"Bread making has just got to move from niche and geek. It's going to go through an artisanal thing, we're going to charge a shit-ton for it, and then it's got to go into your every day, and you're good."
That would be Adam Leonti of Brooklyn Bread Lab spouting off about the bread-baking movement that's happening across the country.
The industry is already on to a resurgence of the sliced stuff, no longer the Wonder Bread we grew up eating, but fresh, simple bread that looks further back. It's "an ideal of bread that is simultaneously cutting edge and primordial," Jeff Gordinier described in a 2014 New York Times article observing a "marked surge" in the movement. Artisan baking has continued to sprout. "There's a newfound respect just for bread, definitely in the past five or six years. It's not this parenthetical pursuit anymore," Tartine's Chad Robertson tells us. Even Oprah is on the bread train, making the no-carb/low-carb fad feel like a distant bad dream.
Only two months old, Brooklyn Bread Lab already fits perfectly in its industrial neighborhood of Bushwick. The classes it hosts on pizza, pasta and bread sell out. Visitors stream in, and the media has been hovering. Curiosity in the new artisan on the block is partly to thank. It doesn't hurt either that Leonti is an accomplished chef: He was most recently the chef de cuisine at Philadelphia's highly regarded Vetri and will soon be head chef at the upcoming Williamsburg Hotel's restaurant. Another draw, of course, is the lab's focus. It turns out people really still do love bread (see Leonti's boule recipe).
The lab and the movement in general focus on two main principles. One is a return to simplicity, where loaves don't contain the unnecessary additives that we see on supermarket shelves. The second is sustainability, where grains are responsibly sourced from environmentally sound operations.
With its 10,000-pound on-site stone mill—the largest of its kind in New York—Brooklyn Bread Lab uses exclusively fresh flour, which is "the difference between espresso and Folgers," Leonti tells us. Working with former Reynard sous chef Jeff Kozlowski, Leonti sources grain from a variety of farms, experimenting with wheat from Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Arizona—farms generally outside the wheat belt, which extends from the Canadian border to Texas and makes up a "vast majority of America's 56 million acres of wheat."
Grains have terroir, meaning the same exact recipe made with flour from different parts of the country may yield entirely different results. At the lab, a loaf made with Red Fife flour from Anson Mills has citrusy notes, while one following the same recipe but made from Castle Valley Mill Warthog wheat is sour and nutty.
"You can actually taste something, and that something is terroir," Leonti says, observing our delighted reactions.
Celebrating these distinctions is part of Leonti's mission and the bedrock of the artisan bread revival. Diversification is key for taste, but also for sustainability and accessibility. Bread shouldn't be a luxury item. The price for flour from heritage producers is high, but that's "the reason to diversify," Leonti says. The "whole idea is not relying on one spot."
Leonti started using fresh flour in pasta after visiting Washington State University's Bread Lab, the inspiration for his Brooklyn pop-up, and started baking bread daily at Vetri back in 2008. Fast-forward eight years, and Leonti is as passionate as he is practical about his work. He knows taste drives consumers and hopes that despite a higher price tag, demand will follow if enough people are exposed to the superior quality of artisan bread and if they start noticing the way it makes them feel.
"It's all about making stuff taste good and making you feel good the next day," Leonti says, noting that people are "totally relaxing" about gluten.
High Street on Hudson's Alex Bois agrees. "At the end of the day," he says, "much of the challenge for the professional baker comes down to honing their craft: making something good enough to convince the customer that it is worth their while to pay extra for bread made from more expensive ingredients that support a regional economy."
It may sound like an uphill battle, but the shift is happening. In addition to Leonti, a number of bakers across the country—like Roberston in San Francisco, Farm & Sparrow's David Bauer in North Carolina and Baker Miller's David Miller in Chicago—are working to change bread production, in which "four companies control 80 percent of the market," the trailer for a forthcoming documentary called The Grain Divide states. (The film, which features Leonti, will launch with a nationwide tour early this summer after a shorter preview comes out this March.)
When Leonti opens his restaurant this spring, the Brooklyn Bread Lab isn't closing. It will supply bread to his restaurant, will still offer classes and may even serve other accounts.
Leonti says, "We're not putting a limit on anything."
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