We sat down with Fionn O’Connor, owner of Pan Bendito Bakery, to talk about his unique path from Michelin star kitchens to becoming a small business success in Marbella.
“Baking is the art of making water stand up” (old baker’s joke)
Interview by Anastasia Sukhanov
From his background working at Michelin star restaurants to studying biomedical engineering, Fionn’s journey into the art of breadmaking and the mastery of being a small business owner in Marbella has been fueled by passion, which I got to witness first-hand.
In a sourdough breadmaking workshop I attended at Pan Bendito, the resounding phrase “DO NOT FLIP THE DOUGH!” echoed through the air. Though flipping opportunities were limited, the workshop proved to be a treasure trove of knowledge, even for those unlikely to embark on their own breadmaking adventures at home. As Fionn guided us through the universe of fermentation and kneading, he shared the wisdom that bread is forgiving. Mistakes abound (and we made plenty!), yet the end result is often a delicious creation, evoking childhood wonder despite its quirky shapes and occasional charred edges.
Amidst a world that places immense pressure on perfection, the forgiving nature of breadmaking offers a respite. It allows us to embrace the childlike joy of the process and relish in the imperfections. For two sunny days at the bakery, we gathered to learn, laugh, marvel at the required strength, sip wine (yes, it was included!), and make delightful mistakes along the way. Curiosity led us to ask Fionn about his secret for tolerating early morning starts, to which he simply replied, “I just really like bread.” When I left the workshop with six loaves of bread, the true essence of Fionn’s words resonated deeply: where there is love in labor, everything else falls into place. It was a priceless reminder.
It’s been quite a journey: just a couple of years into the business, you deliver bread to Benito Bardal’s Michelin-starred restaurants in Ronda, as well as several at Marbella Club and dozens more around the coast. How did you get into bread making initially?
It was when I worked at a Michelin star restaurant in Ireland. In that intense kitchen environment, you don’t ask for instructions or show that you don’t know something. So, I observed the head chef making bread and became obsessed with it. After work, late at night, I would go home and start making my own bread, following recipes and diligently tending to the dough. Somehow, to my surprise, my first loaves turned out better than those made by the chef. This made me realize I had a talent for bread making. When Inés and I moved to Marbella, that’s when the pandemic started. With the uncertainty of finding a job and the hospitality sector completely closed I thought of making money through selling bread at organic markets. Although I underestimated the bureaucracy in Spain, we persevered and slowly gained recognition. Home delivery became our main business, as people loved the convenience of fresh bread delivered to their doorsteps. It was an exciting time, especially when Ines was delivering fresh bread early in the morning, surprising customers as they woke up.
What would be the advice you’d give someone who is opening a small business in Marbella?
Aside from “Don’t do it”? (he laughs). Be prepared for long hours and hard work, and make sure you have a genuine passion for what you’re doing. Small businesses need something special, unique, and full of character to stand out from big businesses. Also, be prepared to adapt and pivot from your original plans. Some of your dreams may die along the way but you will dream again. For example, I initially didn’t want to work with restaurants, but now they are a crucial part of our business and have helped sustain us.
Have you always been this passionate about what you do?
I have always been an intense person, even from a young age. I was the youngest of four kids, and my parents, who were a bit eccentric, gave me the freedom to explore my interests. It was a bit of a mixed blessing. While I sometimes felt neglected, it also meant that I had the opportunity to pursue my passions. One of those passions was cooking, and I have been baking since I was around four or five years old. It was intentional and fueled by my desire to dive deep into a topic and see it through.
My mum would encourage my baking endeavors by giving me a recipe book and some flour, telling me to go for it. By the time I was 10 or 12 years old, I had already gone through numerous baking books and felt a sense of accomplishment. Cooking, however, came later when I started watching Gordon Ramsay on television. There was something about the control and power he exuded that intrigued me.
Throughout my childhood, my life was quite chaotic and challenging. I often felt like I had no control over my circumstances. Stepping into a kitchen, with its crazy and hectic environment, felt strangely comforting. It was like a microcosm of life itself, where pans flew, people shouted, and everything was hot. But in that chaos, if you could remain present, stay organized, and tackle the tasks in front of you, everything would ultimately turn out fine. I loved that feeling of being in control, of taking a chaotic situation and transforming it into something perfect, smooth, and easy.
For a 16-year-old boy, it was a powerful experience. Society bombards young boys with confusing messages about masculinity, and I was no exception. The kitchen allowed me to stand up and be counted, to feel like a man in an environment that demanded strength and confidence. It provided a sense of identity and purpose.
After university, where I had pursued biomedical engineering, I realized that my true passion lay in cooking and I began working in restaurants around Galway, Ireland.
Given your background in biochemical engineering, how would you describe the relationship between the scientific principles you’ve learned and the process of breadmaking?
For me it is actually more spiritual than scientific. This thought has evolved naturally over time, and I find it incredibly fulfilling. Waking up at 2:00 AM and coming to the bakery while others are still out drinking is a unique experience. I start by baking yesterday’s dough and then move on to mixing today’s dough. Every day is different, bread and formula change constantly and I have to be fully present to achieve the same results every day. When working with larger quantities of dough, it becomes even more unpredictable and fast-paced. I have to stay attentive and closely monitor its progress to prevent it from going out of control. Ultimately you are working in tandem with a living energy, that rewards the amount of presence and respect given to it.
Do you have a favorite place in or around Marbella?
I really like Ronda and the Alpujarras. Sometimes you need to escape Marbella and explore these more hidden, spiritual places. When I first moved here, I didn’t like Marbella at all, but I realized there are like-minded people everywhere. It taught me a valuable lesson about judging others. Marbella has changed me and my perspective. If I were to leave today, I would leave as a completely different person. As for a favorite spot in Marbella, I haven’t found one that compares to the experiences I’ve had in other places in Andalucía. Zahara de los Atunes is incredible, and there’s a beach called Bunker Beach that holds a special memory for me.
What’s next for Pan Bendito and your family?
We are thinking big, we want to be at the forefront of the food revolution we are witnessing every day. How can we bring this amazing curative bread to more and more people, we want to grow so large that everyone in Spain knows, if you want the best bread it comes from Pan Bendito. Also, we are passionate about what we’re doing in Ronda with growing ancient grains, milling flour, and creating unique bread varieties. The bread made from these grains is currently being used in Bardal’s restaurants. We aim to replicate a wildflower meadow by growing different varieties of ancient grains together in a polyculture system. This ensures resilience against crop failures and protects against the risk of losing a whole harvest. We work with an agricultural partner who custom blends the grains for us and also there is a group of farmers in Ronda who are also involved in restoring ancient grains. This is something we want to explore further and see it grow.
Order your bread at https://panbendito.com or drop by the bakery in Centro Comercial Guadalmina Alta (behind El Asador) to enjoy fresh daily sourdough, a cup of coffee, local produce including fruit & vegetables and Fionn’s delightful company – if you can manage to catch him!
Open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Sunday).
Pan Bendito deliver at home for a minimum of €15 between El Paraíso (Estepona) and Marbella (La Cañada). Or without a minimum order at one of our collection points.
Wednesday and Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Call: 683 66 24 65 for more information. Or email email@example.com
You can also follow them on instagram for some daily delicious inspiration: https://www.instagram.com/panbendito_bakehouse/