On a recent Friday at dawn, while most of Culver City is still fumbling with the snooze button, the bakers behind Lodge Bread Co. are well into their workday. Alex Phaneuf, Alan Craig and Or Amsalam typically arrive at their bakery at 4 a.m. on weekdays, and by the time the sun paints the sky in pinks and yellows, the smell of sweet spices begins to yield to toasted, savory aromas.
Amsalam, who co-founded the bakery in 2015 in a nearby carport (it opened in its current space in November), is hunched over, peering through his oven doors, waiting for the perfect moment to pull seeded country and wheat loaves from its hot, stone floors. This is after he’s pulled dozens of cookies, cinnamon rolls and other pastries from the same decks.
Phaneuf mans a mixing station just a few cramped steps from the oven, his golden locks gathered behind his head like a bundle of hay. Peering downward through thick-rimmed glasses, he multi-tasks, watching dough as it mixes and scrolling through his Instagram feed. Every few minutes he stops the mixer, lifts a guard that looks like a cowcatcher and probes the dough with a hooked finger. He’s testing for strength: Mix the dough too much and it will become tough and glutinous, yielding small, dense loaves of bread; mix it too little and he’ll have to make up the work later by hand, a significant task considering he’s working with 150-pound batches.
Amsalam is navigating a tightrope of his own as he examines a few loaves that have just been pulled from the oven. Wearing leather gloves, he gently squeezes each loaf to test the crust. They’re already brown — what some customers might think is approaching well-done — but they’re returned to the oven for a few minutes more. By the time Amsalam is satisfied, the loaves have reached a deep mahogany, with extremities as dark as anthracite. He piles them to cool on a maple wood block, where they softly crackle like a distant bonfire.
Bread making is a constant negotiation. Dough hydration, mixing and resting times, baking temperatures and other factors all leave their indelible mark on the finished loaves. Small variations can be compensated for as the days-long process slowly chugs along, but other errors are impossible to fix, like the batch of sourdough bread the team once baked without a gram of salt. (That day, they improvised, telling confused customers that the bakery was sold out, even though the doors had just opened for business that morning.) Today, though, the dough is handling well and loaves continue to fill the cooling racks. When a customer shows up 40 minutes before the bakery is scheduled to open, she’s joyfully handed bread that’s still warm to the touch.
Like most classic bread recipes, Lodge owes its existence to a series of fortunate accidents. The open floor plan, bar counter and tables lead many customers to think the bakery is a full-fledged restaurant, but that wasn’t the goal when the team laid out the original business plan. They wanted an open, airy space where they could bake bread and where customers could watch the process unfold. Maybe they’d sell a few slices of toast adorned with salmon or avocado.
But not long after 8 a.m., when the bakery formally opens, the chairs are nearly filled with customers sipping expertly extracted coffee, and Lodge feels more like a hip cafe with an oven and mixer crammed in the corner.
When bread shaping begins, racks spill out into the dining area. Shelves once meant for pictures, books and decorations now hold extra bags of test flour and other baking containers. At little more than 900 square feet, the tiny bread factory turned cafe is rising out of its mold like an over-proofed sourdough.
The place is packed. The bakers now adorn their toasts as aggressively as they bake their breads: Blackberry preserves cascade over the sides of a simple slice of wheat; sprouted rye bread is slathered so generously with butter that it heaves from the pores when a slice is lifted from the plate; avocado is laid as thick as the pavement on the nearby 405 and topped with radish petals sliced as thin as parchment. The hustle of a full-scale bakery and loud music feeds the energy in the room. Right now, it’s old-school hip-hop, and Amsalam is punctuating his bread-baking tasks with white-boy dance moves. Later, Jerry Garcia fills the space with meandering guitar solos.
Just last summer, a similar scene (minus the custom tile and customers) unfolded each day behind Phaneuf’s nearby apartment. The trio had recently quit their jobs at Goldie’s Downtown, where they helped manage an in-house bread program, and struck out on their own with a business plan they say was fueled by sleep deprivation and a cannabinoid-driven haze. They parked a used commercial oven within sight of an ancient avocado tree and used an old library shelf as a cooling rack. They worked on folding tables they got at Office Depot and battled squirrels that wanted nothing more than to pilfer every sunflower kernel from their seed-crusted loaves.
They also developed their unique voice as bakers, honing a style defined by naturally leavened, whole-grain breads made from dough so wet it almost pours out of the wicker baskets that shape it. That’s why the loaves are so dark when they finally emerge from the oven — anything less and the remaining water vapor would turn those tough, chewy exteriors into soggy, wilted crusts. They look like vintage footballs when heaped in a pile to cool, and paired with the kitchen antics of three young bakers (was that a bass drop or did a forgotten Cambro container of rye levain just explode?) they lend a unique facet to L.A.’s growing bread culture.
More changes are already under way, featuring the recently available office space next door. Amsalam, Phaneuf and Craig just signed a lease and are working with an architect to double the space and install a new pizza oven. They’re building on a popular Sunday night event that features chewy, wheat crust rounds — the product of another happy mistake when the finely milled white flour they originally chose for their pizzas ran out. Customers loved the substitution, and pizza night grew to the point that it shaped the bakery’s expansion.
“Stoner eclectic,” Phaneuf says of the expected decor, which will downplay the existing coffee-shop vibe in favor of “punk-rock” pies and more of the richly crusted loaves that gave these bakers their foothold. Two large openings will combine the spaces into one great Temple of the Carbs. They hope the expansion will be ready in time for their first anniversary party in November.
For now, though, the focus is on the next day’s bread. On weekdays, Lodge averages around 250 loaves, and with the coming weekend’s farmers markets and larger restaurant orders, they’ll have to bake even more. Amsalam is wrestling with a stiff croissant dough to make a chocolate babka that always sells out, while Phaneuf and Craig mix a sprouted rye. The rest of the staff helps customers as they pick over what’s left from the morning rush. A few cinnamon rolls the size of catcher’s mitts and a handful of spiced oatmeal cookies sit in the glass case near the register. By 2 p.m. a single boule sits alone in the window. Before the shop closes up for the day, it’s disappeared.
LODGE BREAD | 11918 Washington Blvd., Culver City | (424) 384-5097 | lodgebread.com | Tue.-Sun., 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday pizza night, 5-8 p.m.