Over the past fifteen years, Chad Robertson's work as a baker in the Bay Area has earned praise from giants like Alice Waters and Alain Ducasse and earned him a place in a pantheon that includes Nancy Silverton and Jim Lahey. Recently chef Daniel Patterson went as far as to say it was "common knowledge" that Robertson made the best bread in the country. What might set Robertson apart the most, though, is his desire to collaborate with chefs around the world, listen to their needs, and help them develop their bread programs; he's done it for Christian Puglisi at Copenhagen's Relae and Joshua Skenes at San Francisco's Saison, to name just a pair.
In the following interview, Robertson talks about the humble beginnings of Tartine Bakery, when he and his wife and collaborator Elisabeth Prueitt would have to commute to the city from the countryside to sell their bread, which would often be incorrectly pegged as burnt. He also talks about his method, the state of bread baking in the United States, and his forthcoming book.
Let's start with the very basic question of when and how you got into baking.
I wasn't fascinated with baking as much as I was fascinated by natural fermentation. It was around 1992, when I went to visit this baker while I was in culinary school [at the CIA]. We went to visit this guy Richard Bourdon in the Berkshires. The whole place smelled like natural leaven, and it was this completely new aroma for me. Natural fermentation was a really mysterious thing, especially to me, and it was fascinating.
I then started learning from people that were really good. That process hasn't stopped, actually. I worked for Richard for a few years, and then he told me to move on and learn from people with different approaches. So I planned to work in France with some bakers, and when I came back, no one wanted to hire me anywhere. So we came back and we opened our bakery. I wanted to work with wood-fired ovens, since no one was really doing that.
Tell me about opening the first bakery.
We wanted to find a place similar to the countryside of France, so we went to West Marin. At the time, around 1995, the group of people that we got to know were artists from the California College of Arts and Crafts. They were woodworkers and metalworkers, so they built the space, the bakery, the wood-fired oven for us. And that was our bakery.
How was baking back then in the United States?
It's funny, the names that were big then — the model bakeries like Acme, La Brea, Balthazar when they first started — are still the big names. They were pretty small back then, and now they've just gotten larger. It was actually a good time for bread and baking, I'd say. There was a new awareness about the artisan aspect of it. I don't know if it's gotten way better, though, to be honest. It's certainly more available around the country, which is good.
Is there anything particularly exciting or new that you've noticed? What direction do you think things are going in?
I am sensing a new phase, maybe, in certain parts of the country, with people looking at more localized grains, seeking out varieties of different wheat and stuff for better flavor. That action is happening in upstate New York, out here, in North Carolina, in the Pacific Northwest. It definitely wasn't going on when we first started.
Were you successful from the start?
We just lived in the country, made a solid living, but it wasn't very easy. We'd have to drive in for an hour or whatever to sell the bread we baked at the farmers market. It was an extraordinary time for learning. In the beginning, the bread was very dark. It still is, but it's way more accepted now. That caramelization — people thought it was burnt. We didn't bake things longer, it's that we used a really hot ovens to get those nuances in caramelization.
When did things start to get good?
When chefs started to support the stuff. That was a real turning point. There were times when we considered stopping, and that really helped us through. To hear that Alice Waters is saying something about what you're doing, that's a big deal. But it was a really long process.
How much has your approach and method changed since the start?
I'd say that we're never really satisfied. We always look back at old photos, and now that we're retooling our recipes to use older grains and things like that, it's very heartening to see that they haven't changed that much, in a way. But there's always a way to make things better here and there.
While we're at it, how would you describe your approach? And at the risk of sounding ridiculous, what makes it so good?
For us, we're in this part of the country that has such amazing product. We use almost all organic stuff, lots of berries, whole grains. We start with good ingredients, but I can't stress enough the skill of the bakers themselves. They have it down to every single detail, and it's not easy.
Tartine is a little chaotic and fun. We'll have chefs come in and visit and say it's like a party, but if something isn't going right, it's noticed immediately. Each person takes a lot of personal responsibility from the beginning.
Another thing that's important is the fact that we're baking in real time in a commercial bakery setting. There isn't a night shift. You are going to get it fresh and warm all day.
The other night at the Edible Selby event in New York, you likened it to being on the line in a kitchen.
To me, it's very similar to cooking on a line. There's a funny misperception that some chefs have about baking. They'll think that there aren't that many nuances or variables. There are so many ways little conditions can affect the end result. You're constantly making slight adjustments. You can control the fermentation, but there's the wild part, where you just want to be a catalyst.
That's central to a lot of what we do. Fermenting bread or something sweeter like brioche, you're adding new flavors that you wouldn't have otherwise. If you taste brioche that has been fermented with straight yeast, it's delicious, but the flavor is much improved if you add natural leaven and long rise to the mix. It might be an unidentifiable flavor for most people, but there's definitely an added layer there. That's what I'm into: adding flavor in different ways.
Just how hectic can the bakery be, and what would you lose by having the night shift?
There's a calm time when we open in the morning, but then it gets really stressful and really fast. When we interview people for positions, we tell them that if they don't enjoy the high stress, the constant pressure, and the need to put out high quality food in an environment like that, this job is not for them.
There's so many factors, so many reasons why we do it in real time.. It's not just flavor. It's aroma, it's the heat in the kitchen, and it's the fact that you get to go in and see that happening when you come buy your bread.
You also seem to collaborate, or at least be very close with, lots of chefs. You helped the guys at Relae in Copenhagen, right?
Christian Puglisi is an incredible chef, and they were already making delicious bread. He's an extreme perfectionist. He came to a demo I was doing at Claus Meyer's place and asked me to come in and check out what we were doing and give him an opinion. I asked him what he was looking for, and that's when I started helping him. I really like doing that for chefs. Josh Skenes from Saison is another one I'm helping in a similar way. It's an interesting way to collaborate, since these people are really inspiring.
And when I travel and bake in places like Sweden or Denmark — I've helped out Bo Beck and Mathias Dahlgren — I always like to use the local grain so I can learn about it.
Finally, you're working on a new book. The focus is on new grains and retooling old recipes?
Yes, new grains, more whole grains. It's going to be split up between bread and pastry, more or less evenly. It's our ten year anniversary, so in that spirit of making things better, we're trying to force creativity by taking the classic recipes in a different direction. It's about taking the basic technique and taking it somewhere else. We're using some different ingredients, more whole food sugars. People would obviously say it's a lot healthier, but that's really not what's driving us. For me, it's about, again, creating different layers of flavor by using less refined ingredients.
If I think about it, I'm trying to experiment in a way that a lot of my chef friends or influences are. There's a lot of that going on now in Scandinavia. At Bar Tartine, they're making ponzu out of beer, at Faviken they're making misos out of their own beans. We're all playing around just to get more flavor, and also revisiting ancient techniques.
When is it coming out?
It's coming out fall of next year. It's with Chronicle. I'm working with a designer in New York, but mostly it's me and my team from Tartine. The deadlines suck, but the experimentation and the research are a blast.