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Seattle's bread bakers blend science and art for those perfect loaves
Great bread bakers are fascinated with fermentation and the endless possibilities inherent in the modest marriage of flour, water, yeast and salt.
Seattle Times food writer
MICHAEL SANDERS is an alchemist, obsessed with a loaf of bread: the one he mixes, nurtures, shapes and bakes in the quiet of the kitchen at The Corson Building in Georgetown.
You'll find him there most mornings, alone.
On a good day he bakes 50 loaves, each bronzed batard weighing roughly two pounds.
Hoist one and admire its crust, a study in rusticity and caramelization. Slice it and watch the crust shatter into shards. Smell it, and revel in the aroma coaxed, over time, from a sourdough starter whose wild yeasts are plucked from the air. Taste it and marvel at an impossibly moist crumb that needs no butter.
Know, if only for the moment, that man could live by bread alone.
Like every great bread baker — and Seattle has many — Sanders is fascinated with fermentation and the endless possibilities inherent in the modest marriage of flour, water, yeast and salt.
"For me, it's complicated," he says of his relationship with the ancient ingredients that define his artisanal loaf, sold to a lucky few at Sitka & Spruce in Melrose Market. "On the surface, it's so simple." In reality, "there's a million things to learn about that one loaf of bread."
One loaf. That's how it begins.
One loaf, crafted by your own hand, perfected until Seattle comes clamoring for it, insisting you make more, then more, and still more until you grow out of your corner of the kitchen, set yourself up in a bakeshop, hire a night baker and a day baker and a lead baker and a general manager and a sales manager and a wholesale manager who needs another van and more warehouse space.
It's enough to have you standing in an alley outside your bread kitchen, cellphone in hand, crying for help. Which is exactly what Leslie Mackie did in 2006 when she realized, with Macrina Bakery & Cafe, she'd become a victim of her own success.
Leslie Mackie was 29, a Portland native, San Francisco culinary-school grad, accomplished Boston pastry chef and obsessed Los Angeles bread baker when she came to Seattle in 1989 hoping to persuade Tom Douglas to open a bakery — and hire her.
"Even then," says Mackie, "Tom was the man of all ideas." One of them involved opening a restaurant and bakery. (Later that year, Douglas' first restaurant, Dahlia Lounge, made its downtown debut. Dahlia Bakery followed in 2001.)
Over coffee at Pike Place Market, "Tom said he wasn't quite ready to do this project," Mackie recalls. "He told me to look elsewhere." And so the pixie baker walked to Pioneer Square to stroll the streets, admire the architecture and imagine a life in Seattle.
That's when "elsewhere" appeared. It smelled like cinnamon rolls.
Mackie had stumbled into Grand Central Bakery, her résumé in her handbag.
Born in 1972 as "The Bakery," Grand Central was the newly launched vision of co-founder Gwen Bassetti, whose Earth-muffin sandwich shop and pastry stop in the old Grand Central Hotel building had recently been rejuvenated, remodeled and renamed. Fueled by San Francisco's artisan bread movement and the European ideal of a crusty Italian loaf, the shop's signature Como bread was baked in the basement in a newly acquired hearth oven.
Mackie was awe-struck: "First, I saw the cinnamon rolls, but down on the bottom of the case was a really rustic loaf. They said they made it there. I said, 'You're kidding! This is the bread I'm doing: I want to work here!' "
Within a week she was on the 2 a.m. shift, training with Tomas Solis, a consultant imported from San Francisco to create Grand Central's bread program. "I had a lot of baking experience," Mackie says, "but I had never run anything that was just bread."
She ran a lot faster after Solis returned to San Francisco — and The Seattle Times restaurant critic John Hinterberger wrote a public love letter to the Como loaf. Grand Central Bakery was on the map.
With Bassetti running the business and Mackie as head baker, "I'd work from 2 a.m. to noon, stay 'til 2 p.m. and try to get to bed by 6 so I could get eight hours of sleep," Mackie says. There were times when she'd bolt out of bed, jump in the shower, then realize she'd been bit by the baker's curse: "It was 7 o'clock. I'd only been asleep an hour."
Despite the Como's clarion call, educating a city that worshipped at the altar of Gai's French rolls was no cakewalk. Customers complained her loaves were burnt. Or stale. Or overbaked. "We'd have to tell them, 'This dark crust is flavor. Those holes aren't incorrect. That is what we're looking for.'"
Mackie today insists, "what we were doing was not off-the-charts unusual: it was just delicious, crusty bread."
Bread that some of the city's best restaurants began to proudly put on their tables. Bread that rose beyond the confines of Pioneer Square to encompass an expansive new wholesale operation on East Marginal Way. Mackie was involved in the planning and the layout, she recalls. "And then we made our big move."
Soon after, she made hers.
Macrina Bakery opened in August 1993 in an 847-square-foot storefront in burgeoning Belltown.
On the ground floor of a new condo complex, Mackie installed a French Bongard oven, a commercial mixer, an espresso machine and an antique display case. Bread was the focus, pastries a sweetener. A handful of employees worked alongside her in cramped quarters — their efforts visible through a big window onto First Avenue.
"I thought, if it's going to be my own, I'm going to have a small layout so it can't get too big," Mackie says. "I went into it with the idea the bakery would be part of my life — not my entire life."
A year later, she expanded into the store next door, adding a sit-down cafe, doubling capacity and advancing her wholesale bread business. "My first customers were my friends," Mackie remembers: "Tom at the Dahlia, Tamara Murphy at Campagne, Scott Carsberg at Lampreia, Marco's Supperclub — places we could walk to."
Restaurants' standing orders were handwritten on index cards and stowed in a recipe box; Mackie used them to calculate the amount of dough needed for specific breads.
As business increased, space became tighter. She formed bread in the daytime and hired a night shift to bake, cursing the summer sun that streamed through the bakeshop window and the lack of refrigerator space that stymied efforts to proof and retard bread dough.
In 1997, Mackie leased a basement a block away and built a new plant. At 4,000 square feet, "it felt like a football field." And preparing for the expansion, Mackie knew she had to take one for the team, moving to the business side, hiring a lead baker and delegating more to her managers.
"Getting out of production was the hardest thing in the world," Mackie insists. "But it was the natural progression. And in that role I had to learn how to articulate my passion through other people's hands."
Two of those hands belonged to Phuong Hoang Bui.
A Vietnamese immigrant, Bui was one of the first dishwashers at the original Macrina. By 2001, when Mackie opened a second bakery/cafe on Queen Anne Hill, he was managing 20 bread bakers in Belltown.
Today, Bui is the maestro behind Macrina's bread and pastry department, overseeing a crew of 70. All but a handful are native Vietnamese who each month transform 100,000 pounds of flour and 8,000 pounds of butter into the breads, sweets and savories that provide a paycheck for nearly 200 employees.
As a team, the production crew works 24/7 at the company's sprawling Sodo bakery, a LEED-certified flagship fronted by a handsome cafe.
The culmination of Mackie's vision for Macrina, it opened in 2008 — a year after she forged a partnership with Matt Galvin, Pat McCarthy and Pat McDonald, the investors whose holdings include two other iconic Seattle brands: Pagliacci Pizza and DeLaurenti. A fifth partner, Scott France, is in charge of wholesale operations and manages a sales force of seven.
Together, they're considering another cafe location, perhaps on the Eastside. And they're running low on production space in Sodo, expecting it won't be long before they'll need to lease more real estate to support endeavors like their partnership with Overlake Hospital Medical Center, serving Macrina products to 18,000 patients each month. Meanwhile, "We continue to ask ourselves, 'How do we keep doing what we're doing?' " says Galvin, the lifeline Mackie called from the alley in 2006.
"What we're not doing," Galvin says, "is thinking about how to shrink from 200 employees to five so we can have big machines do the work."
Evan Andres thinks about the mechanics — and the challenges — of running a successful small bakery every day.
His Columbia City Bakery, open since 2005, is a magnet for neighbors who gather for pastries and coffee, while his breads get marquee status at Seattle's most-talked-about restaurants, where patrons pay a premium to eat it.
A Berkeley transplant, Andres grew up among San Francisco Bay Area bread winners like Metropolis Baking Company, where he first learned his trade, or at least tried to.
"At Metropolis," he says, "I was learning from bakers who'd been working there only a few months longer than me." Seduced by the science, he'd pepper his cohorts with questions: "They'd say, 'We do this because this is what we do. We call it that, because that's what it's called.' No one knew what a biga was, or what that meant," he says of the traditional starter dough used in small quantities to produce a secondary fermentation. They just knew that "it needed to ferment for this amount of time before we added it to that dough."
But why? he'd wonder.
He found answers in stacks of bread books, chief among them "The Italian Baker" by Carol Field. And by hanging on the every word of mentors like Didier Rosada, whose intensive class he'd taken through the national bread-bakers guild in Minneapolis.
A master baker, Rosada lit a fire in Andres' oven, explaining the difference between a French poolish and an Italian biga, and how variations of time and temperature, flour and water, conspire to confound — or enchant. With that schooling, says Andres, "I became more science-driven than ever."
But it was Leslie Mackie who showed him the spiritual side of the craft.
"Leslie was really into the magic of it all, the bread gods, the intuitive side of things," says Andres, who flew to Seattle for an interview in 1997 and relocated a week later, stepping into Mackie's clogs as her lead baker.
"She was so intuitive it drove me crazy, and it took me awhile to understand it, to appreciate it, but it comes around to this: You can study the science of it all, but that doesn't mean you can bake a good loaf of bread."
Leading a team of fewer than a dozen bread-bakers, he lived and breathed bread at Macrina, marrying art with science, learning along the way.
"I told myself, 'If only I could know as much as Leslie knew!' and asked myself, 'How did I get someone like Leslie to hire someone who didn't know anything?' "
The answer, says Mackie, is that she saw in him a young talent whose ambition made up for his brief resume, a guy enamored with bread baking, possessing a need to excel.
In a way, she saw herself.
But after two-plus years at Macrina, with Mackie intent on building her business, Andres began to mourn the loss of a mentor. "I longed to know more, and the only way to do that was to go someplace else."
He left to study baking in Europe, spent six months at Ballard's Tall Grass Bakery, and for three years was lead baker for Tom Douglas' restaurants.
Today, in a tiny office above a compact bakery, he finds himself torn by his greatest challenge: remaining small and putting as few hands as possible on Columbia City's product while keeping up with the demand for it.
"Bread can change depending on who's mixing it, who's baking it, who's deciding the next step: when to divide it, when to shape it," says the baker, whose workday might begin at 4 a.m. and last until 8 at night.
Pointing to a batch of baguettes with imperfect slashes, causing an inconsistent rise, Andres posits, "If we're standing side-by-side, I can explain what I want this loaf to look and taste like when it's done. But if I'm not standing there looking at it, it's not exactly the loaf it would be if I had made the final call.
"If I had to be an 'office baker' and not have my hands in it, I just couldn't do it."
Just before 2 p.m., Michael Sanders props open the door of Melrose Market with his sneakered foot, and after several trips to his car, makes his way through Seattle's foodist destination to Sitka & Spruce with his bread delivery: half the 40 loaves he'd baked that day at The Corson Building.
Most are destined for dinner at Sitka, though he takes time to carefully stock a cart outside the restaurant, bagging two $7 batards for a woman who insists the loaves are the city's best.
Proofed for 20 hours, rested briefly, shaped in baskets, refrigerated overnight and baked in a pair of restaurant ovens jury-rigged with masonry tiles to mimic a stone hearth, those breads will soon be available to a (slightly) broader audience when Matt Dillon, the mastermind chef behind the restaurants Sitka & Spruce, The Corson Building and Bar Sajor, opens London Plane — a Melrose Market-like entity in Pioneer Square.
Come spring, Sanders expects to be baking there, keeping it small.
"Smallness is where you can control something and make it great. It's an integral part to what my bread is. Smallness allows focus and attention, and bread likes that." He hopes it can get a little bigger and not lose that.
But, he says, "You never know."
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times food writer. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.