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R&IEditorial Archives2000 — November 1 — Food

Bread's Bounty
The value of bread continues to rise as customers clamor for quality.

Crusty and flavorful or billowy and sublime, bread is such a basic yet essential part of a restaurant meal. Its presence cannot be shuttered, but just how vital is quality?

It is more important than ever, say chefs who want not just any bread but one that supports the concept of the restaurant and conveys a commitment to top-notch ingredients.

Indeed, bread’s role at the table is unprecedented, its stature on the rise. Restaurants are beginning to see bread more as strength and less as an appetite-squelching freebie. It can be one more tactic in the strategy for a winning dining experience.

This small, quiet revolution, which began in storefront bakeries, now surges through all of foodservice, raising quality from top to bottom. In Chicago, Nancy Carey of Red Hen Bakery reflects a bread awakening among restaurants, while Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread in New York demonstrates the power of three simple ingredients to help restaurants buoy their appeal. And in Los Angeles, Nancy Silverton set the standard for artisan bread about a dozen years ago at La Brea Bakery.

“[Good bread] benefits everyone,” says Silverton on a recent drive to her bakery, which outgrew its capacity a year after it opened. “You give people good bread and that’s what they will come to expect, not just from you but from other places where they eat and shop.”


Carey, wearing a red baseball cap bearing her bakery’s logo, is scoring dough in rapid-fire succession. The loaves, hand-shaped epi, resemble a branch of leaves. It is one of dozens of varieties she carefully tends from yeast starter to finished product.

Carey was 28 when she started Red Hen Bakery three years ago with only a vague awareness of the complexities of bread. Though she spent time as a line cook, earned a culinary degree and worked for a New Haven, Conn.-based baker as well as at Amy’s Bread, she admits there was plenty more to learn. But striking out on her own seemed like the only option when the best job she could find after returning to her hometown was behind the counter of a bakery, ringing up sales.

Word spread fast about Carey’s Old World-style breads, many of them made with organic ingredients and methods of days past: generous time to proof and retard; and the work of human hands to develop the ideal flavor, texture and crumb. She envisioned her bakery becoming a neighborhood favorite, not the spark that would flame interest in better-quality, more authentic baked goods. When her first big order came in, Carey was elated—and not fully prepared. “I was so nervous. I made everyone throw out the first batch and made them again because I didn’t think they were good enough.”

What came next was a tsunami of clients that could have doused her passion. “We went through a lot of growing pains,” Carey recalls, working nearly around the clock. “I remember that I kept saying, ‘Whose bad idea was this?’”

With financial support of family (she has eight siblings) and friends, Carey expanded, opening an 8,000 square-foot facility earlier this summer, a few miles from the cramped quarters in which she once baked.

On a recent morning, the place is humming along with a haze of flour hovering among the workers as they cut, shape and score dough. Ovens injecting steam, to benefit the shape, texture and crust, whirl and whistle. As Carey removes the bread, the crusty creations are tantalizing: a crunchy multigrain studded with poppy seeds, pine nuts and sesame; crisp demi-baguettes; dense and chewy walnut-currant bread perfect for a cheese course; and billowy ciabatta are among her offerings.

“I like to do classics,” Carey says, explaining that technique along the many steps of bread baking (from the mixing and proofing to cutting and shaping) determines quality.

“For a while, people wanted all kinds of ingredients and flavors in bread,” she says. “But now they want you to keep it simple but good. The taste comes from the depth of flavor.”


Scherber always envisioned opening a business but one more in line with her career in marketing. But interest in food led to a culinary degree plus stints at David Bouley’s namesake New York restaurant and at bakeries in France before opening Amy’s Bread in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. The strongest growth in her hand-shaped rustic breads was in wholesale, something she attributes both to being married to a chef at the time and to giving away samples to their foodservice friends. Within four years after starting the business in 1982, Scherber expanded, moving to the now red-hot Chelsea neighborhood. A 150-foot-long glass storefront provides a bird’s-eye view of artisan bread making 364 days a year. The bakehouse produces up to 5,000 pounds of bread daily.

In a city where standards are high and competition fierce, Scherber’s roster of customers is a testament to her ability to gauge and deliver the demands of the marketplace—after some trial and error.

“In the beginning, I thought that country sourdough and country whole wheat would take off. No one wanted it but now the two largest-selling breads are these two,” Scherber says.

The trend in New York, she says, is toward the unadorned. “Chefs are tired of things that are busy—they want something simple to offset their very complex food. That means nothing mixed with it—no fruit, no spices,” she says, explaining the popularity of the baguette. “They want something perfect, not heavy or clunky but something crispy and delicate with a toasty flavor. When you break ours open, it smells of toasted hazelnuts, it’s milky in color and has a chewy crust.” Scherber credits some of the baguette’s attributes to the gentleness of hand shaping, a dying craft in New York.

But since New York is a “roll city,” the French roll also is in high demand. “People want more and more rolls. We now have an afternoon delivery of rolls,” Scherber says.

Certainly there are exceptions to plain and simple, particularly among restaurants that want variety and signature bread. Most bakers, however, agree that signature items are not worth the effort financially unless the order is large, the restaurant has a high profile or the dough can be used in other ways. For instance, when Tavern on the Green, which seats 1,000 and posted revenues of $34.4 million last year, orders a particular type of bread, the batch fills an entire delivery truck.

Scherber also makes signature items such as crusty whole-wheat walnut bread with dried blueberries and a potato-onion-dill baguette.

New York restaurants are increasingly ordering bread made with organic flour. “The future of bread is going in that direction,” she says. “It’s better for the environment and better for the people eating it.”


Out on the West Coast, Silverton is busily rearranging picnic lemon tarts and canelles in between easing a line of customers that winds out the door of her retail bakery—a typical scenario that lasts throughout the weekend. After “making a lot of mistakes” learning how to create artisan-style bread, she can tell just by looking at the product whether it has been made correctly. “If the foundation is correct, it will swell the way it’s suppose to. If you put the dough in the oven too cold or it has too much leavening, the bread won’t be good. The bread will have an awful yellow hue, the crumb will be coarse and the crust won’t be right.”

Though Silverton is hailed as the doyenne of artisan bread, she is uncomfortable with being credited as a leader in the country’s movement toward quality bread making. But she will say she did not have the benefit of someone else’s techniques and recipes.

Silverton opened La Brea Bakery in 1989 intending to supply bread and desserts to Campanile, the adjacent restaurant she started with husband Mark Peel. They never imagined the narrow, cramped space with a makeshift retail counter would sell out by 11 a.m. or that demand would grow so strong that the parking lot would be the only space to cool just-baked bread.


In 1992, the baking moved to a space a few miles from the restaurant to meet demand. From this 22,000-foot space, about 35,000 pounds of fresh-baked bread are carefully and painstakingly crafted. On a recent Saturday, 12 workers at a table hand-shaped dough for what would become large, crusty, deeply browned sourdough boule. Growth has forced the bakery to shape only the large loaves by hand; other types are made by machine for efficiency.

La Brea has another location in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, where it sells bread and baked goods for the hotel as well as to the restaurants. La Brea also will have a cafe concept at the revamped Disney theme park Downtown Disney in Anaheim, Calif., scheduled to open next year.

“Bread was an afterthought for restaurants, or they got by on cheap bread, which is why we decided to make our own,” Silverton says. “But now [restaurants] are forced to put more money in the bread service because people know what good bread is.”

Chains’ Reaction

Bread choices are multiplying and increasing in quality at bakery/cafe and quick-service sandwich chains as well as at high-end independents. Options go far beyond white or wheat, as this sampling of what chains have on their menus shows.

  • Subway: This summer’s new line of bread choices includes Hearty Italian, Parmesan Oregano and Harvest Wheat in all United States and Canadian locations. Additionally, some stores also offer sourdough and sesame-flavored breads.
  • Panera Bread: For sandwiches, customers can choose from sourdough, French, nine-grain, honey wheat, hearty grain, rye, pumpernickel, swirl rye, croissant, tomato basil or focaccia. Takeout breads include asiago cheese, three-seed sourdough, Fiesta, pesto, olive and cinnamon raisin.
  • Blimpie Subs & Salads: The chain is using Mediterranean flatbreads as well as Italian white and wheat breads for its sandwiches.
  • Schlotzsky’s Deli: Its sourdough bun remains its signature bread, but dark rye, jalapeo cheese buns and sourdough pizza crust also are available.
  • The Corner Bakery: One of its newest sandwiches uses pretzel ficelle (a long, thin French bread loaf) as the base for applewood-smoked ham, roma tomatoes, Havarti cheese with caraway, stoneground mustard, mayonnaise and red onion.
  • Atlanta Bread Co.: New to the menu is the Bella Basil Chicken sandwich, served on sun-dried-tomato-and-rosemary focaccia.
  • Au Bon Pain: The bakery/cafe’s bread menu includes French, pita, croissants, braided rolls, multigrain, tomato herb, country, three-seed and focaccia.

Seeing The Dough In Bread

Quality bread, simple or more complex, cannot be overvalued, chefs say.“To those who don’t pay attention to this vital part of the experience, wise up,” says Gordon Drysdale, chef-owner of Gordon’s House of Fine Eats in San Francisco. He serves an organic durum wheat boule sized for two people that is parbaked and finished to order in the restaurant’s stone oven. “When the bread gets to the table, it is piping hot, crackly, crispy and incredibly good. In fact, memorable.”

“As the bread is the first food the customer eats, it is obviously important, as it can set the tone for the remaining eating experience,” says Marcel Desaulniers, chef-owner of The Trellis in Williamsburg, Va. One constant in an ever-changing array of seasonal fruitbreads and Irish soda bread is a 10- to 12-inch breadstick.

“Very important,” executive chef Jose Luis Garcia says of bread he purchases for Silks, in the Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco. The Italian artisan bread “has to be a part of the meal. t needs to blend into the meal yet stand by itself.”

Bread should not upstage a meal but set the tone. It should fall in line with the style of food, chefs say. “Bread is an integral part of the meal,” says Andi Bell, executive chef at the Flamingo Cafe in Destin, Fla. “Good bread is necessary. Quality in everything I present to the customer is very important.

Bread is the first item to hit the table besides water, so that first impression is the key to assuring your guest a pleasant experience.”

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