In a Hyattsville warehouse with tall ceilings and plenty of light, an experiment has been quietly underway since April to bring more good bread to Washington.
A master baker has been hired to run a gleaming new 39,000-square-foot bakery for Uptown Bakers, one of the area's largest wholesale suppliers of artisanal pastries and breads.
Its new machines are churning out about 30,000 pieces of bread and pastry a day, seven days a week, for more than 500 restaurants across the metropolitan area.
While Uptown shuttered its own retail operations several years ago, the signature onion breads at local Morton's of Chicago steakhouses, the takeaway baguettes at Balducci's and the breakfast muffins at Caribou Coffee are all baked here. The White House and other government agencies are also regular clients.
The April move from the company's cramped bakery on I Street NE was not just about scale, though. Uptown hopes to combine traditional techniques with the best modern technology to bring artisanal bread to a mass audience. In so doing, it wants to be the best wholesale bakery, not just locally but in the entire United States.
"To do that, we need the best equipment and the best bakers," says owner Mike McCloud. And to lead that process, master baker Didier (DID-ee-yay) Rosada has been lured to Hyattsville from San Francisco to become Uptown Bakers' vice president of operations.
Rosada, 36, born in a small village outside Toulouse, France, coached the Bread Bakers Guild Team USA to its second victory at the Paris Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, the baking's world's version of the soccer World Cup. Team USA took the cup for the first time in 1999. This year, Rosada's third turn as team coach, the American team beat close contenders France, Japan, Switzerland and Belgium.
Rosada started baking at 15 as an apprentice and later earned a masters degree in baking from the Institut National de Boulangerie Patisserie in Rouen, France, one of the world's few graduate schools in baking. For the past 10 years, he has lived in the United States, working as an instructor at the National Baking Center in Minneapolis and the San Francisco Baking Institute and as a consultant to bakeries and flour mills around the globe.
He has taught artisanal varieties of flour, bread formulas and fermentation, bakery equipment, design and management. " I've never worked with anyone better-qualified than Didier, " says Tom McMahon, the founder of the Bread Bakers Guild of America.
From the artisan's point of view, there are two types of bread in the world: artisanal and pain. Pain is short for the French term pain de mie, which is sandwich bread with a crumb so soft it resembles cake.
By pain breads, bakers mean the loaves sold in plastic bags, pre-sliced, for $1 to $3 a loaf, with smooth, even textures and no holes. Pain breads are fermented quickly and contain additives to keep the crumb even and consistent, as well as preservatives to keep the breads for two to three weeks without molding.
Artisanal breads, on the other hand, have no exact definition in the United States. They are (ideally) made with no artificial ingredients, shaped by hand and allowed to ferment over a longer period. As a consequence, they have stronger flavors and irregular shapes and go stale within a day or two. Because of their more expensive ingredients and labor, they can cost upward of $5 a loaf. "The butter we use is 82 percent fat -- the highest-quality butter, and the most expensive," says McCloud.
All artisanal bakeries, whether they bake 30,000 pieces like Uptown, or 15,000 like Firehook bakery, face the same challenges: to sell artisanal breads in a nation of pain bread. They must change not just the habits of customers but also of suppliers: wheat growers and flour mills designed for pain-bread practices.
"Good bread will never have a very long shelf life," Rosada says. "Our philosophy is that bread that lasts three weeks is not normal."
At about 8 a.m. on a recent day, after the early-morning rush is over, Rosada appears in chef's whites and a hairnet, with wire-rimmed glasses atop apple cheeks, to tour the factory, where old fashioned ingredients meet modern technology.
For him, accuracy is everything. He doesn't have "recipes" -- he has "formulas." The building temperature is kept at precisely 74 degrees.
Good bread, he says, "is all in how well you control the variables. Flour is delivered in tank trucks at Uptown: Thousands of pounds of wheat are unloaded into a temperature-controlled silo. Rosada came to the United States to help research wheat varieties that would be better suited to artisanal breads. "The varieties in the U.S. have been developed primarily for the pain breads, for breads made by mechanization," he says. "The flour needs to be stronger to withstand the abuse of the machines." Uptown's new machines are designed to operate more gently with artisanal flours.
Strength, in the language of baking, means protein content in the wheat: The more protein in the flour, the more gluten in the dough, hence a stronger, less pliable bread. Uptown uses "weaker" flour , similar to the blends Rosada helped research.
From the silo, the flour travels into mixing bowls large enough to hold full-grown men.
Ten spiral mixers that can handle up to 400 pounds of flour at a time stand in a semicircle, surrounding an elevator that lifts the heavy bowls when they are full so that they can be emptied.
Dozens of bins, all covered in plastic, hold the dough to set and ferment. The scene feels like something out of "The X-Files," with so many living doughs growing quietly in their plastic pods. Once the doughs have been mixed and fermented, they are divided and shaped into loaves by crews of four or five bakers and baked in deck ovens, with stone-bottomed racks that steam the bread and give it the bottom-up heat required for its signature crisp crust. "The deck oven is the closest duplication of the brick oven of the old days," Rosada says.
He picks up a baguette, works a serrated knife along its middle and peels back a portion like a banana to take a bite. Although he has spent more than two-thirds of his life baking baguettes, he still looks inspired.
"I am going to focus on our biggest sellers first -- the baguette formula to start -- then work my way out to the other things," he says. "It's step by step, not done overnight."In the end, Rosada has come to Washington to see if he can control the variables himself. It's one thing to advise bakeries, another to put that advice into practice.
"In three months," he says cheerfully, "I will have it the way I like it."
Emily Kaiser last wrote for Food about chef Michel Richard's three levels of grilling salmon.