Winner of the 2017 James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker, Bread Furst’s Mark Furstenberg didn’t start baking until the age of 52.
Before starting his Washington, D.C.-based bakery Bread Furst in 2014 at the age of 74, Furstenberg has previously owned Marvelous Market in D.C. He was the first baker in the area to offer traditional European breads. Following that, he opened Bread Line, a restaurant which won him nominations from the James Beard Foundation as best chef in the Mid-Atlantic.
Furstenberg says that he loves the neighborhood feel of his bakery: “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.”
The mind of a bread baker can be described as equal parts artist and scientist. “I think you want me to talk about bread. Let’s take whole grains,” starts Furstenberg, the man who is often credited with bringing great bread to our nation’s capital. Whole grain breads sell particularly well now at Bread Furst, which opened in 2014 and is the third bakery opened by Furstenberg in Washington, D.C. So, today, Furstenberg wants to talk about the thought process that goes into producing the best possible whole grain bread. “Let’s say I want to make a very rich, dark rye bread with lots of seeds and perhaps some spice. That’s how I start — with a notion of what I want to achieve. Then I think: Rye. Coarse or fine? Chopped rye? Dark rye? Medium rye? What about whole grains? Do I want to put into the bread some hydrated berries? What about seeds? What seeds? What spices? That’s how I think about bread. And then I make up a formula and go to work on it.”
Furstenberg begins the arduous process by making a sponge, or first dough. He will cook and grind spices to get a blend he likes and then do a soaker. Finally, he makes the dough, lets it ferment, turns it into a form, proofs and bakes it. “I know from previous experiences at what temperature I want to bake it. And I know how to treat the loaf when it is baked. So when it has rested long enough after baking, I taste it. I have in my head a notion of what I want it to taste like and I think, “Oh, it’s bitter or there’s too much coriander or I don’t like the texture and so on.” And so I make adjustments in the formula and then I try again.”
This is the daily ritual of Mark Furstenberg, who is regarded by many as a trailblazer in the bread business and yet someone who admits that he does not pay any attention one bit to food trends. “I try to make the breads, foods, and pastries that I like. I am a traditionalist and believe that tradition always triumphs over trends. My job, as I see it, is to make the best things I can make and hope that my customers will like them.”
The Heart of a Baker
Furstenberg had no background in professional baking when he decided to become a full-time baker. “I had always done professionally what I wanted to do and I thought I could reinvent my career, even though I was 50 years old.” At the time, he was writing for The Washington Post and previously, during the 1980s, was chief operating officer for a large company that made copper tubing. “I had learned by being there that I love making a product. This may sound strange to bakers, particularly those who have been shaping loaves since they were children. But making a product is not something most Washingtonians experience. We don’t make things here in Washington, unless you think memoranda and legal briefs are products. But I had learned that making something was very rewarding to me, and I decided over a number of months that I would open a retail bakery. I knew, having lived in Washington for so many decades that this was something Washingtonians wanted. And I did it. I opened Marvelous Market in 1990.”
When Furstenberg opened Marvelous Market, 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 Marvelous Market 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.”
Consulting for Others
At this pivotal stage in his career, Furstenberg took on a new role as a consultant because he thought he would enjoy advising others. He worked in consulting for several top chefs and bakers, helping to open Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery and Bien Cuit in Brooklyn and developing the bread program for the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America. “I thought it would be a different form of creativity. I had some really wonderful experiences like helping the bakery at Yale University reformulate its sweets to reduce sugar and find better ingredients. But I was traveling a lot, living in often-not-such-great-hotels, advising people who frequently didn’t believe they needed advice.”
Furstenberg felt a strong tug to return to baking bread, a craft he so loved and missed. “Meanwhile at home, in Washington people were asking all the time the same question that had led me to open Marvelous Market 20 years earlier: Why are there no good bakeries in Washington? It was true. For a moment, from 1990 to 2000 for the decade after I opened Marvelous Market, neighborhood bakeries had emerged here. But in the subsequent decade nearly all of them closed or change into stores that didn’t bake. None was left. Not one. Washington was once again a city of sophisticated eaters who had no bakery.”
Hating to hear such questions again and again and even though he was approaching 75, Furstenberg decided to start a neighborhood retail bakery, Bread Furst, which opened its doors in April 2014. “And that’s where I am, overseeing that neighborhood bakery. I still love making a product. We do foods, breads, and desserts. 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.”
And yet what Furstenberg admits he loves “at least just as much” is 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.”
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, 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.”