April 6, 2015, is the day the word “artisan” died.

That’s when the McDonald’s press room happily and I’m-lovin’-it-ly announced the arrival of its new Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich. It features an Artisan Grilled Chicken Breast tucked inside an Artisan Roll made by one of many artisans at a very artisanal facility that produces millions of artisanal buns per week and is very artisanally owned by Aryzta, one of the largest bakeries in the world, valued at an artisanal $8.1 billion. The Artisan Roll contains 26 ingredients, all of which are very artisanal. Mmm, taste that Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate — just like Grandma used to make!

Even though America has no legal definition of an “artisanal” food product, it was easy to call bullshit on McDonald’s. That’s because artisanality is like pornography: You know it when you see it.

The unprecedentedly massive Tartine Manufactory moving into Row DTLA will once again test the limits of the word. Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt's legendary bread and pastry company, which started slinging long-fermented loaves and frangipane croissants in the Bay Area in 2002, is expanding into L.A. with a 38,000-square-foot mega-complex. In addition to the semi-industrial bakery, which will have the capacity to push out five or six thousand loaves per day, there’s going to be a roastery, a coffee lab (Califia Farms is in on the project), an ice cream parlor, a market and multiple restaurant concepts, one of which will tend toward the fine-dining, take-your-parents-to side of things.

Chris Bianco, long regarded as one of America’s best pizza chefs, is also on board. Neither Bianco nor Robertson knows the complete details of the collaboration, aside from the fact that there will be pizza, and a whole lot of it. Oh, there are also silos for storing grain in the basement. And it’s a factory. And Bill Chait is involved. And they might make pasta there. The whole thing is really, really tough to wrap your head around.

All you have to know is: Tartine Manufactory will be massive, it will be impressive, there will be damn tasty baked goods, and it will be a novel experiment in how a brand can scale up without losing its soul or sacrificing quality.

This is a new level of production for Tartine, which has become synonymous with the rustic, artisanal, everything-made-by-hand aesthetic. And, at least on the surface, it seems as if concessions would have to be made to hit the kind of numbers they’re talking about. Since it’s not possible for Robertson to shape thousands of loaves per day by hand, he’s relying on some cleverly designed automation to fill in the gaps, and automation is generally the death knell of the artisanal process. But neither Robertson nor Bianco sees it that way.

Credit: Courtesy Tartine

Credit: Courtesy Tartine

“Normally with industrialization and automation, that’s only one part of making the product cheaper. The other part is slashing the ingredient costs and using the cheapest possible stuff,” Robertson says. “We’re kind of doing the opposite in that way. We’re making some gains on productivity because of technology empowering the artisan process, but instead of trying to buy the cheapest ingredients to make more money, we’re using scale to our advantage in being able to work with farmers directly.”

For Bianco and Robertson, the quality of the finished product isn’t necessarily dependent on a human touching it every step of the process. Both of them agree that learning to make dough by hand — thus fulfilling all our voyeuristic fantasies of what an artisan should be — is the only way to understand bread-making on a deep level, but to actually make a positive impact on our food system, you have to scale up. For every long-fermented loaf of organic pain au levain being sold in San Francisco, there are 1,000 Sysco trucks elsewhere in the country unloading pallets of bleach-white hamburger buns.

“What if we could feed more people better food? We’re struggling as a planet right now in a lot of ways, and I think we can deny the technology, or we can use it to our advantage,” Bianco says. “Having that accountability and that transparency only benefits the consumer, and it also means that big farms are being saved. We both have small restaurants, too, which are important, but what’s more important is that there’s more acres of good grains being grown.”

Both Bianco and Robertson have been known to be obsessive with their sourcing. Bianco wasn’t satisfied with the quality of tomatoes for his pizzas, so he partnered with farmer Rob DiNapoli to start growing and canning his own. Robertson was one of the country’s first bg-name bakers to champion bread made with organically grown heirloom grains such as emmer, einkorn and kamut. Though the details aren’t fully fleshed out — Tartine Manufactory won’t be fully operational until early 2018, so there’s time — Robertson says he and Bianco have a network of farmers from California, Arizona and Washington that they’ll be working with directly.

The plan is perfect in theory: L.A. gets a whole lot of world-class bread, more farmers will be growing better products, and the project will create an estimated 350 to 400 full-time jobs. No one really knows how it’s going to play out in practice, but Robertson and Bianco offer their assurances that quality will never slip, and that their genuine desire for a better food system makes this the opposite of a sellout move. Both of their pedigrees indicate that we should believe them.

No matter what happens, Tartine Manufactory will go down as an important case study for what happens when the artisanal meets the industrial, and we’ll all get to eat some dope pizza while watching the results unfold.

LA Weekly