One of the best boulangeries in L.A. right now is a 900-square-foot apartment in West Hollywood, where 29-year-old Zack Hall bakes three loaves at a time in the Frigidaire oven that came with the place. When asked what kind of oven he uses to bake his breads, which include astonishingly flavored whole wheat and country white boules and gorgeous, earthy, 3-kilo miches, Hall says he's not sure: "It's white." As for his flour, Hall carries it bag by 50-pound bag to his second-floor apartment. The building doesn't have an elevator.
Welcome to the current state of baking in L.A., where small-batch bakers are producing some of the best bread this town has seen in years. What's striking is that this rise is being driven largely by the bakers themselves, who often toil without bakeries or restaurants, as well as millers and farmers and other disciples of the DIY movement that has been fueling the food scene since the recession hit. (It seems somehow fitting that, in L.A., the jam trend hit a few years before this, rather like canning being invented before the can opener. True.)
Since Hall's Clark Street Bread has a permit, which allows him to bake for commercial sale, but no actual storefront, people have found him through word-of-mouth and from the foodist's best ad agency: Instagram. His photos of burnished crusts and crumbs caught the attention of Ludovic Lefebvre, who now uses Hall's bread at Trois Mec, one of the best restaurants in town. You also can find Hall's bread on the weekends at Lindy & Grundy's chic butcher shop, through online food-delivery service Good Eggs and at FarmShop in Brentwood. If you want a boule, maybe follow the guy on Instagram and offer to trade your flour-hauling services for a warm loaf.
The business of food is quixotic enough as it is, but the bread industry rises and falls more than most. The first rise could be attributed to the Helms Bakery in Culver City, from which Paul Helms' empire delivered bread in trucks from 1931 to the late '60s; or to Pioneer Boulangerie in Santa Monica, a sourdough business begun by Basque immigrants in 1908, which lasted almost 90 years.
The second rise was La Brea Bakery, which opened in 1989 adjacent to Campanile restaurant. Sold first in the bakery storefront and then both retail and wholesale, Nancy Silverton's glorious loaves of sourdough found their way onto most of the tables — both home and restaurant — in the city. Silverton sold La Brea Bakery in 2001, but for years, bakers seemed to operate in its shadow, defaulting to its loaves even as other bakeries opened.
Some bakers nevertheless cultivated devoted followings of their own. Zoe Nathan opened Huckleberry in early 2009, baking wonderful sourdough boules, baguettes and whole wheat loaves in addition to pastries. Hans Röckenwagner, who has long made glorious Old World bread in the tradition of his native Germany, expanded in 2010 into a 10,000-square-foot bakery in Culver City, a giant engine that supplies breads and pretzel bagels to the small empire of Röckenwagner cafés. And Ran Zimon opened Bread Lounge in downtown's Arts District in 2012, making some of the best baguettes in town.
But in America's second largest city, the bread scene here has been largely, oddly, quiet. That's finally changing, with a growing community of bakers working in restaurants, renting commercial space in kitchens and baking in their own, often tiny kitchens.
On Wednesday mornings at Santa Monica's farmers market, Andrea Crawford stands surrounded by tables loaded with beautiful, darkly baked loaves and bags of flour and whole grains. The breads are tucked into white bags stamped "Kenter Canyon Farms," the venerable herbs and lettuces business she and her husband have operated for decades in Ventura County. A few enormous, 5-pound disks of bread, their surfaces slashed to resemble wheat sheaves, are propped against bags of her flours.
Crawford started her career growing greens for Alice Waters in Berkeley but had a kind of epiphany a few years ago: She decided to begin growing wheat, particularly heirloom grains, along with her rows of mesclun. This year she planted her second crops of Sonora, Glenn and Red Fife wheat, as well as buckwheat; she's now waiting for her first crop of emmer wheat, a heritage variety (and thus "heirloom").
The food world is small, and the bread world even smaller: Hall used to bake for Crawford, whose first local garden was in the Encino backyard of Nancy Silverton's father, Larry.
And Crawford isn't the only one who has noticed the correlation between whole grain milling and whole grain baking.
In December, Grist & Toll, billed as an "urban flour mill," opened in Pasadena. Nan Kohler, opening pastry chef at Sweet Butter Kitchen in Sherman Oaks, and Marti Noxon, a successful television writer-producer and home baker, had met on vacation while waiting to eat at a popular restaurant — in Paris. They saw the need for a small-batch miller such as those they'd seen in Europe.
"A lot changes when you have access to freshly milled flour," says Kohler, whose Osttiroler mill, a giant assembly of pale, blond wood around a stone mill, was shipped from Austria. Grist & Toll mills grains sourced from local California farmers, selling the bags of fresh flour — wheat, spelt, rye, corn — in bags of various sizes in the mill's cozy front retail room.
Instead of incorporating an actual bakery, Kohler and Noxon decided to bring the bakers to them, hosting DIY bread bakes and, on weekends, selling bread in their shop made by other small-batch bakers without storefronts. Among them is Mark Stambler, founding member of the L.A. Bread Bakers, which is now almost 1,000 members strong. Stambler bakes his loaves out of his Echo Park kitchen and also sells through Good Eggs — except for the eight loaves of rye that he leaves in a paper bag on his doorstep every week for chef Jordan Kahn of Red Medicine.
If you don't frequent Glendale's Thursday morning farmers market, Good Eggs is one of the few ways you can get the stellar baguettes and 100 percent whole wheat loaves that Joseph Abrakjian bakes in a commercial kitchen in Sunland. Abrakjian, whose family came to Pasadena from Beirut when he was a kid, also sells through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). But most of his customers find him.
"Europeans smell it," Abrakjian says of his freshly baked bread. "People are fed up with the commercial stuff, with GMOs [in their bread]. We don't seek out new things until we have to."
If you sense a thread of revolutionary zeal among the new wave of bakers, you're not wrong. This town has long been prone to food fads (see: the Atkins Diet) that have jeopardized the baking community. With increased awareness of celiac disease and a strong wave of public demand for gluten-free products, traditional baking can sometimes seem to be under siege. But many within the community feel strongly that their bread is exactly what the rest of us need: loaves made with organic flour, grown and milled locally, fueled not by commercial yeast or additives but instead with nothing but wild yeast and natural levain.
Pull up a bench at the communal table that fills Red Bread, Rose Lawrence's storefront in Culver City, and you'll see a personal revolution. Lawrence specialized in human-rights work in law school but found that the biggest social-justice issue was food. "So much of what you run into is about access. Everything comes back to food."
When Lawrence and her husband, David, started the business, they delivered their breads by bicycle, pedaling their boules to the community a few at a time. Then they moved to a stall in the Santa Monica farmers market and only last year, with help from a Kickstarter campaign, opened their tiny shop. Red Bread now delivers its loaves to customers via electric bus.
Meanwhile, Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne, whose small empire includes Lucques, A.O.C. and Tavern, recently opened Larder Baking Co., a wholesale commercial bakery in Culver City. In the 7,000-square-foot complex, head baker Nathan Dakdouk has a four-level TMB injection oven with a canvas loader, which can bake 120 loaves every 90 minutes. Dakdouk, who learned to bake from nuns at his Catholic boarding school in Venezuela, has been with Goin since 2008, originally baking his sourdough loaves in the wood-burning oven at the original A.O.C.
But not every restaurant with aspirations to good bread has its own separate bakery. When Paul Hibler opened Superba Food and Bread in Venice in April, he installed the four-deck Bassanina bread oven smack in the middle of the restaurant, so people can watch head baker Jonathan Eng at work. Eng makes his pain au levain, 100 percent rye and earthy spelt-sourdough breads on-site, showing up at 2:30 a.m., or about an hour after the dinner crew goes home.
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Other restaurants are following suit, baking their own bread instead of outsourcing the product, or expanding into bakeries, as Gjelina in Venice is soon to do. Perhaps the best example is République, which opened late last year.
There are many ironies at work when you choose from Margarita Manzke's beautiful selection of pastries and breads at République's bread counter. The almost overwhelming one is that République is in the former Campanile space, and thus the bread counter is exactly where Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bakery once had its bread and pastry counter. Look above to the burnished breads lining the wall and you'll feel a moment of déjà vu.
The bakery on La Brea Boulevard now produces about 70 baguettes — and maybe 15 large loaves — daily. If you have your morning coffee at the communal table, you might find yourself sitting next to Zack Hall, who says he comes by at least once or twice a week. Manzke's sourdough starter? She got it from Zoe Nathan. A small sign near the cash register tells you that République uses flour milled at Grist & Toll.
"We were trying to build a guild," says Mark Stambler. Although he was talking about the L.A. Bread Bakers, he could very well be talking about the citywide group of artisans, home bakers and professionals who are baking right now, loosely aligned with each other in spirit if not through any literal group. Because in 2014, hundreds of years after the first bakers guild formed in France, L.A. finally is forming one of its own.