By Melissa McCart
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
It's 8 a.m., or Hour Two in a typical workday for 2941's baker Patrick Deiss. Wearing cords and a long-sleeve, waffle-knit shirt, Deiss remarks that it's cool in the bakery, in the building next to the Falls Church restaurant. A cooler temperature retards fermentation of yeast in the seven breads he makes every morning: four kinds of baguettes, two types of sourdough and a rye.
"Time to feed the baby," he says, pulling an oversize container of sourdough starter from a shelf. "When it's hungry or angry, it falls." Over-fermentation or a quick ferment, "and it's dead bread. You have to start over."
Deiss, former executive chef under 2941's Jonathan Krinn, points out that bubbles in the starter and the sweet aroma from gluten production indicate things are moving along. He pulls off a section for the day's baking, then adds flour and water to the big container and incorporates it.
He is one of a growing number of chefs who are baking their own breads at Washington area restaurants, including Inox, Potenza, Restaurant Eve, Palena, Obelisk and Rustico. According to longtime bread guru Mark Furstenberg, who plans to open a street-food-focused restaurant this summer and a retail bakery in the next year, chefs are learning how to do it themselves, or are hiring bakers, because they "don't want to pay for things they might make. It's expensive to buy wholesale."
The rise in bread baking might also be a function of the faltering economy or the chefs' embrace of artisan methods and homemade products. Whatever the case, restaurants are realizing the power of bread's traditional role as the first food consumed at the table. "Bread is customers' initial memory of a meal," says Bryan Moscatello, executive chef at Zola and Potenza downtown. "Chefs want to have more of a say in that initial experience. You can see a real difference."
Moscatello oversees the recently opened Potenza Bakery, housed next door to its restaurant in the former Woodward & Lothrop department store downtown. The bakery provides focaccia, ciabatta, sourdough bread, fennel raisin bread and semolina batards, as well as breadsticks and cheddar biscuits, for Stir Food Group's restaurants and catering department. The bakery and gelateria is also open to the public for eating in.
The starter that's used to make Deiss's daily bread at 2941 isn't any old sourdough starter. It comes from his month-long stint at the San Francisco Baking Institute, one of the most highly regarded culinary specialty schools in the country, where he learned about artisan techniques and world breads for 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Deiss created the starter at school using natural, ambient airborne yeasts, froze it and brought it back to Virginia in his carry-on baggage. The theory behind transplanting a starter made elsewhere is that it embodies characteristics of the environment in which it was created. San Francisco's saltwater, air and humidity lend character to this one, transporting flavor and acidity from the country's sourdough capital.
Some restaurants bake bread because chefs can't find what they want on the market: "I guess I have control issues," says Peter Pastan, executive chef of Obelisk in the District. "I wasn't crazy about bakery bread that was available, so I make what I like."
Bread baking isn't as elemental as its ingredients. For one, patience is a requirement. "There are no shortcuts," Furstenberg says. "You need a minimum of five hours," plus at least 12 hours if you use a starter. "It's not like cooking a steak."
A reverence for consistency is also a prerequisite. "Baking can be dull, repetitious work," Furstenberg says.
Pastan, who has been baking bread either at home or at a restaurant nearly every day since the early 1980s, doesn't find it dull in the least. "No matter how good you think you are," he says, "there's always variation and mystery." He says he looks forward to the exercise, which may include an "everyday bread" made with durum flour; sourdough; a saltless, "vaguely Tuscan loaf"; and breadsticks he learned to make during a week-long stint at a bakery in Italy.
Though some executive chefs such as Pastan and Frank Ruta of Palena take pride in baking bread, other restaurants anoint an enthusiastic line cook and train him or her to be the designated baker. "Hiring a line cook whose sole purpose is baking is not cost-effective," Furstenberg says. "But if a baker can provide to several restaurants, it makes sense."
Why not just have the pastry chef do it? "Two reasons: sugar and chocolate," says Nathan Hatfield, baker at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria. Those ingredients are finicky enough without adding the complications of yeast to someone's job description. Besides, as Furstenberg says, bakers and pastry chefs have different styles. "Bakers are manly, rustic and robust," he says. "Their highest value is consistency. Pastry chefs value creativity. Their work is elegant and refined."
Bread baking requires a stable, moderately humid environment. Restaurant chefs-turned-bakers who don't have a designated baking area have to adjust more often for variables. Just ask Frank Morales, executive chef at Rustico, who for the past eight months has been teaching himself from books how to bake his own hearth breads.
In his kitchen, Morales has to monitor fluctuations caused by fire from the pizza oven and grill, doors opening and closing and seasonal changes. On any given morning, you'll find him pointing a laser gauge at starters, at hearth hot spots and in the air, checking temperature and humidity so he can make adjustments before proofing and baking.
Why does he do it? "Bread making is fundamental. I had to learn how to do it," Morales says. "But I also knew I was in for a daunting experience."
It seems Morales is a quick study, with breads among the more popular items during service and on weekday mornings from 7:30 to 8, when his Speakeasy Breads operation sells $3 boules of beer bread (with a delicious honey butter). In the restaurant, Morales offers a wider variety of beer boules and sourdough, as well as Pullman and honey whole-wheat loaves.
Committed bakers eventually gravitate toward more serious setups than a convection oven or the hearth. They might want a bread mixer, in which a center pole remains stationary and bread is kneaded around it; a proofer, which controls temperature and humidity as dough rises; and a deck oven, which has five vented levels with stone or tile floors, narrow front doors to trap heat and steam injection for the early stages of baking.
Hatfield says he has been making do with convection ovens until the restaurant opens its bakery and charcuterie in the next couple of years. He learned to bake as a college student in Utah and says he most enjoys making ciabatta, which he describes as having a thin, crisp crust with an open crumb. The holes in the bread are caused by carbon dioxide, which is released when the dough is punched down between proofing stages.
These days, Deiss is most proud of his sourdough because, he says, it's his showcase bread. And it reminds him of San Francisco.
"There's this romantic allure to San Francisco: the fog, the hills, the beauty of the city," Furstenberg says. "And it's a reminder of the days when all bread was made with a natural starter. It's traditional."
"It takes longer," Deiss says. "But it's worth the work."
Melissa McCart writes the Counter Intelligence blog at http://melissamccart.wordpress.com.