Alex Whitman drops a sticky hunk of dough onto his floured workspace and begins slapping it smooth.
"My story is not compact," he says as he works.
Sporting a paint-splattered T-shirt and a headband to hold back his shoulder-length locks, Whitman may look like your archetypal laid-back dude, but his movements illustrate otherwise. He pats and racks his loaves of bread with a sense of urgency. After literally traveling around the world, Whitman, an extreme skier turned artisanal baker, says he is now embarking on his most difficult journey.
Whitman was born in Seattle, Washington, to a family who valued travel and the outdoors. At age 5, he took his first trip abroad, visiting Australia with this grandparents. As an adolescent, he remembers hitting the slopes every weekend with his parents.
In 2003, after Whitman graduated high school, he moved to Canada, where he says he skied 200-plus days a year, supporting himself through odd jobs.
"I was into the extreme terrain — hitting jumps, cliffs, rails, all that. I loved skiing because you got to go really fast," Whitman says.
That need for speed coupled with his upbringing likely contributed to his decision in 2007 to make a lap around the globe.
"It was a pretty incredible experience to cover that much land and see how big the earth really is," says Whitman.
Among his many adventures during that trip, he spent a month in China, traveling from Beijing to Laos.
"China was the weirdest, coolest place," Whitman says. In fact, he would have liked to stay there longer, but when his tourist visa expired, he was forced to return to the U.S.
For awhile after that, Whitman lived in California. While there, a friend invited him on a trip to the Sierra Mountains where he introduced Whitman to rock climbing.
"I did about two days of climbing and I haven't put skis on since. I found that climbing had that same energy, that same risk and reward I really enjoy — and it wasn't cold. I could do it without wearing a shirt," he says.
Whitman may have been smitten with the new sport, but he was also still swooning for China. Shortly after that life-changing weekend worth of climbing, Whitman packed up his climbing ropes and carabiners and returned to China as a Second Language instructor. As luck would have it, he was stationed in a part of southern China considered to be one of the world's greatest climbing meccas.
Happily, he lived there for six months, "teaching a little and climbing a lot," as Whitman says. There was only thing missing.
"I was craving bread," he says. "China doesn't grow wheat; they grow rice. I was eating a lot of stir-fries and noodles, and I was so sick of Chinese food."
Having to live without sandwiches wasn't the only formative food experience of Whitman's travels. Following his second trip to China, he had spent time in Spain. There, on the ground level of his apartment building, had been a butcher, a fish market and a produce stand. Across the street, there had been a bakery.
"I could do all my grocery shopping from local artisans, all in my building," says Whitman.
When he returned to the States in 2011, he says having to deal with American grocery stores was like reverse culture shock. So he decided to start making some of his own food, beginning with bread.
"The first loaf I made was a brick of flour. I said, 'I can't fail this badly at an essential human staple. I have to learn to do this,'" Whitman recalls. So he began studying bread, and before long, true to his passionate nature, Whitman says, "I fell in love. I really loved the science and the art of baking."
As he continued to hone his bread-making skill, he continued to travel. He spent some time in New York, then Colorado. In 2011, Whitman came to Chattanooga for what was supposed to be a three-day visit.
Five years later, he and girlfriend Victoria Capdevielle are now opening a bakery in Red Bank.
"Chattanooga is the first place I've stayed for more than six months," says Whitman, who admits that his climbing has taken a back burner to his new business venture. The planning; the logistics; the decision-making — baking bread is an event, he says.
"It's terrifying and it's fun. Hands down, this is the hardest thing I've ever done," Whitman says. "I did the nomad thing, and now this is just another really cool adventure."