Central to a great meal, I mean a really great meal, and a memorable restaurant experience, is the quality of the bread served. From my own perspective, I assess the quality of a restaurant by this simple fact – bread is important, as important as any other ingredient. This being said, there are far too many restaurants that deprive its guests from the experience of exceptionally prepared bread.
“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”
― James Beard
Much of the problem lies in the value that a business assigns to the crusty, chewy, full-flavored product made in the manner of ancient artisans. From a restaurant owner’s perspective – bread is expensive to produce and in the end it is given away freely to guests without the benefit of additional sales. It is almost relegated to “condiment” status and as such is treated in many cases without respect, care or passion.
Bread requires space, proper ovens, knowledge and talent, and most significantly – time. Bread is, after all, the original slow food that can require more time to prepare properly that a classically nurtured veal stock. There must be space for raw materials, adequate mixers, proofing space, ovens with a hearth and steam, bench space and cooling areas. Even though much bread baking can take place during that third kitchen shift, it still “interferes” with every other process that takes place in a kitchen. Bread bakers are different, in many cases, than your pastry chef. Bread baking requires you to roll up your sleeves, work on your biceps and abs allowing bakers to sling100 pound bags of flour while still maintaining a sensitive touch that can feel when the dough is right, sweat like a steel worker, accept the constant presence of flour in your hair, and deal with the relentless nature of damn hard work. There is far less need for finesse and that eye for plate presentation, and more need to create a “chew” that makes your jaw sore and tempts your palate with a level of food satisfaction that comes from the work of eating.
A chef who hopes to build a great restaurant experience without including extraordinary bread is truly missing the mark. Granted, many restaurants don’t have the space to do it right, and if that is the case they should probably avoid trying to create artisan bread by cramming the process into an inappropriate space. However, seeking out that passionate, hard working, totally dedicated baker who can service your needs as an outside vendor is as important as finding a source for great beef, incredibly fresh vegetables, and artisan cheese. In areas that do not have such a baker I would encourage local chefs to get together and seek out a baker to move to your area and in the same manner that small communities search for a doctor or dentist to establish roots in a town and encourage them to set-up shop. Yes, bread is THAT IMPORTANT.
I have been privileged to visit France, Germany, Austria, and England many times over the past thirty years and always reflect on how central a bread baker is to even the smallest village. One such village in Central Burgundy with a population of less than 1,000 was blessed with two artisan bread bakeries and a pastry shop. This is common throughout Europe. Great bread is always within walking distance. Why is it so hard to find the same in the U.S?
Bread bakers tend to be a bit eccentric, somewhat unique in their vision of life, but fully cognizant of how important their craft is. The decision to bake bread is more than a way to make a living; it is a way to bring the pleasures of life to others. Making great bread is a calling that requires individuals to work isolationist hours, work till their muscles ache and their lungs are filled with flour dust, and care for their starters like they are off-springs.
“Bread making is one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells… there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel. that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”
― M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating
Bread baking, unlike many other baking processes, goes beyond knowing how to read a formula. Great bread bakers have a feel for the process. They know great flour by letting it flow through their hands, they understand the importance of good water, they sense when a bowl proof is ready for shaping and rounding by stretching a piece of dough to see how well the gluten has developed, and they can smell and hear when a loaf is sufficiently baked to yield that great crust and chewy internal texture. To bake great bread you have to know it, love it, and be one with it.
“What many bakers don’t realize is that good wheat can make bad bread. The magic of bread baking is in the manipulation and the fermentation. What has been lost….is this method.”
― Lionel Poilane
I have a favorite story about a special bread baker with whom I had the pleasure to spend a few hours. To summarize it –his bread was his life. His life’s schedule evolved around the needs of the dough. Combine the dry ingredients and start the fire in wood ovens, sleep a few hours; mix and knead the wet ingredients and starter with the dry ingredients, shape and start the proof, sleep a few hours; check oven temperatures and status of the slow proof, sleep a few hours; slide the ready loaves into waiting ovens that have been serving his needs for decades – watch, smell, and tap to determine when the loaves are just right; feed the starter and allow it to continue to grow for another days work. This is it – the life of a dedicated artisan – each day, every day – this bread is the staff of life. This is what the baker does, it is who he or she is, and it is the contribution that they make to a full and enjoyable life.
In restaurants across the country, there is far too often a failure to recognize not just how significant the quality of these products might be and how they can enhance the diner’s experience; there is a lack of understanding of just what it takes to make exceptional bread.
It is far too easy to order above average bread products, arriving at your door in a frozen state, refresh them in an oven, and serve something that lacks much of the soul and passion that incredible bread, made by passionate bakers who have dedicated their lives to a product, can bring to any restaurant striving for greatness.
Bread bakers deserve our respect, and great bread should be the price of admission for any chef or restaurateur striving to build memorable experiences for diners. There is nothing like a superior piece of crusty bread slathered with quality butter.
Support your local bread baker.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC