It’s shaping up to be a booming year for artisan bread baking. Local grains, whole grains, unique flavors and a surge in interest among the general public for handcrafted products are among the many factors that signal continued growth ahead for the artisan movement.
“So many micro-bakeries are opening across the country, bringing new handcrafted breads to every little community. We’re really in the midst of a bread revolution in America,” says Lionel Vatinet, a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Outstanding Baker in 2015 and a leader in American artisan bread baking over the past 25 years. “Now so many finally have access to real, artisan bread. As a result, customers are savvy about what is involved in producing bread every single day by hand, and more open to new types of bread. They’re also more likely to visit a bakery several times a week, rather than just on occasion or even once a week.”
It’s no surprise that artisan bread baking is touching the souls of crafts people young and old across the country.
The owner of 2-year-old Ibis Bakery in Lenexa, Kansas, Chris Matsch fell in love with great bread after visiting California and tasting the classic San Francisco sourdough at Tartine Bakery. He studied countless hours preparing for the opening of Ibis by baking bread and selling loaves at local farmer’s markets. “What is exciting is that bakers are really open about sharing knowledge, and you can see they have a genuine passion for their work. That’s what attracted me – the bread community that was around it.” Entering the artisan bread community led to meeting new friends like Taylor Petrehn, who opened his bakery, 1900 Barker, a year ago in Lawrence, Kansas, a college town that is experiencing its own bread revival.
Starting with a liquid levain, the Ibis bakers will follow a two-day ritual, spanning 18 to 20 hours from initial feed to bake and producing up to 200 loaves a day through the week and 300 loaves on Saturdays. “Baking bread has redefined success for me,” Matsch says. “If you can overcome all of these little variances and make something that is very pleasing, this is what really does drive you.”
After working as a consultant for several years, artisan bread baker Mark Furstenberg decided to return to retail baking at the age of 74 and start a neighborhood retail bakery, Bread Furst, which opened its doors in Washington, D.C., in April 2014. “And that’s where I am, overseeing that neighborhood bakery. I still love making a product. I am excited about our whole grain breads that are really pretty popular, and I love it that we bake baguettes four times a day so that they are fresh nearly all the time. Our pastries are traditional American, rustic pies and good cakes, really wonderful croissants and cookies and brownies and many other sweet foods. And our food is seasonal, much of it vegetarian, local, Mediterranean in character, and I think it’s good.”
Furstenberg admits that he loves “at least just as much” how the bakery has been embraced by the neighborhood. “There is literally no day in which someone doesn’t say to me, “Thank you for doing this.” Or, “You have done something wonderful for the neighborhood.” Those sentiments make me feel as if I have made a real contribution. Finally, I love the children, the streams of children who come to the bakery and taste something. I think all the time that I have done something wonderful for these children, and this bakery will become a part of their lives that will never entirely leave them.”
On the farm
Vatinet spent years traveling the world teaching as a consultant before his own bakery, La Farm Bakery, in Cary, North Carolina in 1999. In November 2013 Vatinet introduced his first artisan bread book, A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker, sharing his techniques and teachings with bakers everywhere.
Vatinet’s passion for bread was first nurtured when he joined France’s prestigious artisans’ guild, Les Compagnons du Devoir, at age 16. After apprenticing with European bakers, and forming lifelong friendships with other Compagnons such as Eric Kayser, Vatinet emerged seven years later with hard-earned title of Maitre Boulanger, pledging to devote his life to teaching, sharing and preserving the ancient art and science of bread baking.
Following completion, Vatinet came to the United States to be the founding instructor at the San Francisco Bread Baking Institute, consulted for bread brands nationwide, and coached Team USA in France’s La Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. Vatinet continues to lend his expertise, consulting for bakeries, and teaching home bakers around the country, through the Bread Bakers Guild of America, and as the featured baker at Asheville’s Artisan Bread Bakers Festival. In 2012 Saveur recognized La Farm Bakery as one of the “20 Great American Bread Bakeries.”
Rather than propagate secrets, Vatinet’s mission has always been to demystify bread baking. He’s dedicated his life to sharing his knowledge. Vatinet was the founding instructor at the San Francisco Baking Institute, the first school of its kind in the US. Bakers from the most respected bakeries in America – La Brea, Acme, Zabar’s and Panera – traveled to SFBI to study with Vatinet, who has been credited not only for his skill and passion, but also for his knowledge in maintaining quality while increasing production – a critical component to the growth and success of the artisan bread baking industry in America.
“I’ve always drawn on the lessons and traditions I learned in my years in the French bread bakers’ guild,” he says. “That was a life-changing time for me, so those concepts will always be at the forefront for me. Our culinary community in the Triangle is a rich one. I’m inspired by what I see the chefs doing, by our local brewers and other artisans, and of course, by other bakers, even the bakers in our own bakery. Everyone is tapping into our local agriculture in their own way and bringing something with a real sense of place to the table.”
Leading a revival
When Furstenberg opened Marvelous Market in 1990, he set the tone for traditional European breads in Washington, D.C. The concept and quality of his breads were new to the city. Customers stood in lines that extended down the street to buy the two loaves to which they were limited. And yet unforeseen circumstances, such as the cost of running a retail business, became difficult to manage.
After selling his first store in 1996, Furstenberg went on to open The BreadLine, a bread-based restaurant that won him nominations from the James Beard Foundation as best chef in the Mid-Atlantic, ratings as a top restaurant in America by Zagat, and selection as one of the Washington Post’s favorite spots.” I opened my second bakery downtown just a block from the White House. It turned out to be more restaurant than bakery but it was very popular and the food was really good. But on the verge of turning 70, I decided it was enough and I sold it to Brioche Doree.”
His favorite foods to make are bread, of course, as well as salads, soups and many types of foods. Favorite ingredients include butter, flour, avocados, arugula, pomegranates and all sorts of herbs and spices. His greatest skill may well be food development – “thinking about food, imagining, being certain (perhaps too certain) that I know what people will like,” he says. “I am a good cook and a good baker but I think my real skill is food imagination. I have always loved to eat. I have always been curious about food. It’s always been a hobby and I think that a lifetime of thinking about food is how I developed skills. And I go on doing this by reading about food, tasting the foods of others, being curious about food in other cultures. I have so much more to learn.”
Like the ingredients in his bakery, there are so many great bakers and chefs who led Furstenberg to where he is today. In bread baking, he credits Raymond Calvel and Michel Suas. In food, inspirations include M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Richard Olney, Yotem Ottolenghi, Paula Wolfert, Joyce Goldstein, Laurie Colwin and Elizabeth David, among others.
Suas, the head of the San Francisco Baking Institute, is who Furstenberg considers to be his mentor: “Michel Suas, who over the 25 years I have known him has methodically pursued his dream of a baking school — and is the father of the San Francisco Baking Institute, two retail bakeries and a sandwich shop.”
Furstenberg downplays the talk that he is known as the man who introduced Washington, D.C., to good bread. “That’s hardly the case as many people here lived abroad or came from other places where there was good bread. But I have made a contribution here and that’s enough for me. I want this bakery to last. I want to make it more orderly. I hope that I can help others at Bread Furst be even more creative than I. I do not want to open any more businesses, but if I can help encourage others to do that, I want to. And so we are liberal about letting people work here to see if they like it and I try to advise others who want to open food businesses. Right now, I am beating the bushes to find someone to open a restaurant in a space that is available across the street from Bread Furst. At my age, I am driven purely by a hope that I can leave something for this neighborhood and this city.”