Images © Eric Wolfinger and Chad Robertson©
Chad Robertson could be defined as a chef, an author and an entrepreneur. Chad Robertson, however, imagines himself as an artisan in the best world ever. In short, Chad Robertson is not afraid of the word a-r-t-i-s-a-n, he even marks it with his firm and calm voice: “a-r-t-i-s-a-n”.
The subject of his artisan devotion is bread. Bread is the fulcrum of his days, while Chad carries out his research of the best wheat germs in the world, always and faithfully supporting organic and urban gardening. Tartine Backery is Chad’s home in S.Francisco, a Mecca-place where at 5pm many Frisco’s residents queue to buy his very good bread.
Tartine Bread is a book with words and pictures that contain Chad’s manual knowledge and it is already gathering an enthusiastic community of neo bakers. After a chat with Chad I discovered his baking Philosophy and how the Bay Area is moving for a better food culture… so after long days of suffering and drooling at the sight of Tartine Bread, I finally decided to open myself to the world of sourdough.
Let’s start with some thoughts about bread, meaning: the ancient cultures state that being a human being means being a bread eater. The men left his wild nature when he started to manipulate flour and water to create bread.
For you what does bread mean in your life? Have you ever thought about why you chose to start baking bread?
I never intended to become a bread baker. After years in private prep school, I was ready to work with my hands and decided to learn how to cook. Becoming a chef seemed like a stable way to make a living wherever I landed.
The initial decision to focus exclusively on making bread was an irrational one, brought on by a visit to the Berkshire Mountain Bakery in the early 1990s. Young and impressionable at the time, I was completely taken by the scent and scene unfolding in Richard Bourdon’s large brick barn bakery: hundreds of natural leavened whole grain breads with crusts cracking; and a thick sweet air I will never forget.
Getting deeper into your thoughts, What’s your first memory about bread? A smell, a taste, a bakery or even a story.
My first and strongest memory of bread was when I visited Bourdon’s bakery. I chose to make bread that day with the goal of contributing something distinct to the culture of our craft. I wanted to contribute to the craft just as my mentors had while adding while adding a new dynamic as they had done in their own time- fuel for the creative cycle and key to artisan evolution.
My other strongest memory was a visit to the Boulanger de Boiens, in the Medoc, France, which inspired the baking schedule I would keep for more than a decade. The baker rang a bell outside his bakery in the afternoon to signal the first bread of the day coming from the oven just before dinner.
Now let’s talk about your work. Do you remember the first time you made your very first loaf of bread? Where were you are you and how it was?
The first loaf I truly made myself was the first day I baked bread in Point Reyes Station. I fired the oven with wood, chopped and mixed the dough with my hands in buckets, worked alone all day and slept in shifts.
This time was in no way sustainable, but profoundly instructive. Many years of obsessive trance baking are blurred together in memory. In the end, I was finally making the bread I wanted to eat every day.
You worked several years with Richard Bourdon, what was the precept that influenced you the most?
Use fresh ground organic whole grains, sea salt, generous hydration, very long fermentation times, and a strong bake (to the point where the grain is fully cooked through, and the bread often develops a substantial crust) so people can easily digest the food you are making and gain nutrition from it.
Plus, understanding that the nature of grain fermentation and making bread is vast and continually evolving. There are lifetimes of learning ahead.
As you have stayed a lot in France what is the main difference between American and European food? What type of bread do you produce?
European food is traditionally based closer to the source than what we generally know in the states (San Francisco excluded). This is especially true in the countryside. In large cities, one often has to search to find traditional foods.
That said, there is a movement in parts of Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden) and progressive cities in Western Europe that goes beyond regional identification to a style that is at once very local and almost Post-European: produce driven using indigenous grains, some traditional local flavors along with international influences, employed in menus seemingly without any identifiable rules. It’s a natural and refreshing turn of cuisine practiced by a handful of chefs who have mastered their medium.
This is happening here with a handful of American chefs as well.
When did you and your wife decide to open Tartine Bakery? How did you picture it? How did you develop the concept?
We settled here after living and working in the French countryside for a year. We wanted to try to maintain the lifestyle we had become accustomed to there, so we settled on the coast of Northern California, in a small town surrounded by organic farms, working cattle and dairy ranches, vineyards, and the bounty of the coast. The concept was to add to the community by making good bread in a very primitive, artisan operation.
Hearing the friends you have involved, it seems that you give them more a philosophy of baking instead of a technique. Do you agree? Could you tell us some more about the “test bakers” baking experience?
It’s true, my philosophy or approach to making bread is the thing most important for me to get across. The goal is to enable someone learning to make bread to get a better understanding of how these things work together as opposed to just following a recipe. However, technique is still key to the process.
The test bakers all followed the recipe precisely in the beginning and made the same bread. The interesting thing about each of them was what happened when they started to modify the recipe to suit their own needs; each one ended up with a different schedules and different breads with distinct character.
What is an average day at Tartine Bakery?
I head to the bakery for an espresso, check in with my incredible morning bakers on the day’s early production before opening the doors, then after lunch, I bake bread. Then it’s dinner at Bar Tartine before heading home to close the day.
The Bay Area seems to be very active and sensitive to food culture. There are a lot of different Media (MeatPaper for example) that investigate this world, what do you think is still missing?
Some friends, Little City Gardens, are working on this front now. We need to see more urban gardening in the Bay Area and San Francisco in particular.
Let’s talk about food in general. What is your “madeleine” food, the one that reminds you of your childhood?
Bread and butter. I still eat it daily warm from the oven.
How do you eat bread? Is there a sandwich recipe that you like the most?
I just ate a bowl of beans ladled over days-old bread with smoked chilis, olive oil, vinegar, and fresh cilantro. Also, I eat a lot of sardine sandwiches.
Your activity brings you a lot of time. Do you find the time to go out dining? What are the places you like the most?
I’m at Bar Tartine a lot. I also frequent Mission Chinese Food, Nopalito, Pizzaiolo (Oakland).
After your book, are there are any other upcoming projects?
We’re currently building a new bakeshop/ sandwich shop next to our restaurant. We’ll be baking different breads than what we make at Tartine, starting early in the day so we can make sandwiches for lunch on very fresh bread. Also, the next bread book is underway, telling the story of older, indigenous grains in different parts of the world and how we bake with them.