People would come to the bakery because I guess I was a celebrity baker in their eyes." He still baked - and put a lot of time into putting his white shirt on. But he also had to run and develop the business. "You can get a great chef, but that does not make them a great restauranteur or entrepreneur. I've done a lot of stuff I didn't want to, but you have to do it because it is important to the brand. 24/7, I was thinking about baking, which allowed me to be successful in a world about business."

"Everyone looks at me and says: But you're a baker. I'm not a property developer, so yes, I'm outside my comfort zone."

All his knowledge, hard work, and marketing instincts led to Dean establishing a truly global brand. When he was working in Shanghai at the beginning of the 21st century, with his publishing and television career already in progress, he was approached by the New Zealand government to meet with people interested in China, spend some time with them, and teach them about the country. "I was having some wine with a guy who owned a winery and talking about my life, and he said to me: You sound like a bit of a global baker. And when I went home at 1 in the morning, too many wines later, I googled - and it was available, so I grabbed the domain." That's where he truly worked out what he wanted to be - a global baker. "That's when I started my journey on pulling everything in - everything I've learned, industrial, theoretical, technical, publishing, television - to fit under the global baker brand. There were no cultural boundaries - I had a global mind about everything."

Dean's time in China impacted his life in a different way, too - it's where he met his wife. Her children were younger than his son, so when her time in China was over, Dean moved to Denmark with her, still flying to New Zealand to be with him. "There wasn't any ultimatum. I was just getting out of corporate life, and it seemed to me I didn't need to be anywhere other than where I wanted to be. So I chose to come and live in Denmark."

And then, he accidentally opened a bakery in Singapore.

Passing on the torch

At that time, Dean was living in Denmark, consulting for a Swedish company in the United Kingdom. But once, he went to New Zealand via Singapore, where he met with a good Danish friend. "We went for a bike ride and wanted good coffee and bread. They didn't have it all those years ago, so we considered - should we open a bakery?" Dean didn't want to live in Singapore but decided to run it from Denmark. So, twelve years ago, they decided to risk it and make quite a significant investment to set up a bakery in Singapore. It then grew to 24 shops and quite a considerable business, and they opened franchises in Saudi Arabia and the Phillippines, too.

However, Dean said two years ago - it's time for me to enjoy life a little bit. So he sold his shares, and needless to say, the initial investment paid off. "I put a lot of pressure on my relationship with my wife because I was practically away for ten years. We'd meet in different countries, or I'd come home for ten days with my mind still back in Singapore. Denmark was like my hotel."

But retiring from his previous business endeavours does not mean Dean has not found a new challenge in Denmark - turning an old ice cream factory in Næstved into seven high-end apartments. "Everyone looks at me and says: But you're a baker. I'm not a property developer, so yes, I'm outside my comfort zone. But I wouldn't say it's unfamiliar to me because, for me, it's a project. It's like building another shop or a bakery. And a property developer would turn those seven apartments into 27 small boxes. It's a passion project to me instead of something I want to make a lot of money out of."

He took on the project to make a difference in his city. "It's a risk, it really is, on what I can sell them for versus what it costs me. But the only guy I need to justify that to is me. It's part of my DNA to be a bit risky."

There's one challenge left that Dean hasn't quite figured out yet. "I am where I am today because of other people who helped me along the way. Somehow, I feel like I want to give back. It's not about giving stuff to people - it's about mentoring, finding a young me, and getting them to work as hard as I did. Many people gave me something, and I just ran with what I learned - and then learned more. I'm ready to give my skills to someone else now."

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