GIGO

I was a management consultant many years ago, a partner in a firm that specialized in data processing consultation.   I learned nothing from my partners about their specialty but I did like how they responded (privately) to the complaints of their clients.

GIGO. Garbage in; Garbage out.

I have thought about GIGO frequently over the 25 years I have spent making food as I have often had opportunities to replace the expensive ingredients I like to use with ingredients not so expensive. I know whole companies – so you do – and whole restaurant chains – so do you – that buy cheap ingredients and expect to offer good food made from inferior ingredients. But that isn’t possible.

It is possible to ruin good ingredients but it is not possible to make good food from bad ingredients; and that is why we buy the best we can find and frequently I am extravagant.

I really don’t want to use this forum as a commercial for Bread Furst. I like writing about subjects more interesting than how wonderful we are. But people say to me that being too self-effacing is self-defeating and a form of self-centeredness.   And so I write this time about a subject dear to me and I hope not too boring to you.

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The Washington City Paper just wrote a paean to our jambon beurre. What it said is true: It is worth the ten dollars we charge for it. I think we make a really good baguette and it makes a big contribution to the sandwich. But apart from that the sandwich is so good because we get out of its way. We spread 82 percent butter on the baguette, run a thin line of Dijon mustard down the middle, add some good Gruyere thinly sliced and slices of the hams we buy from Heritage Foods.

“Heritage Foods USA exists to promote genetic diversity, small family farms, and a fully traceable food supply. We are committed to making wholesome, delicious and sustainably produced heritage foods available to all Americans. In doing so, we will foster the link between sustainable land use, small-scale food production and preservation of the foods of past generations for future generations.”

We buy these hams every two months or so and they are delivered 500 pounds at a time by a long semi-trailer truck that can’t fit in the alley behind us.

I have a great appetite for finding ingredients for what we make and foods for our shelves. It’s a hobby; it’s fun. At the end of June I will go to New York to a gigantic food show at the Jacob Javits Center; and I will walk miles over two or three days just in the hope of finding a few new foods I want to put on the shelves.

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At the winter show, much smaller, I found the distributor of cloudberry preserves and tasted Sweet Ella’s peanut butter both of which are now in our bakery.

I went to a meeting here several months ago and some young women were offering tastes of a bloody mary mix. It turned out that they make it. Dubious, I tasted it. It was really good and when I learned it is made by Gordy’s, a local small company whose pickles we don’t buy because we do our own, I asked them to bring us a case to us to sell here.

Gordy’s bloody mary mix and its cherry pepper relish are on our shelves. As are the Geechie Boy grits Tom Sietsema wrote about in his big Washington Post story this week about Charleston, South Carolina.

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You can see those – as well as the butters and cheeses we select, the lingonberry preserves I used to eat at breakfast, the son of a Swedish father, the marvelous olive oil, honey, jams, and amazing yogurt being imported by the little Greek store at Dupont Circle. (The real Greek yogurt.)

What you don’t see nearly as well are the ingredients that pass from truck to our storage to be used in foods we make.

Did you know that all our flours and grains are organic?   We get as much as we can locally but the bulk of our flours come from Central Milling, an employee-owned business in Utah. I started using its flours at Greystone, the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley campus when I started teaching there in 1995.

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Our milk comes from Trickling Springs Dairy in Pennsylvania whose “happy cows get all the sunshine and free grass they want during growing season and are not pushed in growth or production by synthetic hormones.”

Our eggs come from Earth and Eats, an Amish coop that delivers to us twice a week and our chickens come from local farms via Huntsman Specialty Game and More.

At some point in the late Nineties I discovered Alan Benton and began to buy his bacon for The BreadLine BLT. At Bread Furst we serve it in great quantities each weekend. His superb ham goes into our new country ham scone.

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Some years ago at the Ferry Plaza Market in San Francisco, I came across Rancho Gordo’s dried beans, legumes we use at Bread Furst in our white bean and gigante bean salads and hummos and chili with beans (Thursday lunch). It may seem a little precious that we pay $ 980.23 for dried beans and have them sent from California but truly they are better; they have great texture and a distinctively beanier flavor.

Flavor is the point.   The fun of this is finding the best ingredients we can find to make what we like making. Or even better to find wonderful ingredients and imagine recipes for them. Like the new Jerusalem artichoke salad.  If they can be from local sources, that is a double pleasure.   For produce, local is more or less mandatory in my scheme of things.

I am pretty rigid about being local and seasonal when it comes to fruits and vegetables and every year at this time, I wish I were living in California. My friends there send me emails about the asparagus and peas and greens they are buying at their outdoor markets. And I am here enviously reading their emails amidst the apples and butternut squash left over from the autumn.

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But I think that seasonal deprivation is one way of celebrating food. I know as well as you that Chilean asparagus is available at Whole Foods. Sometimes I give in and buy eggplant there and make a dark, spicy almost wintery stew. But I really like eating with the seasons.

But it means inevitably that right now I am tired of our winter salads and you must be tired of them too.

Believe it or not spring will come and the farms on which we depend will bring us rhubarb and greens. And then Earth and Eats will run out of butternut squash (finally!) and replace it with strawberries. And Smucker Farms will have affordable greens again. And Northern Neck farm will begin to telephone us each Monday. And finally the farm stands will return to 14th and U Streets and we can tilt virtually our entire menu to what is grown in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

The lentils and cranberry beans will recede.

Each Saturday Robert Dalliah, our chef, and I will resume going early to the Saturday morning market at UDC and picking out what we want. At the end of the market day, those farmers will deliver boxes and boxes of vegetables and fruits they didn’t sell at retail and we’ll buy them at prices less expensive but still high.

Robert will begin to make strawberry jam and then chutney and then relishes and finally tomatoes and tomato sauces and so much more as our canning explodes (so to speak).

This produce we buy is not cheap.  But to get cheap fruits and vegetables we’d have to be both anti-environment and anti-culinary and buy produce from the industrial farms of Mexico and of the Central Valley in California.

We’re not going to do that. We’ll hold out for local local fruits and vegetables even though the American addiction to agricultural subsidies makes cheaper produce grown 3,000 miles away than that which is grown 30 miles away.

Cheap is not the point, however. The point of ingredients is quality, i.e. flavor. That’s why seasonality is so important.   We know when we buy that what we buy expresses what is important to us about being in the food business. So we buy what is good and as much as possible we buy what is local.

It Happens Every Spring

I was a new and passionate baseball fan in 1949 and fell in love with a movie called It Happens Every Spring, Ray Milland, Jean Peters, and Paul Douglas. It was the story of a professor who accidentally invents a potion that repels wood and becomes a pitching phenomenon for the St. Louis Browns baseball team.

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For many years I find myself thinking about that movie each year as something happens to me every spring other than baseball.

Starting early in each year local food businesses are inundated with requests from schools, public and private, universities, churches and many charitable organizations that look for donations to their auctions and raffles that are part of your life and ours.

This is not new to me as I have been in the food business in Washington for 25 years. But even now after 25 years I don’t fully understand why small independent local businesses, often struggling themselves, are so frequently implored to make contributions to private schools; and I limited Marvelous Market, my first venture, and The BreadLine, my second, to participation in public school auctions and a few other fund-raisers.

Voluntarism is a great American tradition, one that I believe in. Private non-profit voluntary organizations have always been a bedrock of this country. I mean always. In the first half of the 19th Century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about our proclivity for joining each other in social activism. Parent-teacher organizations, advisory neighborhood commissions, and other local civic groups are in that tradition.

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But why do they gravitate so strongly in their requests for donations to local businesses? Why not ask Citibank and UBS to chip in. Shouldn’t British Petroleum and Haliburton be supporting the Murch School? I thought about this as I was driving to Dulles a couple of weeks ago looking at all those buildings with mysterious initials that line the corridor, all those quasi-police and intelligence companies. Are they being asked to donate to Lafayette Elementary?

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Probably not. Who would know whom to ask – if there is a whom at all.

Again a small business owner after several years as a consultant I am daunted by the sheer number of requests we have received in this spring fund-raising season. Neighborhood schools, schools out of the neighborhood, public schools, private schools, universities and religious schools have sent us letters and forms. Add to those churches, synagogues, arts organizations, civic organizations, and others.

It is important to give back to the community. I believe that. That sentiment has been part of my entire life going back to my social worky and faintly socialist family. And I suppose small neighborhood businesses are singled out like this because they are rooted in neighborhoods and easy to appeal to.

But I really dislike this process. I don’t like to refuse and I don’t refuse. Being a neighborhood business is one of my two highest aspirations in being here – the other being a wonderful bakery. But even though I feel really committed to the neighhborhood I don’t want to scatter dollars here and there and I want to be able to pick causes that seem really important to me.

I have been puzzled and did not know don’t know what to do about this until now. But the number of requests we have received has forced me to consider Bread Furst’s role in the neighborhood and indeed in the city.

We are a new business and although the neighborhood has embraced us tightly we are still just starting and learning how to become prosperous. Our abilities are limited and there are so many needs in our city and our society generally does so little collectively, through government, to meet those needs. The charitable impulse and voluntary contributions are part of America.

I have decided that I am going to respond to all the requests by public schools in our neighborhood by donating a gift certificate – but only this year.

It seems to me that as a food business in a community in which there are so many needs, we should direct our giving and the logical place to direct the giving of a food business is toward hunger. So I have accepted an invitation to participate in the Blue Jeans Ball of the Capital Food Bank and I am going to seek a partnership with one or more of the charitable food enterprises in Washington.

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In the future we are going to forego school auctions and hope that the neighborhood supports that choice.

Mea Culpa

In July 1990, Marvelous Market opened and was a nearly instant success. Just nine months later Uptown Bakers opened in Cleveland Park and not too long after that Baker’s Place joined us and began to open stores very quickly. Then Marvelous Market’s first baker left and opened Firehook in Alexandria.

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For a moment it appeared that Washington might become a city of neighborhood bakeries and I was really happy about that prospect. But during the next decade expansion gave way to contraction and neighborhood bakeries faded.

Uptown Bakers turned to the wholesale distribution business and Firehook’s founder left his bakery. Baker’s Place was bought by Marvelous Market and by 2005, just a decade later, Marvelous Market had sold off its bakery and neighborhood bakeries had disappeared. Then Marvelous Market itself disappeared.

I was partially responsible for the failure of my own vision. I expanded Marvelous Market far too soon and lost it; and it was taken over by someone who didn’t understand its virtues. But among the reasons small bakeries failed was that major potential wholesale customers, markets and stores, didn’t buy breads from the new bakeries.

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Small bakeries must sell their breads to restaurants and stores. Their economics compel it in this city. It shouldn’t be that way. I have written here about small neighborhood bakeries in, say, Paris, that offer breads, desserts, and a sandwich or two and from 7 am until 7 pm have a line in front of their doors.

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But that’s France where bread has always been a major source of cheap nutrition. In every American city other than New York and San Francisco, small bakeries have a hard time.

In the U.S. bakery sales are constrained by the absence of a bread tradition, by the easy access to other inexpensive (although not necessarily healthful) foods, by the reputation of grain-based foods as fattening foods, and by the currently fashionable aversion to gluten.

Bakery sales are most of all constrained by the way we buy food for our homes – nearly always in supermarkets.

Washington used to have strong independent food stores but they have mostly died away. People now like one-stop shopping and are reluctant to make special trips to a bakery just to buy a loaf of bread or a brownie. Instead they make the perfectly rational decision to buy breads and pastries where they are shopping for other foods even if they believe those baked goods are not quite as good as those they could buy in independent bakeries.

In 1996 I was traveling monthly to Napa Valley to teach bread baking and I visited the first San Francisco Whole Foods as it opened. I stood in the bakery section looking enviously at the displays of local bakeries – Acme, Semifreddi, and Metropolis Bakeries all of whose breads were available for sale at Whole Foods to the sophisticated bread-eaters of San Francisco.

I was about to open The BreadLine when Whole Foods bought the 22 stores of Fresh Fields and I thought that, as committed to quality as it was, Whole Foods would do what hadn’t been done by the other supermarkets of Washington: I thought it would buy bread from the small bakeries.

But it didn’t. Instead, having inherited in-store bakeries, it continued producing its own bread in each store and didn’t buy the breads of others.   And I believed that strategy capped the development of small bakeries here. I have remained always critical of that corporate decision.

I was wholly unprepared, therefore, when Whole Foods wrote to me a month ago to ask if we would like it to begin selling some of our whole grain breads. And it is astonishing to me that we are going to begin doing that – on Thursday at the P Street store.

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This means is a greater stability for Bread Furst. But more important it means that more customers will have easier access to the kinds of breads they might like or learn to like: Organic whole grain breads.

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If customers do like our breads I hope we’ll begin selling them at other Whole Foods stores. And if that happens we will pretty quickly run out of production capacity. And if that happen other bakers and would-be bakers may see the unfilled opportunity and perhaps a few of them will open other small bakeries in other neighborhoods of Washington from which they too can sell to Whole Foods.

What a contribution to the city that would be!

Outrageous Prices

Back in the ‘90s I knew someone who owned a delicatessen on the east side of Manhattan. He was very successful, his store always crowded as food places can be in New York, Paris, and San Francisco.

My friend had what seemed to me then a novel way of pricing his foods. He always made a point of charging more than anyone else charged. The price of his chicken salad sandwich, for example, was $15 and that was a lot in the early ‘90s, even now.

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I asked him, of course, having just opened Marvelous Market and beginning to learn how much I didn’t know, how he could justify such prices. He said, “I don’t justify them. I think about what other people charge and I charge as least twice as much. That how my customers know that what we make is good.”

Perhaps some people feel that way about Bread Furst.

I had an exchange last week with a customer. He wrote to say:

                Your prices are outrageous. I had a soup and sandwich today. I must tell you that it was delicious! But it set me back $18. For the same price I could have gone to a sit-down restaurant and had a proper meal. You need to make your pricing accommodate the folks who will eat with you 3 days per week. This pricing does not do that. You have conditioned me to avoid your shop because of the prices, not to explore your offerings day to day.

           I wrote back of course:

                 I can say only this:  We buy organic flour and use it to make bread.  We buy heritage hams from the Hudson Valley, butternut squash from Amish farms, milk from a local dairy, high-fat butter.  We make soups with stocks made here from scratch.  Our chickpeas come from California from the best of all legume suppliers.  

We don’t have to do it this way but making the best food possible is what I want to do.  Ten dollars for a sandwich.  Five dollars for a soup.  These are not cheap prices but they are not outrageous prices.

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Food producers like us hope to keep ingredient costs on average below 30 percent of sales prices.   That’s easily achievable by those who are content to buy really cheap ingredients. Some popular restaurants in the city do this and keep their menu prices very low.

It is possible that buying expensive ingredients is not something you would ask us to do. Perhaps the differences are noticed only by the most discerning of you.   But we buy the best possible ingredients because that’s the kind of place I want to have.

I believe I was committed to quality when in 1997 I opened The BreadLine, a downtown restaurant. We used to make a tuna salad sandwich there. It had a harissa mayonnaise. We made the mayonnaise ourselves and the tuna came from Italy, the harissa from a jar.

But at Bread Furst when we use harissa as an ingredient, it is made here by Hadj Osmani. We make the mayonnaise as we always did but we add to it Robert Dalliah’s preserved lemons, made here, and tuna doesn’t come from a can. Instead we buy fresh tuna loin and confit it ourselves in extra-virgin olive oil and fresh herbs, then aging it a little in our refrigerator.

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This may be precious of us but why would we make breads and croissants from scratch and take shortcuts elsewhere?

Of course this doesn’t explain fully why our prices are high and I can blame our prices on the rent, on the huge costs of building and equipping Bread Furst, and on paying good salaries and wages to people who work here.

But I have two additional explanations: More and more I find that some of my ethical considerations drive up our prices. I am trying (unsuccessfully so far) to replace all the plastics we use with compostable products. You’d be surprised to learn how difficult – as well as how expensive it is.

I want to buy as much as possible from local producers. Local produce is far more expensive than commodity produce. I want to be seasonal and that ought to lower our prices – but because we buy from local farms it doesn’t. I want to be as organic as possible and organic grains cost three times as much as non-organic grains.

Perhaps these considerations aren’t important to you. Perhaps, since in effect, we are passing off those costs to you in the form of higher prices, you would prefer that I not impose my values on you.

But there we are.

There is one other consideration that leads us to prices higher than those charged by some others.

When I left do-gooding and started a business career in the early ‘80s, I brought to my business career the socialist impulses of my paternal grandfather and the social work instincts of my maternal grandfather.

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Business? I am in business, I would ask myself.   How can that be? I am not a businessman.

And I wasn’t. Prices at Marvelous Market were low. Quality was high.  We were overstaffed and perhaps I paid people too much.

I certainly repeated that pattern at The BreadLine.  At The BreadLine I didn’t even really try to make money.

I opened Bread Furst hoping to contribute something to the neighborhood and I believe we are doing that. But when we opened it I knew that I won’t be able to play for many years the role I am now playing.

The perpetuation of Bread Furst will depend upon its becoming something others want to own – the staff, the neighbors, or an entrepreneur or established operator. Bread Furst will be desirable to others only if it is profitable. Its ultimate survival therefore depends on its financial success.

That may seem axiomatic to you – but it isn’t to me.  I come from an anti-business heritage. (My sister Carla ran Politics and Prose like an extension of her family more than as a business.)

I want Bread Furst to be successful. I owe to all those who lent money to me to help start this bakery. I owe it to the neighborhood that has received us with such warmth and given such support. I owe it to my own vision of what a neighborhood bakery can contribute in Washington.

Edith Hollander Furstenberg 1910 – 2015

My mother died this week a few months before her 105th birthday.  That she was so old suggests who she was.

We have said for years that what kept her alive was overwhelming cheeriness and her determination to live; but others, most people, frequently said to me, “You must have great genes.”

And indeed my mother’s parents lived late too.   But my brother the sociologist told us, as we gathered last weekend in my mother’s apartment, that genes account for no more than three percent of longevity.  The rest, he said, is the way we live and luck.

So apart from luck my mother deserves the credit for her long life.  Playing tennis until she couldn’t.  Driving until she shouldn’t – and then for a few more years.  Surrounding herself with friends and after they died with comparative strangers whom she made friends.  Most of all gathering about herself her children and grandchildren at least one of whom visited every few days.  Not to mention nieces and nephews and the children of old friends not still around.

She had quite a following.

My mother simply loved living and for the people who saw her that was infectious.

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She was in great shape at her 100th birthday and we celebrated it at my sister’s home.  We gathered – her six children, spouses, twelve grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren – to toast her and roast each other.  Most of all to eat the foods we prepared for the event.

We are an eating family, some including me might say excessively so, and like most Jewish (and Italian and Iranian and Korean et al), we celebrate birthdays and holidays and most other days with food.

As a family in the 1950s when we were living in the family’s home we ate dinner together; we even ate breakfast together.  Can you imagine that?

Although our food was influenced by my father’s having been born in Sweden (herring and knaeckebrot for breakfast), my mother made the food decisions.

She came from a wealthy German-Jewish family and her mother didn’t cook.  Her mother had a cook.  The family’s meals were prepared by Miss Hen (one generation out of Slavery) followed by Bobbelee who started working for my grandparents when she was 15 years old. (She lied about her age.)

My mother may never have turned on a stove until the War.

But in 1942 my father, a Public Health Service captain, was assigned to Florida and my mother had to learn to cook.  Happily she had an aptitude.

Remember:  There were no frozen dinners then.  Convenience foods (if indeed they are foods at all) came after the War.

Certainly people didn’t go to restaurants to eat.  Fast food hadn’t been invented and food was hard to come by.

Our family dinners were simple — it was a time of simple food.  I have memories from the War when rationing demanded from even experienced cooks a level of ingenuity that our affluence today has made entirely unnecessary.

We didn’t have meat very much; we certainly didn’t have butter. But even without ingredients easily obtainable now we ate very well.

It was in the Fifties that my mother’s cooking flourished. She used to describe her meals as “the flower of my art.”  Scallops, pot roast, Swedish meatballs, Beef Stroganoff, always vegetables simply cooked, nearly always potatoes that my father loved, salads, and desserts. We ate well.

The dinner table was chaotic. Six children, my father trying to tell stories from his workday, my mother trying to keep our attention for my father. She was the cook; she was the mistress of ceremonies.

When the beautiful leg of lamb was served, someone (probably me) would say, “Mom, we just had lamb.”  And my mother would bolt from her chair at the foot of the table, go back into the kitchen and bring back her black and white notebook, look through it to say, “We last had lamb on March 10th.”

Dinner wasn’t always joyful. My sister Carla regularly knocked over her water glass and, in anticipation of my father’s disapproval, would begin to cry.  My brother and I would quarrel.  Sometimes the older of us hovered over the plates of the younger.  (“Have you finished, Mike?”)

But whether joyful or not, stormy or not, our dinner was a family time, the most important family time.  And although my father always dominated our family my mother was always in charge of the table.

I knew my mother for 76 years and so of course I knew her far more as an adult than as a child.   Although she had a rewarding career as a social worker she took time away from her profession to be a full-time mother.  She loved those 18 years as a full-time homemaker.

She loved her life after as a fairly senior social worker.  She loved being a wife and mother.  She loved her social life.  She simply loved living.  It is sad to lose her most of all for that reason.

Until quite recently she would say often “I know I have to die but I don’t want to.”   And so inevitably she has now been been deprived of the one thing she had left and most of all didn’t want to lose.

Fancy Food

If I wanted to do so, I could go every few months to a food show. These are expos held in municipal convention centers, generally in New York or Chicago or San Francisco. They can be very big like the show put on each May by the National Restaurant Association. Or they can be specialized like the Natural Foods Expo. Or they can be technical like the one held every three years by the Retail Bakers Association.

Among the biggest of them are the fancy food shows held in June at the Javits Convention Center in New York and in January at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. They are really something to behold. They are the expos of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.

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Specialty foods are packaged foods, processed foods, foods ready for sale. They are typically in jars or bags or bottles although cheeses and processed meats and fish are included in the category.

The producers of those foods, large and small, pay a great deal to display their wares twice a year in booths and on tables and hope they connect with people like us small retailers – although the large guys like Whole Foods attend these expos prowl the halls in great numbers hoping that they will discover something new.

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Everyone is excited when he attends the first time.   You walk from booth to booth and if you are undisciplined you can sample a newly imported olive oil from Sicily, then a fruit soda and an espresso candy, followed by a peanut or pistatio butter followed by a Stilton and a morsel of chocolate.

If you are only modestly disciplined, you skip the new inventions of the hyper-creative – grape jelly potato chips and chocolate covered fried bees.

If you are semi-disciplined, you also skip the jelly beans and soft drinks.

If you are a bit more disciplined you taste only those chocolates or cheeses that you think might be special.

 

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If you are highly disciplined you taste only what you are seriously interested in buying for your store.

The degree of discipline is determined not, as you might imagine, by strength of character or good taste but solely by frequency of attendance.

I have gone to these shows perhaps ten times over the past 25 years and I have just returned from the one in San Francisco.

I flew out on Saturday and attended the show on Sunday and Monday. Then I flew back on Tuesday morning.

The winter show is overwhelming, (the summer show even more so). I walked the floor for hours and hours trying hard to focus on the thousands of foods being displayed. You cannot think of any food, any flavor that hasn’t been invented by someone who hopes we will buy his creation and offer it for sale.

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There are themes, however – fads, I would say, or would-be fads. Bacon potato chips, bacon popcorn, and bacon candy. Peanut butter flavored with jam, with onion, and of course with bacon.

I skip all that and I skip all the thousands of chocolates being offered but I look for new products (or old ones) that appeal to my tastes.

Sometimes I stopped to marvel at the sheer ingenuity (or perhaps desperation). Do any of you want Bread Furst to make the Belgian chocolate chunk pretzel challah I saw at the show?

I believe in tradition – you know that. I love peanut butter but I want it to be composed of very well-roasted peanuts and salt, nothing else, no added sugar or oil and certainly no bacon.

There are other products I don’t like at all like soft drinks; but I still taste ginger beers looking for one that is particularly vibrant and I taste the high-class sodas from Fever Tree and Q hoping to find some soft drinks that won’t embarrass me.

I don’t expect to find much. I try hard to focus as I walk the halls. I drink every espresso I can put my hands on (and there is plenty) trying to keep my focus sharp. On occasion that focus is rewarded. I am going to buy and have for you Retrovo’s organic apple balsamic vinegar that I tasted. It was good enough to drink.

And I allow myself fantasies about using things I see: Prunes. Of course. Why are we not making prune Danish?

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Chocolate lollypops to stir hot milk. That’s a good idea. Should we make very fine chocolate lollypops for Valentine’s Day?

Tulip shaped paper muffin cups. When are we going to start making muffins with tops?

Kombucha. Is that something we should be selling? How would I choose one? I don’t even know what it is.

Serrano jamon negra. Ham nearly as expensive as white truffles that seems worth its price when a tiny slice is in my mouth. Indeed, shouldn’t I leave the booth, then circle back to taste it again?   But it would be dumb to risk buying one. How many Bread Furst customers will buy it?

 

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The show is stimulating. The show is a useful diversion. At home again I will order a few new products from a few of the vendor who displayed.  And I will give in, rise above principled and start selling potato chips.

Now back to work.

 

 

 

Flipping on Tipping

I don’t permit tipping at Bread Furst and now am wondering whether my opposition to it can be justified.

For me this is an aesthetic issue and I take my lesson from what I have experienced as a customer:

I order at the counter from a young woman in torn jeans and a wrinkled and slightly soiled shirt. I want a coffee to go. She turns around, takes a cup, presses a spigot, asking, “Leave room for milk?” 

She turns back, hands the coffee to me and with a few strokes hands me an I-Pad that says: 

Coffee                              $2.95

Gratuity          ______      10 %

                          ______      15 %

                          ______      20 %

I think, “Jeeze, she’s filled a cup. Why should I tip her?” I look up querulously. She is looking directly, expectantly into my eyes. 

            I didn’t want customers to have this experience here and so I banished tipping.

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Bread Furst’s first barista insisted that if I didn’t permit customers to tip, we would attract only substandard coffee makers. But Anthony who came to work here at the beginning put the lie to that and my position was vindicated.

But was it?

I tip happily in restaurants but don’t like tipping in retail stores. Is that rational? I think those big labeled jars carefully placed at cash registers are vulgar. I never know how much to tip for someone who fills a soup container. Should it be 20 percent? Surely not but that’s what I tip in restaurants?

So how much if at all?

It all makes little sense to me. Why should I tip at Five Guys but not at the dry cleaner? How much should I tip a taxi driver? Why does it seem right to some customers to tip a higher percentage in a really expensive restaurant where the waitstaff earn a lot from their tips than in a really inexpensive one where the waitstaff do not?

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All questions that led me to banished tipping when we opened. Here is what makes me now question my decision:

First, some customers want to tip. That’s what staff say. They report they are forced to say all the time to customers holding out cash, “The owner doesn’t permit tipping.”

Second, it is said that tipping produces better service. There’s more eye contact between customer and server, more smiling, more engagement, more effort if money is at stake.

I am not so sure about that. In restaurants at least tipping is expected. Really egregious service might have some effect but I think most people tip according to a formula they carry into restaurants with them – 12, percent, 15 percent, 17 percent or something. It’s a habit.

But what leads me now to question my no-tipping policy is that although we pay staff well compared to other small independent stores, I cannot pay people what I would like to pay.

The minimum wage in Washington is $9.50, going to $10.50 this July.   But $9.50 an hour is less than $20,000 a year. Bread Furst pays no one less than $12 but $12 an hour is only $25,000. This not a living wage and it’s more than we can afford.

We can’t pay more than that.  Of all the difficulties faced by small businesses one of most insoluable is that very few of us can pay people as much money as they want to earn. That in turn means we can’t attract and hold full-time people. That in turn means we are dependent on part-time people. And that means a revolving staff. I would like an engaged full-time staff always at the front of our bakery.

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One of our best part-time retail staffers is now reducing her time at Bread Furst from 50 hours a week to 16. She has an opportunity to do an internship she thinks will look good to admissions offices when she applies to the MBA program to which she aspires.

An MBA? Why? Why does our nation need one more MBA? Because she can’t earn in a small business like ours what she wants to earn in life. She can’t get in a small business like ours the benefits she can get from Price Waterhouse Coopers.   I cannot pay enough to hold this young woman and she cannot imagine a career in small business. (She may, of course, change her mind after a few years in the smothering, stultifying organizations about which she now dreams.)

Tipping is not going to solve that problem. But my refusal to allow it combined with the financial realities of a small business depress earning power here. Is that fair to staff?

On the other hand, is it fair to assign to customers the responsibility for raising the incomes of the people who work at Bread Furst?

My advisor, Mark Spindel, sent me an article that just appeared in Vox (http://www.vox.com/2014/7/17/5888347/one-more-case-against-tipping). It makes a good, if hyperbolic case against tipping. I know the great case against it and I think about what it would be like for the customers if I change my policy. I think about how such a change in policy might get made.

I confess to you that it is the aesthetics that I cannot imagine. I can’t imagine putting one of those jars on the counter.

Indeed, I don’t want to change; and yet am I being fair to the staff? Am I preventing increases in their income that Bread Furst can’t afford to pay?

And what about customers? Is it true that customers feel coerced in tipping establishments or is that just my problem?

My grandfather used to say, “Sometimes you have to rise above principle in order to do what’s right.” Is this one of those times?

Cookbooks for the Ages (Not quite)

I proposed recently to the owners of Politics and Prose that we collaborate in selling a list of my favorite cookbooks. For any who don’t know, Politics and Prose, a half-mile from Bread Furst and 30 years old, is one of the most successful independent bookstores in America. It is a Washington monument left by my sister, its founder.

The new owners are terrific and more entrepreneurial than my sister was, more than I am. They were entirely receptive to my proposal and followed up vigorously. So now, if I don’t want to embarrass myself, I must make my choices – my 25 favorite cookbooks (at this moment).

As everyone knows thousands of cookbooks are published each year and some of them are good. A lot of the most successful these days are the consequence of celebrity – of television and particularly the TV Food Network that, in its popularity, has become almost a parody of itself. Nonetheless people buy cookbooks on which those celebrities put their names (and often proud photos of their hair and their cleavages as well).

I would have imagined the universal availability of recipes on the Internet would have killed cookbooks. Plowing through a stack of books for broccoli recipes seems unnecessary now that typing “broccoli recipes” into a computer will uncover everything from Gourmet, Epicurious, Serious Eats, and all other wisdom of the ages. And why bother even with a written word in the kitchen when an I-Pad can be neatly propped up in the corner of a counter?

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But because of our culture’s current interest in food, the cookbook business has been affected less by the general decline in book reading than have other segments of the book business.

So cookbooks still sell. Perhaps people buy them as gifts. Perhaps because our interest in cuisine has broadened to include many unfamiliar cultures people want to familiarize themselves with those cuisines new to them. Perhaps readers like the extravagant photography in many books. Perhaps – I hope – a lot of them are being read and perhaps even cooked with.

I don’t use cookbooks as I did when I was learning to cook. I started cooking at home seriously when Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the gold standard. Not only did it introduce French cooking to Americans who didn’t know much about French food; but the specificity of its recipes, the ease of following them, made French cooking seem possible to most of us who thought of it as beyond us.

This book more than any other book then important, The Joy of Cooking, The Settlement Cookbook, The Fanny Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook, was an instruction manual to an ostensibly unfamiliar cuisine. It seems quaint now to think of it that way.

This exploration into (some of) my favorite cookbooks has made me think a lot about the way in which cookbooks are now used. As I thought about the list of books I would like to have on a shelf at Bread Furst, I kept excluding nearly all of my very favorite food books. Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, Richard Olney’s Simple French Food are not exactly cookbooks. M.F.K. Fisher wrote about food in ways no one does any longer and her writings are available as a collection in The Art of Eating.

These are not cookbooks. They are food books.   Sometimes they are autobiography, sometimes literature, sometimes essay. Some of them have lots of recipes and some have few.

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They are not books whose major purpose is instructional.   They are meant to explore and inspire and they deserve to be considered apart from cookbooks. Perhaps we should devote a second shelf to them.

I exclude here other books that are really interesting and important – food science like that which is done by the estimable Harold McGee author of On Food and Cooking and The Curious Cook.

I also steered away from technique cooks like Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio and Charcuterie.

Indulging my own conservative orientation, I didn’t include the Nathan Myhrvold magnum opus, Modernist Cuisine, or the books of Heston Blumenthal and the world of the influential (now closed) Spanish restaurant El Builli that probably ought to interest me but don’t.

Without any reservation whatever I excluded all of the diet and aversion books that teach how to avoid gluten, calories, salt, and fat – and I steered around the single food cookbooks like one that includes bacon in every recipe.

And then I found myself abandoning a lot of cookbooks that have been really important in my life and in the lives of millions of cooks – James Beard’s American Cooking, a book given to me by my Aunt when I returned to in Washington from Boston, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that showed me the versatility of vegetables, and The Silver Palate, the book that molded the cooking of people who came of age in the 1980s.

These were brilliant influences in their time; Madison still is. But I wanted to point you to books that might help you go beyond the large cookbooks like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, even though such general cookbooks are awfully useful,

So what on earth is left?

I decided to write about the cookbooks that I think are helping cooks broaden their scope, the ones that permit people interested in food to cook in their own homes cuisines that were inaccessible or even unknown.

This, I confess, is a very arbitrary choice for me to have made but fortunately, Bread Furst has a lot of shelf space and if Politics and Prose indulges us, we’ll make room for other little libraries later.

Now, however, I am going to include in our modest pre-Christmas library the books that over the past three decades have introduced me to a greater range of world cuisine to have in my home than I ever imagined before would be possible to have in my home.

First Mediterranean cookbooks:

There are two queens of the Mediterranean. One is Joyce Goldstein who opened Square One Café in 1984, America’s first avowedly Mediterranean restaurant. She has written 26 cookbooks all of them still in publication.  My favorites are Back to Square One, published in 1992, and Cucina Ebraica.

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As for Paula Wolfert, I have always thought of her as more anthropologist than cookbook author although her recipes are wonderful. Her Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (now, in a new edition, called The Foods of Morocco) was published in 1973 when virtually no one in America knew about this classic cuisine.   Her Slow Mediterranean Cooking and Cooking of Southwest France (She claims to have discovered Jean Louis Palladin) are nearly as wonderful.

The greatest cookbook of Middle Eastern food, I think, is Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food the first edition of which appeared in 1972. Few Americans then knew about the richness of food in Greece, Egypt and Turkey but you won’t say that after looking at this book.

I admire a lot the wonderful cookbooks of Aglaia Kremetz who presented her latest (and I think best) book in a visit to Washington just last month, Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts. And Washington’s own Najmieh Batmanglij wrote a marvelous cookbook of Persian Food, a cuisine still little known in the US, called Food of Life, Ancient and Modern Iranian Cooking.

            I don’t want to neglect the work of food giants like Marcella Hazan and Joan Nathan (a neighbor of Bread Furst), both of whom, have written abudently, Hazan about Italy, Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, and Joan about Israel and Jewish food of the diaspora Jewish Cooking in America and Quiches, Kugels and Couscous, the Jewish cooking of France .

But the world of Mediterranean cooking and cookbooks generally has been influenced greatly in the past few years by Yotum Ottolanghi, an Israel who lives in London, writes for the Guardian, and operates food shops in London that are quite wonderful. His cooking is boldly flavored and oriented toward vegetables and very Mediterranean.   His cookbooks will be on our shelves especially the newest, Plenty More.

I am certainly biased toward the Mediteranean (after all, bread was invented there 6,000 years ago or so). And Mediterranean food is understood and easily embraced by Americans. But one of the wonderful developments of the past 25 years is how open-minded and eager America has become about other foods. It’s now possible in many places, certainly, around Washington to find ingredients for many of the cuisines of the world.

And so I add to our shelves, other favorite cookbooks of other cuisines:

From Asian cultures:

 Indian Cooking by cooking teacher and noted actress, Madhur Jaffrey.

Classic Indian Cooking by Julia Sahni, a chef and brilliant recipe-writer.

Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, a really beautiful bookof classic Chinese recipes.

Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen, a large collection of recipes and a lot of information about the fundamentals of this now-familiar cuisine.

Land of Plenty by Fuchsai Dunlop, a brilliant exploration of Sichuan cooking

Cradle of Flavor by James Oseland, great recipes from Indonesia and Malaysia.

 

From Latin cultures (about which my knowledge is pretty thin):

Authentic Mexican by Rick and Deann Bayless, restaurateurs, chefs, teachers.

Gran Cocina Latina Maricele Presilla, a Cuban-born historian, entrepreneur and chef.

And that leaves cooking in the U.S. and here is where I get lost. There are so many wonderful books of American cooking many of them from very good restaurants. I could choose any number of them. Although I am sure I will rue this, I have limited myself just now to a few:

Ad Hoc at Home, the Thomas Keller book that anyone can cook from.

Sunday Suppers at Lucques, written by the Los Angeles chef, Suzanne Goin.

Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, by Frank Stitt, the Birmingham chef, an exploration of Carolina low country cooking.

Heritage by Sean Brock, chef-owner of Husk, the extra-ordinary Charleston restaurant.

Finally, could I create a bookshelf at Bread Furst without books about breads and sweets? Right now my favorite bread books are:

Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson, my copain in San Francisco.

Flour Water Salt by Ken Forbish, a particularly sensible didactic bread book.

And appropriately at the end of the list I offer these dessert books from an opulent library of wonderful dessert books.

Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz, now best known for his blog about Paris food.

Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax, a 2001 book that that influenced me a lot and holds up very well.

Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts by Alice Medrich, author of several other dessert books equally wonderful.

Baking from My Home to Yours, yet another fantastic interpretion of French desserts by Dori Greenspan whose earlier book, Around My French Table, is one of my favorites.

All these books will be available at Bread Furst thanks to Politics and Prose (where obviously they are also available).

Mark Kuller

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Mark Kuller died today. We knew he would but what a loss.  Mark was the creator/owner of Proof, Estadio, and Doi Moi, three wonderful Washington restaurants.

He was a giant of a man, six feet six. When he hugged me my head met his chest. But height was not the only way in which he was big.

He was a man of prodigious appetites – wine, food, hospitality, and people. His laugh was big. So was his confidence. So was his mind.

It seems so ironic, cruel, that a man who loved life so much should die at 62, particularly as his marriage was only four years old and his new son less than a year.

Mark began coming to The BreadLine, my restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, just after it opened in 1997. With enthusiasm and joy he adopted The BreadLine and came for lunch three times a week, often even more than that.

I knew him as a bon vivant, a man who loved women and cars with a loud laugh and a lot of friends. That was all I then knew.

Mark decided to open a restaurant – a wine restaurant, natural for an entrepreneurial man, a risk-taker who loved food so much and had a 6,000 bottle wine collection. He thought he could continue law practice and be a restaurateur on the side, but he told me as he plunged into the detail of opening Proof that he couldn’t do both – and the restaurant was so much fun.

Proof was a great success and in 2005, he and I started talking about jointly opening a breakfast restaurant and bakery and went to look at sites where that might work. But I was uncertain and Mark had other passions. He moved on to open Estadio, his Spanish restaurant on 14th Street. Then he then took space in a building just being constructed and began thinking about a restaurant with Southeast Asian food.

It was there in late August last year, during the trials, the “friends and family” dinners that precede a restaurant opening, that Mark sat down at my table and said, “I’ve just been diagnosed with stage four liver and pancreatic cancer.”

He became a cancer expert over the next weeks, guiding his treatment and his hopes. This most optimistic of men was clear and hardheaded about what would happen. Determined to leave all in good order, he made arrangement for his business and other matters.

At the same time, as optimism kept creeping back, he set goals: At first they were ones for a few years: I want to stay alive so that my children remember me. They then became more short-term: I want to stay alive until the babies are born. I want to stay alive for (older son) Max’s wedding.

Mark was alive when the babies were born. But finally he had exhausted all the treatments available. It is really sad that he won’t be there for Max’s wedding. It is terribly sad that so joyous a man lost – inevitably – to the “emperor of all maladies.”

Our First Clear Failure

My son, Francois, the historian (whose new book, When the United States Spoke French is available at Politics and Prose bookstore – shameless son-promotion – says, “It was a noble attempt but, like Scottish independence, defeat must be conceded.”

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I wanted particularly to hear his view as it was his idea to put breakfast out on the sidewalk to make it really, really convenient. I thought it was a great idea. We have called it Break Furst.

We went at it for three weeks and our sales over the three weeks have not increased.

Neighbors steam by Bread Furst from 7:30 to 9:30, hundreds of people all walking past our store. (The sidewalk on the other side of the street is closed for a construction.) Of those hundreds perhaps 50 pause to look and 26 stop to buy. That’s 26 customer in two and a half hours.

We thought you would like it. Our freshly baked foods put into cellophane sleeves. Everything priced to the dollar. Cash only, no credit card delays. Coffee for those who wanted it. We had it all. Even the D.C. government added its encouragement.

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If the sales had been increasing even a little over the three weeks, I would continue this effort. But they haven’t been increasing. They have stayed the same, about $90 a day. I don’t know why.

I don’t know why our neighbors didn’t stop. Perhaps you don’t want to buy near you home and carry downtown.

I thought you might decide to carry our baked goods on the Metro because, frankly, they are better than what is available downtown. I thought you’d pick up a breakfast treat and have it when you arrive at your office (as most of you can get coffee in your offices).

But you don’t want to do that. Perhaps you all eat breakfast at home. Perhaps you don’t eat it at all.

Francois says, “I blame the carpets in the metro, which I assume are the reason for the no-eating policy. What kind of self-respecting public transportation service installs carpets anyway?”

Whatever the reason I concede defeat.

No more Break Furst.