Thursday, October 2, 2008

Artisan Foods Memo: Meet the Breadmakers' Guru; Michel Suas and the Quality Artisan Bread Movement in America

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo Editor's Note: After decades of which the definition of "good bread" in the United States meant puffy white sandwich slices and doughy french-style loaves (with a few geographical exceptions), today one can buy top-quality artisan-produced breads in America that rival those produced anywhere in the world. Yes, even France.

Many of the country's supermarkets (even the big chains), natural foods stores and specialty shops sell top-quality breads in their stores, as well as baking top-flight breads of numerous varieties right in the stores using wood burning hearth ovens.

In fact, breads such as San Francisco-made ACME brand, along with numerous others, are today considered among the finest examples of artisan-produced breads in the world.

And it's not just on the left and right coasts in the U.S. where top-quality artisan breads are available. You can find them at supermarkets, natural foods stores, specialty markets and bakery's throughout the country -- from the Midwest and South to the Canadian border states.

Michel Suas (pictured at the top), who's called the breadmakers' guru, is arguably the man most responsible for helping to create a quality artisan bread culture -- and industry -- in the U.S.

In the article below, San Francisco Chronicle food writer Amanda Gold profiles the breadmakers' guru, who makes his home in the San Francisco Bay Area (as well as operates his bread baking school there) but travels throughout the U.S. and the world spreading his quality bread gospel.

Guest Memo:
The breadmakers' guru
Amanda Gold, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

When Tartine owner Chad Robertson opened his first bakery in Point Reyes Station more than a decade ago, he couldn't figure out how to get any sleep.

Baking bread 18 hours a day was proving untenable, and he needed help - stat.

He could have thrown in the towel; he might have looked for an extra hand or two.

Instead, he called Michel Suas.

Known within the industry as the guru of artisan bread, Suas has made a career out of responding to similar quandaries. The native Frenchman has worked with all the big names in the bread world. From local outfits like Acme, Grace Baking and Semifreddi's to La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles and Balthazar in New York, Suas has done everything from developing formulas for the perfect loaf to streamlining baking processes to designing bakeries worldwide.

In a little more than a decade, he's founded the San Francisco Baking Institute and equipment importing company TMB Baking, opened Thorough Bread (a retail bakery) and authored an impressive textbook on baking and pastry.

Suas is living proof that when it comes to dough, he's the go-to guy.

"He's the best in the business," says Robertson matter-of-factly. "You can ask him anything and he knows exactly what to do."

For Robertson's sleeping dilemma, that meant helping him figure out a way to slow down the bread rising so it could happen overnight. That way, he could catch some Z's while the dough worked its magic.

"I knew what needed to happen," says Robertson, "but I was 22 and I'd never done it before. Michel worked with me to figure it out."

Suas' expertise draws from a 40-plus year career that began in Brittany, France, when he was just 14.

At that time, kids would either stay on the same track in school, he explains, or, "If you were goofing off, they'd say, 'OK, we've had enough of you,' and they'd make you get a job."

Given his gentle, reserved nature today, it seems almost unfathomable that Suas would have fallen into the latter category, but he did, so he began an apprentice program in the kitchen.

The apprentice

"I started on my 14th birthday," he recalls with a grin, "and they made me peel potatoes and clean mussels all day, with my tender little hands."

It was a rough start, but he lasted in the program for the three required years, before moving his focus to pastry. Suas spent one year in training, received his diploma and moved around to build up his resume. With each new experience, his passion became clearer. It wasn't simply that he was drawn to the bread and sweets - that much was true. But a great deal of his influence also had to do with lifestyle choices and personalities.

Suas began working with a pastry chef named Hingou√ęt - they only knew last names at the time, he says - who was educated both in and outside of the kitchen. "When the other chefs were all about chasing girls and fast cars, he talked about love, music and the arts. He had family values."

After that, he says, "I never stopped pastry."

Sitting across the table from the wiry, now 54-year-old man at the South San Francisco offices of the baking institute, it's hard to imagine that he would have chosen any other path. He gently brushes a lock of floppy gray hair from his forehead, and talks about his wife, Evelyne, who has been with him every step as his business has grown and is a co-owner of the San Francisco Baking Institute and TMB Baking. Their 12-year-old daughter, Julie Marie, conceived the name Thorough Bread for his retail bakery and designed the logo. Keeping his family close and involved is clearly a priority.

But focusing on life outside the bakery wasn't the only positive influence that Hingou√ęt had on Suas. Under his tutelage, the 21-year-old Suas landed a job as head pastry chef at Barrier restaurant in Tours, France. The fact that it had earned three Michelin stars was just the cherry on top - the real draw was that at the time, it was the only three-star restaurant baking its own bread on site. But after three years of adding to his bread-baking repertoire, he was ready to move on.

"I was curious and I had nothing to lose," he says, "so I took my backpack and came to the United States. I didn't speak a word of English." Landing first in New York on his way to Chicago, it didn't take Suas long to find a job - word spread that there was a guy from France in town, and he was a good baker and pastry chef.

After a stint in the Windy City and a trip back to France to take care of his ailing mother, Suas and his then-girlfriend, Evelyne, returned to the United States for good.

Cross-country odyssey

The two piled into a VW van and drove all over North America, from Key West and Texas up to Canada, sightseeing and eating on a budget.

"We got lucky," he says. "We ran out of money in San Francisco."

Suas landed here in 1987, when the Bay Area was smack in the middle of an artisan bread revolution.

One afternoon, he popped into the office of Earl Lind, who, at the time, was the go-to equipment guy for bakers. Sitting across the desk from Lind was Steve Sullivan, who had opened a little bakery in Berkeley called Acme, and was looking to expand.

That began a 20-year acquaintance that would ultimately benefit them both.

"I had gone to a couple of these trade shows in Europe," says Sullivan, "and had seen a certain kind of mixer - all of the old bakeries there had it." Sullivan says that even though he didn't know much about it, he had already decided that his bakery should have this mixer. But he didn't know how to get it.

"I couldn't believe it when Michel walked in. He knew exactly what I was talking about."

Sullivan became Suas' first client, and the word spread from there.

Suas primarily helped Sullivan with equipment and planning, but Sullivan's word-of-mouth recommendations were priceless.

Nancy Silverton at Los Angeles' La Brea Bakery was Suas' second client, and others followed.

In the late '80s and early '90s, says Suas, "everything was being shaken up, and I was in the middle of that chaos. I was here at a time when people were looking for support and direction, and all I did was give my honest advice."

That advice went to bakers at Metropolis, Grace Baking, Boudin, Ecce Panis in New York, and Essential Baking Co. and Grand Central Bakery in Seattle, plus chefs like Thomas Keller - before opening Bouchon Bakery - to name a few.

"Almost anybody who has set up a bakery in the last 15 years in the United States has probably dealt with Michel," says Sullivan.

But for Suas, it was an education as well.

Intro to sourdough

"I was so amazed with what was going on here," he says of the artisan movement. "It was a thrill to be surrounded by so many people with that much talent." In fact, Suas explains, he never wanted to be that guy who came from France and said, "Here's how to make a baguette."

"When I came, sourdough was a discovery," he says. "At first I thought, 'Wow, that's a strange flavor,' but when you learn how it's done, you start to appreciate it."

In addition, the way bread was processed and handled was different. Liquid starters were not something that had been used in Europe. And bread with cheese or olives? That was completely new.

"I don't take credit for what was being developed," says Suas. "I just helped stabilize those formulas." The truth is, he says, as long as you have the basics, you can adapt and work with anything.

His helpful, honest advice and passion for the bread movement led enough people to his door, but what he really wanted was to start a baking school. In 1996, that's exactly what he did, opening the San Francisco Baking Institute.

"I was traveling a lot at the time, and one thing I realized was that a lot of young people were being left out. Small bakeries couldn't afford a consultant, and I couldn't be everywhere at once."

At the school, students come either for five-day seminars, or the 18-week professional training program (see sidebar, this page), and include everyone from serious bakers who have never had proper training to those who want to open their own bakery. Some even come as a gift to themselves on a vacation from another line of work - baking enthusiasts who consider it a hobby.

Suas is quick to assure that artisan bread can and should be baked in the home oven, and to that end, he has instructors give tips on how to do so.

To those heading into the professional arena, both Suas and the baking institute remain a resource long after students leave the school.

Though he doesn't have a hands-on role with the students, Suas keeps plenty busy. These days, he starts every morning with a trip to Thorough Bread, his retail spot on Church Street in San Francisco. He personally brings in the baked goods from the school, admitting that it forces him to keep an eye on things.

Bakers' resource

In addition, he has spent the last four years assembling a new textbook ("Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach," Delmar Cengage Learning, 2008) that gives functional and technical advice on all aspects of baking and pastry. The book weighs more than a 5-pound bag of flour, but is surprisingly approachable. He hopes that it will become the standard instructional book.

It's fitting. At the end of the day, Suas is, first and foremost, a teacher. If he can help someone streamline the process to go from 50 to 5,000 baguettes a day, if he can equip a bakery to run efficiently or - perhaps most importantly - help a fledgling baker figure out how to get some sleep, he knows he's succeeded.

Note: Click here for some artisan bread recipes and other resources from the breadmakers' guru Michel Suas. [Photo credit: Craig Lee: San Francisco Chronicle.]

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