Meet Chad Robertson, San Francisco’s very own baker extraordinaire.
Words by ABBY AINSWORTH
Photography by ABBY AINSWORTH
Some would say Chad Robertson is simply obsessed. As owner and baker of
Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, he is meticulous about finding the perfect
ratios between water to flour, and time to temperature. He pours ingredients
into measuring cups with the precise eye of a chemist; it always has to be
perfect. If it weren’t for his fixation on his product, which borders on
fetishization, it would not be the best.
It is five in the afternoon. The smell of freshly baked bread lingers in the air. There is a line that spans blocks outside 600 Guerrero Street. Customers contentedly wait to buy a taste of Chad’s precision. The loaf itself is a generous size, replicating the dimensions of a flattened rugby ball. It is a sumptuous deep brown with a glossy sheen. There are long linear cracks along the top, which are created from the delicate scores Chad makes before the dough goes into the oven. Once tarred, the bread rips apart with ease and you are left feasting your eyes on a beautifully elastic and sponge-like dough. The taste? Heavenly addictive. Its well-developed yeast/wheat flavour is where you can understand the craftsmanship behind the product.
When Robertson and his wife Elisabeth opened Tartine Bakery and Cafe in 2002, they didn’t anticipate how popular it would become. All they knew was that they wanted to put out a top-notch product. Both had formal training at The Culinary Institute of America in New York City. After school, Chad had the opportunity to apprentice for Richard Bourdon, the very well known baker and owner of Berkshire Mountain Bakery. Chad says it was during this time that his love for baking was ignited. In his book Tartine Bread, Robertson says that despite the long hours, he would rather work a twelve-hour shift baking than at a busy restaurant.
Now with two cookbooks, praise from The New York Times and Food & Wine, and a James Beard Award, the couple are still as passionate about their product as ever—always expanding their knowledge of bread to make sure it’s the best it can be. Chad is constantly traveling the globe to absorb knowledge from top bakers. Even after all these years, baking still remains a solitary passion for Chad. “Making bread has become a mostly silent meditation for me and I like it that way,” he says.
ACQ: Can you tell me when your love for baking began? When did it turn into your own business?
CHAD: I didn’t really have any plans to become a baker when I visited Richard Bourdon’s bakery. There were a lot of factors that influenced my rather quick decision to shift my focus from cooking to learning to make bread. For starters, I was young and impressionable, and Bourdon was unlike anyone I had ever met. He was, and still is, a bread-making savant. His approach to baking and fermentation in general is very intuitive and elemental.
After working with Richard for a couple of years, I went to France to work for the bakers that had inspired him many years before. The bakers there used natural leaven and specialized in stone-milled organic grains. When we returned to the US, there were very few bakers working in the traditional ways that I wanted to, so we decided right away to start our own place. Point Reyes California is a tiny town with only a few hundred permanent residents, so we had to take our bread to markets in nearby larger cities to sell enough to make a living.
The Berkeley Farmers Market was a great place for us to take our bread and pastries. The city had long supported organic artisan food producers; restaurants such as Chez Panisse have been supporting family farmers and producers for almost 40 years.
ACQ: Even though you are obviously driven and very fastidious, you seem to be pretty laid back. You mention in Tartine Bread that you love to surf and find baking relaxing. Do you think San Francisco complements your nature, and do you think the location has added to the success of the restaurant?
CHAD: San Francisco is an amazing city. The produce we use from our local farmers is exceptional; it informs and inspires what we make at the bakery. The size and situation of San Francisco definitely informs my working lifestyle, with its ocean beach where I surf and run for three miles along the western edge of the city. Compared to New York City for example, San
Francisco—with its mountains, ocean, and redwood forests nearby—is quite a small city; yet, we have one of the most diverse food cultures in the country.
ACQ: You have been written up in Elle Magazine, and nominated for a James Beard Award in 2006 and 2007 for Outstanding Pastry Chef and Baker. The New York Times was here [at Tartine Bakery and Cafe] a day before me, and everyone advocates Tartine as a must-see dining experience in San Francisco. Did you ever expect to receive this success and such wide reception?
CHAD: No, I didn’t expect the success we have had. For the hard and dedicated work of our entire staff over the years, it’s a welcome, hard-earned, and much-appreciated success. And every day we strive to maintain it.
ACQ: Who do you look to for inspiration? You said you went to Paris recently. What were you doing there?
CHAD: I mostly look to artisans and artists outside of the baking world to inspire indirectly what I am doing. Also, to chefs who are making interesting food. I went to Paris and Brittany recently to work with two bakers. Both of them were making very different bread from each other, and from what I do at Tartine. While I didn’t come home wanting to replicate any of the breads I worked with in France, I was very inspired by the new friends I had made and the effect that a week in Paris has on the soul.
Most recently, I traveled to Copenhagen and Hungary to work with bakers making breads very different from those in France. Again, the friends I made and the two cities gave the inspiration I brought back with me. In Copenhagen, I enjoyed one of the best meals of my life at a restaurant called Relae—a perfect neighborhood restaurant serving exceptional and interesting food and wine. It is incredibly inspiring.
ACQ: When you travel to Europe and come back to America, do you notice a big difference in the techniques? Do you think North America is behind in techniques as compared with France or in Europe in general?
CHAD: There is not much difference between the skill-level of techniques from the good bakeries in the US compared with the same in France. Some of the techniques are necessarily different though, due to the different qualities of the flour. I couldn’t generalize too much here. There are bakers taking a lot of shortcuts and making bad bread in both places. Just as there are dedicated artisans making great bread in both.
ACQ: What is it about France or Paris specifically that differentiates their baking skills? Are we trying to catch up to their standards or is this a misconception?
CHAD: I don’t really think about catching up with Paris. It’s not easy to even find a bakery that makes croissants from scratch in Paris. The baker I worked with there informed me that over 80% of bakeries in Paris use pre-made frozen dough. Christophe Vasseur of Du Pain et Des Idees is making excellent and distinctive breads and pastries using organic stone-ground flour. He is one of the best in France and was named best bakery in Paris a couple of years ago. He strives not only to achieve the highest quality, but also to offer something different from his peers.
I’ve also found that it’s much easier to find good, distinctive bread in the countryside in France than in Paris. Regarding French bakers borrowing from us, this would be unlikely not because we don’t have the innovation they might like to adopt; rather, because the French are very set in their ways with centuries of tradition informing their techniques.
Some of the ways that I work with bread in San Francisco would be considered impossible in France only because the method is completely outside of the French tradition. And in general, French bakers have little to no interest in learning new techniques outside of their own tradition.
ACQ: I have read that your baking philosophy is to keep things simple. Do you think this is why people like Tartine bread so much? Is it because you have gone back to the basics?
CHAD: We are just obsessively dedicated to sweating the details every day on the quality and freshness of the food we make. That’s the simple thing.
ACQ: You explain in your book about using a natural leavening agent instead of the commercial straight-yeast version. Can you explain what the difference is between the two? Why is one better than the other?
CHAD: There is nothing wrong with using commercial yeast; in fact, it’s quite convenient. But the maximum flavor that can be developed through fermentation using commercial yeast is considerably less than what can be achieved using a natural leaven. So, one is not better than the other. But if you are looking to develop maximum flavor, natural leaven is the way to go. We use a blend of locally milled organic wheat flours. The flours are stone-ground weekly for us. The freshness and type of milling gives us the foundation of flavours that we build on using multiple long fermentation stages.
ACQ: I know you are constantly questioned for using a gas oven rather than a wood fire. Do you think people place more importance on wood fire ovens for baking as opposed to gas?
CHAD: It’s a total misconception. No matter how much I try to clear it up, it will never go away. Working with wood is a great pleasure and I enjoyed it for many years. But unless you are grilling directly over a wood fire with food coming in contact with smoke, you are not infusing the food with the flavor of the fire.
ACQ: What do you want people to get out of the experience of eating Tartine bread?
CHAD: A new flavor. I want our bread to taste distinct from other breads out there so that we are adding to the diversity of our bread culture. And ideally, a singularly delicious experience that creates a lasting memory.
ACQ: Do you think that bread has become too commercial and that the art of baking fresh loaves is somewhat lost?
CHAD: True artisan bread is becoming more varied and available across the country. At the same time, artisan ‘style’ bread is becoming more commercial. In my experience, there are a lot of people making great bread these days at home.
ACQ: What makes the perfect loaf of bread in your eyes?
CHAD: There are a few different perfect loaves for me: some made of wheat, rye, spelt, or kamut (or combinations of these grains). They all have a strong contrast between the crust and crumb. The crumb must be exceptionally flavorful and moist; the character formed through a lengthy fermentation—subtle acid balanced by a sweet lactic nature. The flavour of freshly stone ground flour must be there. This is difficult to describe but it is sublime. I prefer the crust to be burnished with the complex flavours and colours of caramelization, to be firm but with a slight cracking give.
ACQ: Do you have any tips for someone who might be hesitant to make their own bread?
CHAD: It’s much easier than you think. Just start the process and you’ll see.