Rising Stars: Meet two very different men who are determined to change the way we think about bread
The two have traveled very different roads. Yet they both have arrived upon the same goal: to raise the bar on bread in St. Louis. How each plans to do so, however, is unequivocally distinct.
Nine years ago, Alex Carlson was in the woods. Not figuratively, though he had just driven 270 miles with a printout of his route crumpled up in the passenger seat, but literally – knee deep in sticks and dirt, letting the thick granules of dirt sift through his fingers to find the long, green leaves of a member of the onion family that had a garlicky bite. Figuring he should spend the summer between his first and second years of culinary school in an actual kitchen, he’d responded to an ad for a line cook at The Washington Hotel and Restaurant, located on a tiny island in Wisconsin. The hotel had recently been purchased by an Indiana farmer-cum-city planner who took a liking to the property after his wife stayed there for a knitting conference. The farmer wanted to breathe new life into the hotel and to use the restaurant inside it to revive the island’s agricultural economy, which had fallen by the wayside more than 50 years earlier.
Within minutes of slamming his car door and stepping onto the hotel property, Carlson was told to come talk to the chef. Leah Caplan was a CIA graduate who, after living in New York, California and Hong Kong, had returned to her Midwest roots to help revive The Washington Hotel and Restaurant. As soon as Carlson stepped into her kitchen, Caplan put him to work. “My first job, before I did anything else, was to walk into the woods like 300 yards and forage for ramps,” he recalled. “I was in love from that point.”
Caplan’s six-course tasting menus revealed a relentless commitment to local ingredients, filled with fish caught in nearby Lake Michigan just hours earlier and bread made from whole wheat grown down the road and ground in a small stone mill that sat atop a prep table in the kitchen. At the center of it all was a wood-burning oven where the sous chef would bake hearth breads and artisanal pizzas. The oven was a beast – equally the heart of the kitchen and the imposing creature in the middle of it that no one quite understood. No fan of structure, Carlson related to the oven’s unpredictability and spent every spare second he had trying to understand its inner-workings.
By the time he returned to the island the following summer, he had finally gotten a feel for how the brick-stacked behemoth breathed. “It’s a very particular beast and it has all of its advantages and also its drawbacks,” Carlson explained. “But I like that there’s a line, that there’s no way I can get the oven to bend to my will. It’s ready when it’s ready and that’s it.”
When Carlson traveled back to Chicago for his last semester, his culinary school had been purchased and tuition rates had sky rocketed. So he returned, sans diploma, to his native state of Missouri and got a job as the savory chef opening a new late-night dinner and dessert spot in St. Louis’ Lafayette Square called Baileys’ Chocolate Bar.
But after three years of very long days, Carlson was burnt out. The kitchen, a place that had inspired him on a tiny island in Wisconsin, had begun to frustrate him to the point of pure exhaustion. So he set down his knives, picked up a wrench and landed a job at Motorrad St. Louis, a motorcycle repair shop in Dogtown.
Some 1,000 miles away, Ted Wilson was looking for a way out of his personal assistant job at Universal Music in New York City. He responded to a job posting at Sullivan Street Bakery, a bread-focused bakery in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen led by Jim Lahey, the brainchild of the bread world’s no-knead movement. It was a retail position but, he figured, a good way out of a passionless day job. Plus, it would give him a foot into the world of making bread, a hobby he’d coveted ever since he used the skill to woo a girl back at John Burroughs School.
When Wilson began at Sullivan Street, the bakery was undergoing a restructuring. Traditionally, the mixer is considered the most important person in the bakery, but Lahey was looking to flip that standard on its head, making it so the mixer didn’t need years of experience. The recipe should be in tune enough with the weather and other factors, he thought, that the mixer just needed to stick to the recipe and press a few buttons. Wilson became the first mixer in this new hierarchy. At first, it was terrifying. Having never mixed more than 900 grams of dough at a time, suddenly he was working with 600-pound batches. But he caught on quickly.
And Wilson began asking questions: what he could do, how he could help, how this worked, how it affected that. It was an ethos of curiosity that ran through to the very core of how Lahey ran his bakery. “Jim was always questioning method, process and why and what,” Wilson recalled. “Not only, how does that impact the bread, but what is that doing to the baker? When he was going through the height of his no-knead thing, [he brought up] just things that I’d never thought about: the fact that you weren’t running this three-phase, god-knows-how-many-volt mixer for 20 minutes; you’re running it for six minutes.”
Lahey looked at bread’s roots – what it was before people had massive mixers and massive amounts of energy, when fermentation was something that was fostered, not forced. And when he put Wilson in charge of the bakery’s nightly production, Wilson soaked up that back-to-basics philosophy like a sponge. “One thing that Jim put in my head is that bakers really put too much of themselves into the product. There’s really no need for it, to handle it as much. Some of the best bread, you might have your hands on it for like two minutes.”
Wilson was churning out everything from pizza Bianca – a Roman-style, six-foot-long flatbread with rosemary and sea salt – to filone, a large, long, dark-baked loaf similar to a pugliese. He was thrilled to be diving so deep into the world of bread, but the hours were getting to him. Waking before dusk, working through the night, he knew he couldn’t keep this nocturnal routine up forever. “I was sort of thinking, I don’t want to be doing overnights and doing the whole bakery thing and I thought, OK, Neopolitan pizzerias. I could learn that; I know that. I love pizza, and I was convinced I was going to open a Neopolitan pizzeria.”
It wasn’t long before an old friend, Andrew Latt, told him about a buddy of his who was planning to open a Neopolitan pizzeria called The Good Pie in St. Louis. Wilson peppered Latt with questions: Who was Mike Randolph? What would his place be like? Who was he working with? When Wilson and Randolph met a month later, something clicked. Randolph was passionate and talented and his plan was exactly what Wilson was looking for: normal hours, minimal cooking and, most importantly, lots of time working with bread.
Spending most of his time under a motorcycle, Carlson hadn’t baked in three years when he heard over a beer at Newstead Tower Public House after a shift one day that the gastropub’s owner, Anthony Devoti, was looking to create an in-house bread program at both Newstead and his fine dining restaurant, Five Bistro. Sure, Carlson was a good mechanic, but he was a better baker. He decided it was time to get back in the kitchen.
As soon as he met Devoti, he knew it was the right move. “His philosophy is pretty much exactly the same philosophy that I grew up with at the hotel, so it was a perfect match: just local sourcing, ingredient driven, not imposing your will on the product but letting the product tell you what to do with it. We always sort of joked that he was the most Italian restaurant on The Hill because it’s all just ingredients, not a ton of technique, just letting the food do the talking. That’s absolutely what I believe.”
Once in the kitchen at Five, Carlson began making focaccia using a recipe he’d been tweaking since culinary school. Next, Devoti wanted a bun to top his wildly popular Five Burger. As Carlson regained his feel for baking, he started making the Old World breads he loved: pan bigio using whole-wheat flour from Cape Girardeau; pan au levain made with a wild yeast starter; ciabatta; a “St. Louis sourdough;” and a smoked whole-wheat loaf for which he smoked the wheat berries until they released a near bacon-like flavor and aroma. Devoti was thrilled, calling Carlson’s creations “the future of bread,” and even encouraging him to see where his skills could take him when the demand for his hamburger buns began to spread beyond the wooden tables of Newstead and white linens of Five.
In 2011, Carlson went out on his own, creating an independent business called Red Guitar Bread. He traded Devoti bread for kitchen space and expanded his reach to restaurants like The Mud House, Franco, Cyrano’s, Big Sky and Salume Beddu, whose owners believed that the bun holding their burger should be prepared with as much precision, passion and attention to detail as the flavorful, fatty, juicy patty inside it.
After receiving acclaim from his restaurant accounts, Carlson gained the confidence to take his bread straight to the consumer and began selling Red Guitar Bread from a stand at the Webster Groves Farmers Market. The leap into retail came with its hurdles. “When you’re making $5 and $9 loaves, you get some comments about the price. But there was one customer who was always the most vocal about the prices, and she came back every week. Every week, she’d say something about the price, and every week she’d buy something.”
Carlson realized he was on to something. He was selling out at the market every week. He had outgrown the kitchen space he rented at Five. And he had more and more restaurants carrying his Old World loaves. If he could just get his bread in front of people who expect quality, he could begin to make them realize just how great bread can be. “We need to get away from commodity bread,” he explained sharply. “We need to get away from fucking free bread on the table before the meal. It’s an expectation. That’s not what it’s supposed to be about. This is supposed to be a higher quality product but it also shouldn’t be something that’s just ridiculously exclusive. Good, decent, real bread should be accessible to everyone.” Carlson knew that there was only one way to do it: He would open his own bakery.
In December 2008, two months after they met, Wilson and Randolph opened The Good Pie. The tiny Midtown pizzeria may have been Randolph’s baby, but Wilson was pulling his weight. He manned the wood-burning oven that had been sent over from a village outside of Naples and baked artisanal pizzas under the orange embers of its open flame. He was also responsible for the dough: that chewy, crunchy, bubbly, crackled, just slightly burnt Neopolitan crust for which The Good Pie has become known for – and which almost instantly earned the restaurant a cult-like following from area pizza-lovers.
Thanks to an ever-rotating lineup of taps, The Good Pie also became a destination for local craft beer-lovers, giving Wilson the opportunity to meet some of the major players in the city’s booming beer scene. He watched as Jake Hafner opened The Civil Life Brewing Co., as Kevin Lemp tapped the first keg at 4 Hands, and as Florian Kuplent and Dave Wolfe hung their sign for Urban Chestnut just two streets over from The Good Pie. He was inspired. “I’ve gotten to know these guys while they were going through the process, which has been inspiring for me to do this myself – to say, alright, let’s get moving. These guys are really passionate about what they’re doing. They care about it. They care about where they are and their neighborhood. It’s being part of a community.” Wilson was ready to create a community of his own – a community around bread.
When Carlson found the Cherokee Street building he purchased eight months ago, he wanted his bakery, Red Guitar Bread, to be a place that combined the woods he’d foraged, the kitchens he’d learned in and the passions he’d fostered. A small stone mill will sit atop a long, metal prep table. The bread will taste clean, like grain and fermentation, and be baked in the wood-burning oven he’s building by hand and will tend to each morning, sweeping the ashes from the hearth and loading the fresh loaves that he left to rise as he slept. He will bend to the oven’s will.
He’ll start off with a single dough – a simple combination of flour, water, salt and wild airborne yeast that he will spend much of his day shaping into loaves of many shapes and sizes, reveling in the way the variance in structure changes the crumb-to-crust ratio so greatly that the end products are nearly incomparable. Eventually, he’ll add dinner service with sandwiches and some pizzas baked inside the brick-oven’s chamber, but for now, he will push one dough as far as he possibly can, banking his business plan around the idea of doing just one thing – and doing it really, really well. “I’m very likely shooting myself in the foot because I’ve never seen a successful bakery that doesn’t operate with flavors and additions and all sorts of junk, and there’s nothing wrong with that by any means, it’s just not my own particular style. And I intend to find out just how far I can push that philosophy and only grudgingly break from that philosophy when absolutely necessary.”
When Wilson left The Good Pie to pursue his own bakery, Loafers, in summer 2012, he also had a clear picture in mind. Loafers will be part bakery, part cafe and all bread. Five to six styles will be available each day and change with the season, the weather, even the week. A deli case will display everything you’d want with a warm, toasty slice: good cheeses, salty cured meats, briny olives, fresh herbs, grassy olive oils, bright vinegars and a hand-picked selection of craft beer, wine and whiskey. He will bring bread back to its roots – using a mixer only to incorporate the ingredients and spending the rest of his day hand-kneading the dough, all the while keeping in mind that some of the best breads, you only have your hands on for a couple minutes.
Their bakeries will be different. Their breads will be different. But there is one thing this duo whole-heartedly agrees on: The typical baker’s hours just won’t cut it. Having seen firsthand the toll long hours can take on a baker, Carlson and Wilson know that, to make a living out of changing the way St. Louisans look at bread, they need a business plan that will keep them passionate, prosperous and, most importantly, a part of the bread-loving community they’re hoping to build. That means sleeping when it’s dark, rising when it’s light and having fresh bread ready when people actually want it: after work. It’s not an entirely unforeseen business model. Bread maven Chad Robertson made it famous at his San Francisco bakery, Tartine, confessing that he wanted his mornings to surf. But it has yet to be seen whether it can be successfully duplicated outside of San Francisco’s nurturing food community. But to Carlson and Wilson, if they’re going to do it, they’re doing it their way. “Bread for dinner, toast for breakfast – I love that,” Wilson said with a smile and a loud clap of his hands. “I like this idea of being able to have bread so [people] can pick it up to take home and have dinner with their family.”
Many years after beginning their journeys, Wilson and Carlson are in a very unsettled place. While Carlson has begun answering inquiries about his open date with a snide “Your guess is as good as mine,” Wilson has yet to sign a lease on a building. The variables are infinite. They know that failure is possible. But if Wilson and Carlson succeed, they just might prove, once and for all, that bread isn’t a commodity that comes free before the meal. It is the meal. And that’s a risk they’re extremely excited to take.
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