Mark Furstenberg pads around Bread Furst, the Connecticut Avenue bakery he opened in May, like an aging Papa Bear. At 76, he’s alternately gruff and solicitous, carrying on conversations of equal vigor with 3-year-olds, his Amish produce man and longtime friends like Michel Richard of Citronelle fame, who drop by for coffee and a large, jagged slice of a buttered, toasted baguette.
“I made that. You should be nice to me,” he tells a little boy who glances at him warily after Furstenberg hands him a cookie.
Furstenberg walks up a short flight of steps to a tiny prep room known as the “savory” kitchen, where he starts slicing radishes.
“Why do I smell sugar burning?” he suddenly demands.
“It’s the squash,” answers Robert Dalliah, who has worked with Furstenberg for two decades. Dalliah, who grew up in Gambia, later explains: “If you understand him, he’s easy to work for.”
Many customers don’t understand him. Furstenberg says that he’s constantly fielding complaints that he is “baking dark” and that his bread is overcooked.
“I believe that the dark crust gives the crust far more taste, it’s the caramelized sugar,” he says. “I have to fight with customers all the time about that. It looks burned — but it isn’t burned.”
To Washingtonians who have watched the local food scene evolve from a desert to a cornucopia, Furstenberg is a hero, the man who brought what then-Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman called “world-class bread” to the city in 1990, when he opened the first Marvelous Market on Connecticut Avenue just a half-mile north of where he is now at Bread Furst.
Ask Furstenberg whether there’s a bread renaissance in the United States — a softball question, really, because everybody knows that there is — and the city’s most eminent breadmaker scoffs.
“Absolutely not,” he replies. “It’s a completely upper-class phenomenon. And it’s really so ironic. Only in America could the most basic food of the peasants become an upper-class food.”
Furstenberg will be the first to admit that his bread is not cheap (even though, at $7 a loaf, it costs less than a mediocre glass of wine). “Our prices embarrass me as well,” he says at one point. “But running a small business is very hard.”
Especially when the signature product is bread. “It just takes so much time to make a good loaf. It’s not a very efficient process,” says Sam Fromartz, a journalist and author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf.” Hence Bread Furst’s other offerings: pastries, pickles pickled on-site, organic milk and seasonal dishes such as kohlrabi slaw.
In fact, say those who know his cooking, aside from bread, Furstenberg’s particular culinary skill is his knack for putting ingredients together in unanticipated combinations, something he showed off as he picked tarragon leaves from their stem one recent afternoon.
“I want an herb — tarragon; bitterness, some radicchio. I want a crunch — fennel, some feta for saltiness, and I’m thinking about nuts,” he said, explaining a Christmas salad that he was creating.
Furstenberg and his French-born wife split up when his sons were toddlers, and the two boys spent their teenage years living with Furstenberg at his home in Silver Spring.
“His fridge, since I was a little kid, it was always the same,” recalls son François, 42, an American history professor at Johns Hopkins University. “So full you couldn’t fit a soda can in there, and yet there was absolutely nothing to eat. There’d be these weird ingredients and these Tupperware containers with odd things inside. They were often delicious, but they weren’t the kind of things two teenagers wanted to eat.”
Furstenberg and his five siblings grew up in Baltimore. Their mother’s side, the Hollanders, were well-off aristocratic German Jews who had arrived in the mid-19th century. Their father’s working-class family emigrated from Sweden in 1907, and his grandfather went to work in a Waltham, Mass., watch factory.
“It was a kind of mixed marriage, if you will,” remembers Furstenberg’s younger brother Frank, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Furstenberg graduated in 1961 from Ohio’s Oberlin College, “which had a lot of lefty anti-communists, of whom I was one.” He was, by his own admission “impudent and very smart-alecky.” And he began a series of jobs that he still marvels over.
He became the assistant to Howard K. Smith, the famed television political commentator, but was fired — “a 23-year-old scapegoat,” he says — after the airing of Smith’s controversial (and somewhat premature) piece, “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.”
He met David Hackett, a confidant of then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who hired him to join the Kennedy White House. Poverty in America had become a big political subject, and Furstenberg was sent to eastern Kentucky in 1963 to be the point person for a $10 million emergency assistance program. “I was 25, and of course, it was one of the great experiences of my life,” he says.
“President Kennedy had decided that poverty would be the centerpiece of the upcoming [1964 presidential] campaign. And then he left for Dallas.”
After Kennedy’s assassination, Furstenberg went back to graduate school. When he finished, race riots were erupting across the country and “what was really hot in American politics,” he says, “was crime.” He spent the 1970s as a criminal justice consultant. Among other things, he directed a seminal 1974 experiment with the Kansas City police force that argued that routine police patrols had little impact on crime. After 1980, however, with the election of Ronald Reagan, the federal funding that was the lifeblood of a criminal justice consultant dried up, and Furstenberg and his partners moved in a radically different direction: They purchased a bankrupt copper-tubing company in Reading, Pa. That fortuitous purchase, he says, led directly to bread.
“I found when I was in Reading that I loved making things,” he recalled one morning over coffee at his bakery. “I had never made anything. I simply had talked about things all my life. But I would stand there in the early morning and watch those copper pipes come off the finish lines, and it was like jewelry. It was so beautiful. And we made it. And that’s why ultimately I became a baker.”
By the time he turned 50, in 1988, Furstenberg had sold his interest in the copper-tubing factory. He tried journalism, working for his old friend Bob Kaiser at The Washington Post, but found it unsatisfying.
He knew that he liked manufacturing, though, and he knew that he liked food. He designed a questionnaire with his sociologist brother, asking his neighboring Washingtonians what they were missing food-wise. “It was bread, bread, bread,” his brother Frank recalls. “I said, ‘Mark, this is pretty clear.’ ”
So Furstenberg headed to California, then the mecca of artisanal bread making, where he apprenticed with Nancy Silverton, one of the country’s most influential bread pioneers. “This is the taste I want,” he remembers thinking. “First of all, the loaves were beautiful, so grainy. You’d smell it when you’d squeeze the bread and this wheaty smell came out. It wasn’t yeasty. And the contrast between the crust and the crumb was so pleasing.”
He followed that up with stages in two legendary Paris bakeries, where he learned the art of making a French baguette. And in 1990 he opened his first Marvelous Market on the same Chevy Chase block that housed Politics and Prose, the venerable Washington bookstore that his older sister, Carla Cohen, had started in 1984.
“It was a sensation,” says Rob Stein, an early Marvelous Market investor. But its success led to its failure — the company expanded far too rapidly, including opening a 15,000-square-foot bakery in Silver Spring. By 1994, Marvelous Market had tumbled into bankruptcy and was sold, then sold again. (The last Marvelous Market closed in April 2014, less than a week before Furstenberg held his launch party for Bread Furst.)
“I had created something wonderful,” says Furstenberg, who was permanently scarred by the experience. “Then my own stupidity and hubris caused me to lose it.”
Chastened, he opened the Bread Line, a single store on Pennsylvania Avenue, in 1997. Running it, he was twice nominated for a James Beard Foundation regional chef’s award. But he sold the store in 2005 because, he says, “the work was so hard, physically hard, standing on the line, making the sandwiches, the prep.”
“I thought,” he adds, laughing, “I’m too old to do this.”
But Furstenberg had long had a vision, a Platonic ideal, of a neighborhood bakery. He had vivid memories of his childhood shopping strip in West Baltimore, with its Jewish bakery called Silbers, and a bakery he once saw in Sisteron, a village in the French Alps. “So beautiful,” he says, “with just five breads and another dozen rustic pastries, and there was a steady stream of customers, one after the other.”
And he realized, catalyzed by his sister Carla’s death in 2010, that he wanted to create his own version of Politics and Prose, something that would be around after he was gone. It’s the bakery as a neighborhood mainstay. But it’s also the bakery as a manifestation of its owner’s personality and values — in this case Sri Lankan bakers’ caps, local sourcing and traditional breads that are resolutely not low-carb or gluten-free.
“‘My vision has gotten smaller throughout my lifetime,” Furstenberg says. “Going from the war on poverty to a neighborhood bakery is a big contraction of vision. I’m not changing the world now. I’ve just picked a tiny piece of the world to change.”