Sweet Is the Work

Tom Rehak learned the art of baking—and living—from a master, his father

It begins with a warm, happy feeling. Your spirits lift. Your pace quickens, and you don’t even know why. Then you realize—it’s a smell, a delicious, rich, mellow smell that suddenly makes the world seem a more possible place to live. You find your feet taking you unexpectedly off the sidewalk, across the street, around the corner. The aroma is stronger now. You are in a yummy river of it. You walk even faster, forgetting your sore thumb and your grade in algebra. And suddenly there you are! It’s a bakery!

Then comes the ecstasy of indecision. You agonize over doughnuts that are like cloudbanks of icing and bear claws flaking with thick glaze. You brood over chewy nut bars, tarts oozing fruit and flavor, éclairs puffed with creamy goodness, rich cookies heavy with chips—this is one of life’s great moments!

And that’s just an ordinary bakery. Rehak’s is something special! Rehak’s, in fact, is more than just a bakery. It is a civic trust, part of the emotional cement that holds Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, together. It is a common denominator of all the city’s people, part of the exclamation point that punctuates bright memories and big events. For as often as not, a high point of someone’s life in Hamilton is celebrated with a Rehak pastry, the most delicious thing in town.

Children save their pennies and nickles and come with an excitement reserved for Disneyland and magic. They gaze up at the tall glass display case with an awe bordering on reverence, choosing long and carefully, consuming every cake and cookie in their imaginations before committing themselves. And as they slowly savor the pastry of their choice, they eat a memory that will outlast their taste buds.

Teenagers come on dates, celebrating youth’s short sweetness with a too-soon-gone strudel.

Parents bring their children, sharing fruit tarts and their own childhood with their sons and daughters.

Everyone comes to eat tradition—Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and all the holidays in between draw part of their magic from this place.

Old men come here to eat a toast to friends long gone.

Weddings, birthdays, and just-because days are polished here. And here victory is celebrated and sorrows drowned in the sweet forgetfulness of whipped cream and pastry crust.

The aroma that reigns here is somehow richer and deeper than at other bakeries. It has wafted down through the ages from generations of bakeries in the old countries, holding secrets that were guarded like the formulas of medieval alchemy.

Tom Rehak, the young man behind the counter, is a master of that tradition. He’s a faithful, 18-year-old Latter-day Saint who learned the baker’s art from his father Joseph. To make it official he also completed a two-year baking college curriculum in eight months, passed all the tests with flying colors, and got his baker’s papers.

Tom’s education as a baker began officially when he was 12 years old. At first he only washed the equipment and swept up, but soon he was making cakes and simple tarts. Within a few years he was a competent professional baker, absorbing his father’s ancient craft with an ease that proved he was born to someday be a master baker himself. Working at the long, narrow, wooden table in the small shop on weekends, he began to get the ancient magic in his hands.

Now he works with practiced ease. His hands fly as he mixes dough, bakes, frosts, decorates, glazes, dips, twists, and pinches, and delicious things appear beneath his fingertips. Following his father’s instructions, he uses only the best of everything—real whipped cream, real butter, real chocolate, real everything.

He is strong. His arms seem to have steel cables in them as he lifts heavy, dough-filled bowls. Some of the strength may come from his skill as a swimmer. He has won many races as a member of the Hamilton Aquatic Club.

He works with complete confidence. He doesn’t seem to be hurrying, but his hands know how to turn out difficult pastries with incredible speed. It is impossible to catch him in a wasted motion or a false move. But he shrugs off the compliment. “I’m slow compared to my father,” he says.

And his mind is as strong as his hands. He has a clear grasp of the chemistry of baking. Perhaps more important, he has a deep feel for the art of baking. Up a narrow flight of stairs from the bakery is an office with a desk and a bed. Here the Rehaks keep books on baking, plus the precious recipe files. Tom sometimes sleeps in the bed when he works late and is snowbound by the cold Canadian winter.

Every morning but Sunday he is at the bakery by 4:00 doing the day’s baking. By 11:00 the baking is finished and the decorating can begin. He and his father sometimes bake as many as 100 cakes a day, plus dozens of pies, tarts, cookies, and many other pastries.

Tom is a sculptor as well as a baker. He models marzipan like a kitchen Michelangelo. He has designed and decorated seven-foot wedding cakes, marzipan chess sets, and a cake that looked exactly like a racing car.

He is now able to handle any aspect of the business, and his father often leaves him totally in charge. He understands the business aspects of the trade. He can keep the books, manage the help, control the inventory, and purchase the supplies, which include orchards of cherries, plantations of pineapple, groves of pecans, islands of coconuts, and dairies of cream.

The roots of Tom’s mastery are sunk in Czechoslovakia where German-born Joseph Rehak moved with his widowed mother when he was only one year old. They were desperately poor, but Joseph was resilient, and as he grew up, he began to learn the fine art of pastry baking. He honed his skills and learned many recipes by going from shop to shop, working at each for a while and absorbing what he could from the finest bakers in Czechoslovakia. When he opened his own shop, he was as good as the best. The business grew rapidly, and when World War II came, he had a large business with many employees.

The war changed all that. He survived the Nazi occupation somehow, but after the war the communists took away everything he had. He fled to Canada and started all over again. With the help of his wife, he opened the bakery in Hamilton, and it prospered.

This experience, passed on to the family, impressed Tom deeply. “It really makes me realize how great it is to be in Canada with the freedoms we have,” he says. “A lot of people take for granted living in a free country, having food on their plate, and owning good clothes to wear. I don’t take those things for granted because my father’s rough childhood is a constant reminder of how good I have it.”

Joseph Rehak loves baking, a feeling that he has passed on to Tom. “He loves his trade,” Tom says. “Some bakers say, ‘I’ve got such a hard job! I’ve got to get up too early in the morning, and I’ve got to do this and I’ve got to do that!’ But if my father has an extra hour, he’ll come down here and work just because he loves his job. I love it too.”

Tom has a profound respect for his father’s counsel. “My father is constantly giving me guidance in every aspect of my life. When he tells me something about baking pastry, it’s always right. He has never told me anything wrong. Sometimes I think he’s wrong, but when I do what he says, I find out that he is right.

“He also talks to me about girls and other things, and it helps a lot. I really listen to him. A lot of kids think, ‘Oh, my parents don’t know anything,’ but I really try to listen. And I couldn’t ask for anybody better to work with. He naturally drives me harder than anybody else because he’s my father, but we have a fantastic relationship. When we have disagreements, we work them out. The gospel influences all our decisions.

“My father has always been strict with me, which helped a lot, but he has also given me a lot of love. I have friends whose parents aren’t strict with them, and they get into a lot of trouble. My father’s a great man. I love him a lot. I couldn’t ask for better parents. He tells me his experiences in life. We discuss things. If he thinks I should do something and I think I shouldn’t, we’ll discuss it, and we usually come up with a compromise, or else he sticks to his point and I do what he says.”

Tom’s entire family helps make the bakery a success. From the first his mother has played a vital role, selling the products her husband bakes. Tom’s sisters have all helped man the cash register, and his 13-year-old brother Joe is beginning to learn to bake. Every member of the family is a strongly committed Latter-day Saint, and the bakery has been an unfailing fund-raiser and refreshment provider for the Church. Bake sales at Tom’s ward tend to be well attended.

As much as Tom loves baking, the gospel is the most important thing in his life. “I know the gospel is true beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he says. “I know it spiritually, and I know it because it is evident in everything. I see my friends having big problems they can’t handle. By comparison, I’m not having any. I’m in the Church. I’m in good health. I’m striving to prepare myself for a mission because I believe that is the most important choice any 18-year-old going on 19 can make in his life. A mission teaches you to get along with other people and adapt to situations. You learn to understand people. You learn to love others and help them with their problems. I think a mission can make a real change in a man. It will make you a better husband and father someday.”

When Tom speaks about missionaries, he speaks with some authority because over the years a goodly number have dropped by the bakery, and seldom have they gone away empty.

Tom is financing his own mission, largely by selling a car he bought with his bakery salary.

Because of his hard work at the bakery, Tom has had to scramble sometimes to make room for weekday Church activities, but he has managed. Once he worked two days, straight through the clock, to get ahead of schedule so he could go to a youth conference in Palmyra, New York. He was a little tired, but he went.

The whole family put their faith on the line several years ago when they decided to close the shop on Sunday, even though it was one of their best days. They lost some customers after that, but they held firm to their decision, and their ex-customers, lonely for the incomparable pastries, came back and brought friends. Surrounded by this kind of integrity, Tom has learned many principles more important than the secrets of baking.

By the time you read this, Tom may already be on his mission. He may even be working in your ward. You’ll know him. He’ll be the one with the chubby, but happy, companion.

[photos] Photos by Eric W. White