Cassandra Landry | 3.20.2015 | Issue #13
After two minutes in the white-tiled interior of San Francisco’s newest kid on the playground, Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, the phone has rung three times.
Each electric bleat signals yet another inquiry about cruffins—the viennoiserie darling of Instagram that sells out almost instantly, every day—and by the third call, it seems unlikely that anyone ever calls about anything else. Are there any left, how’s the line; straight to the point, before hanging up. It’s 10:30 am on a Wednesday, and today’s blitz is long over.
The patisserie of the modern era feels driven by this kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hysteria, at least in San Francisco, where lines befitting a cronut are de rigueur. Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt’s Tartine still maintains its customary queue snaking around the block pretty much daily, 13 years after opening. You wait, because that’s what you do. Why? Because their bread is gangbusters, yes, but also because pastry—and viennoiserie—in this town is destinational. Quality it has in spades, but rather than blanketing the whole city like croissant flakes on a black wool jacket, it resides in very specific corners, emitting a magnetic pulse that pulls crowds in. When you find it, you hang on.
The interesting thing would be to map out that pulse, to measure its strength and components. What are the defining characteristics of a modern hit? The answer, in true West Coast-ian form, is exacting technique coupled with a chilled out approach—two things that appear very much at odds with one another, making their intersection all the more enticing. We all love the idea of humility in high art, which leaves no room for snobbery in today’s hedonistic landscape. Everyone wants a piece, and as long as they wake up early enough, they can have one.
Back in the kitchen of Mr. Holmes (or Holmes Sweet Holmes, as the entryway tiles on the floor spell out), towering speed racks are completely empty; a few orphaned crumbs are all that remain on each tray. The staff? Still cranking like they’re under fire. Croissant dough is portioned off into long triangles, a huge tub of snickerdoodle dough is lugged out of a lowboy, and everyone is fucking booking. “I think people like our story,” says Chris Reinhardt, the lanky director of retail and wholesale operations, as he climbs the narrow stairs to the office, two at a time. “We kind of came out of nowhere.”
The story, well-known to those who have feverishly combed through social media channels for info on the wunderkind spot, is thus: Ry Stephen, an Australian baker fresh off a stint in Paris, met entrepreneur Aaron Caddel while working at his cafe. Stephen was looking for wholesale leads. Caddel saw an opportunity to join forces, and the two of them have funded this venture out of their own pockets. Stephen hasn’t had a day off in eight months, which makes it hard to tell whether his trance-like state in the kitchen is exhaustion or a meditative calm. The cruffin was never intended to be the star of the operation, and even with its popularity, it doesn’t upstage the donut, the choux bombs, the amelie amann, or even the cookies. The power it lends the operation is undeniable, though: do consumers need a delicious showboat to anchor their fandom?
“It does seem like you have to have a signature item,” Reinhardt admits. “Having a photo of a cruffin on Instagram has become this status symbol.” He’s right: the people who have just snatched up the last goods of the day are grinning and clutching their shiny boxes like they’ve won the lottery. That’s all due in large part to Aron Tzimas, the marketing tour de force who masterminded the uber-popular “I got baked in San Francisco” neon pink sign in the shop, the gold-embossed lettering and peace signs on the boxes, and the cheeky, food-pornerific crème caramel shots. Unsurprisingly, we eat that shit up. “These teenagers came in the other day when we were totally sold out,” Reinhardt says, who doesn’t appear bothered by the constant snapping of photos downstairs. “They asked if they could take a quick picture of the sign anyway, and I told them it was fine. 20 minutes later, I go back out, and they’re still trying out all these different poses in front of it.”
None of this is an accident. “[Aron] knew what he was doing,” he adds, a little sagely. “People eat with their eyes.”
The trick with having a showy signature item—like the cruffin, or indeed, the cronut—is not being defined by it. Success is good, but being boxed in is a nightmare. For Stephen, there haven’t been alarm bells quite yet.
“It’s like a singer putting out a single, but they have this whole body of work that needs to be seen too. At the moment, I’m just trying to keep producing,” he says, perched outside on a stool crafted from milk crates. Delivery trucks of all assignations trundle on up the hill, the screech of brakes and rattling sheet metal rising up around him. He seems to be enjoying the sunshine. “Everything is a wave. You’re constantly trying to forecast what’s coming.”
Especially when you can’t. The shop is the recent victim of a bizarre break-in, where the registers were bypassed for the real cash cow: binders full of recipes. The national media picked it up (it appeared in The New York Times) and even now, some random dude walks by and barks to someone within about it. “At least you’re gettin’ press!” he hollers. Stephen doesn’t even blink. His products have a loyal enough fanbase that scrappy neighborhood-watch style cruffin cops have popped up, keeping an eye out for counterfeits, but he seems to have moved on already. “It’s not a product you can just pump out,” he says. “We’re not magicians, you know? We’re not pulling rabbits out of our fucking hats. It’s a product that takes time.” The burglars don’t have him, which is the whole point, really. The recipes themselves are a very small component of their success.
“Modern patisserie really depends on who you are,” he says. “For some people, their interpretation is wacky flavors and combinations, where nothing makes sense, but people love it. But what it’s going to come down to is solid techniques, which, nine times out of 10 are traditional. No one has reinvented how to make puff pastry. Then it’s using the best ingredients that are available, and putting your personal fingerprint on it.”
Stephen’s gastronomic fingerprint, like most creatives in the kitchen, is primarily forged from childhood experiences and travel. “The most powerful thing to tap into is someone’s memory. Especially when it comes to sweet things, just because they evoke so much emotion,” he says. “I always ask everyone in the kitchen what sweets they ate growing up. What would evoke a smile if you saw it?” For most, a slick, composed dessert, towering with spun sugar and glazed baubles is not it. Those confections are a feat of another kind, one Stephen has experience with but doesn’t wish to replicate. Perhaps there once was a time and place for it, but it’s increasingly less welcome in the world of the modern pâtissier. “People are doing away with the frills and the garnishes. They’re not trying to cook a lemon ten different ways and put it on a tart,” he says. “People are trying to present something that’s honest and imaginative, while staying true to whatever the product is.”
Even Paris, bastion of stubborn traditionalists, has softened with age.
“There are definitely modern patisseries in Paris that are pushing the envelope too. It’s just a harder place to do it, because people want to stay true to tradition,” he adds. “Here, you have that freedom to do whatever you want and people are willing to give it a try.”
The birds-eye view of the now-empty display case, shown via video feed in a corner of the office, is proof. “People are willing to wait 30 or 40 minutes even on the weekdays,” Reinhardt says, squinting at his phone. In a few moments, he’ll find out CNN wants to come by and film a segment. “It’s kind of amazing.”
When a young Greg Mindel showed up to his first overnight gig at a Ritz-Carlton, the kitchen was empty except for a single sheet of paper.
PASTRY BY FIRE, it read, WELCOME TO OVERNIGHT. The usual baker had also left a list of things Mindel would attempt to accomplish before the sun came up. He got his tail kicked, but he stayed. For the love of the game, and all that.
“It’s just one of those things,” he says. “It’s a really tactile experience, and it’s a very romantic product. It’s timeless, and it’s something that everyone can take a shot at.”
These days, he runs his own shop, Neighbor Bakehouse, in the wide-open spaces of the Dogpatch. An industry veteran since the age of 14 and an alum of the San Francisco Baking Institute, he too followed the wholesale-pop-up-brick and mortar roadmap, a standard progression for any baker looking to hit the main stage. It’s not for the faint of heart. “Once I had my routine down, I’d pick the slowest morning of my week and do the pop-up. It was good exposure, because I was doing all this wholesale, but no one knew me," he explains. "I didn’t get to see people eat the food! I felt so disconnected from it. When you see someone bite into something and smile, or look at it like, what the hell did I just put in my mouth? That’s a very real moment. I wanted to see that.”
Breaking into one of these croissants is revelatory not just for its flavor—buttery in just the way you hope it will be, without the greasiness—but in the invisibility of the technique. It's so on point, you forget to think about it, skipping right over the 'how is this croissant, really' moment (which inevitably leads to disappointment) and landing squarely in bliss territory. The outer layers crack with the same spine-tingling pleasure of tapping a crème brûlée crust ("dope shatter," as one fan described it). The secret, Mindel says, is simplifying your thought process.
“I don’t want some hyper-cerebral experience where I’m the only one who can see all the variables," he says. "I try to approach it in a way where I can have a conversation with my bakers, from the most experienced to the least.”
Just as Mr. Holmes has chosen to close out its wholesale program in light of the overwhelming demands of retail, Mindel has had to make sacrifices for quality. “Maybe demand dilutes things inevitably. How do you serve such a large population a very refined thing?” he wonders. For awhile there, he was even putting out breads alongside his viennoiserie. He eventually had to stop, because his bandwidth was worn to shreds. “I had to stop making the traditional croissants for my wholesale because I don’t have ten of me to spin out quality that I’m satisfied with. I can only make 500 of these a day right now.”
And while San Francisco might appear to be teeming with talent, the rise of housing costs here has left few people in the city limits who can put out the level of product he’s looking for. When he does find them, though, they’re of a noticeably different caliber than their counterparts of ten or twenty years ago. “The joke has always been, Oh that dull knife? That belongs to pastry. Now you have pastry people with a really profound respect for those kind of skills.”
For Mindel, timeless as it may be, the patisserie of this era is centered around outlook. You have to be curious about what others are doing, both “across the table from you and on the other side of the globe,” and willing to question what you’ve been taught. He praises access, and shuns exclusivity. “People want to preserve their food traditions. I understand that. There’s a social, anthropological mentality that people have when it comes to food, and a sense of pride,” he says. “But now there’s more sharing, and that’s why you see greater progress. I’ve always been inspired by people who are extremely generous with their ideas.
“You know, here’s the recipe, go off and make good food! Isn’t that whole point? I don’t want to think I’m doing this just for my own shallow pursuit,” he adds. It’s a perspective echoed by the handfuls of R&D food labs flung across the world. The sharing economy has come to the food industry, which makes the cutthroat rivalries of old seem petty by comparison.
“The competitive thing does us all a disservice. Maybe I’m just getting a little bit older or something, but screw that,” he says. “Food is a collective experience, no matter how you look at it.
“But I don’t know, man,” he adds, heaving a little sigh into the phone. “I’ve been awake for like, 36 hours.”
If there’s one place everyone in the city—especially industry folks—glorifies above all others, it’s b.patisserie.
Everybody loves it, mostly because it’s co-owners, Belinda Leong and Michel Suas are so damn pleasant and talented you’d be an idiot to do otherwise. And god, that kouign-amann. Unf.
Suas, a native of Brittany, also happens to be the founder of the aforementioned San Francisco Baking Institute, the training ground for so many of the area’s elite workers of pastry and bread. His profound understanding of the soul of this craft, combined with Leong’s years sweating it out in fine dining kitchens (Gary Danko, Manresa) has ushered a veritable utopia into existence.
“What was missing in San Francisco was an elegant place that wasn’t a fancy three-star restaurant, where you could go in the middle of the day,” Suas says. The fact that they are even remotely successful (read: wildly successful) is proof that the public speaks this language of delicate macarons and gougères, he points out, now more than ever. “Even five years ago, a bakery was a place to get a birthday cake or bread or a pie, but it wasn’t a place you went to entertain yourself. What we call a pastry shop is now closer to what we call a salon de thé in France. You don’t go there to buy a birthday cake. You go there to really treat yourself during the day.”
The very idea of setting aside time in the day to treat oneself is so distinctly French that it’s easy to overlook the ways we’ve already embraced it and made it our own. It turns out a little self-indulgence is fucking awesome, and it doesn’t hurt that we’ve stopped hiding money in our mattresses. “Food is a celebration. It feeds your body, but it feeds your mind too,” he says, so emphatically that it doesn’t even come off the least bit cheesy. “You have to be happy when you consume food.” Yes! You do!
Even though Suas has been in the Bay Area since 1996, his approval feels like some kind of hard-won blessing from the nation who has claimed these products as its legacy.
“To be honest, I think San Francisco is even ahead of New York, quality-wise,” he says, after pausing for a moment. “The evolution of what’s happening in pastry now is you’re getting a pastry chefs from high-end restaurants getting into it. Their approach is totally different than the old-school baker. He did bread, pies, and so on, but the expectation of what he was able to do was very limiting. The pastry chef from the restaurant has been exposed to a higher standard.”
One such pastry chef eyeing the line between fine dining and new-school patisserie is Kevin Gravito, who currently heads up the pastry department at Michelin-starred Sons & Daughters, an 11-table tasting menu joint with an in-house bread program. His mornings are spent prepping; his evenings are devoted to Clotilde Bakeshop, the manifestation of a long-held dream. Named for both his grandmother and his mother, Clotilde is Gravito’s chance to emerge from the scrim of the restaurant world, and introduce himself as a prolific new voice of patisserie in the city.
He caught the initial bug while working at a small bakery in Newburyport, a tiny coastal town north of Boston. However idyllic the setting, he worried that with the owner as his only mentor, he would fall behind. So, when fate came calling with an opportunity at Boston’s fine dining crown jewel, Barbara Lynch’s No. 9 Park, he grabbed on. “I wasn’t learning as much as I really wanted to. I had no idea what that place was at the time, so I wound up working in pastry there just to see what it was,” he says. “I just fell in love with it.”
After three years, he was overseeing the pastry program at No. 9 Park, and preparing to take on the job of pastry chef at Lynch’s Relais & Chateaux property, Menton. “I was way too young to be doing that. That’s partly why I left,” he explains. “I didn’t want to be stuck in a position where I still had so much learning to do.”
That hunch led him to San Francisco, where he’s been for the last few years. He’s grateful for the freedom the restaurant grants him, but you can sense he’s itching to get back to his first love.
“This is just to gain some momentum and see where it goes,” he says. “A bakery has always been my end goal. I love restaurants, but it’s just time for me to focus on what I want to be doing.” The challenge, as it is for each baker who’s peered in the unknown void of the pop-up, is finding time to put yourself out there while working a full-time job. He’s hoping to hit the ground running by April.
The thing with Gravito, with his mop of curly black hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and jaunty dance moves, is he’s an inimitable goofball. Pretension is not something he knows, or cares to pull off, and it shows in his work. The technique is all there, but rather than the boisterous flavor combinations of Mr. Holmes, or the how-did-they-pull-this-off bewilderment of the offerings at b.patisserie, he occupies yet another plane: the cozy nostalgia of home. There’s a reason he’s chosen his original mentors—the matriarchs—to guide this next phase of his life.
“I have a massive sweet tooth, and my mom is a really good baker. One thing I’m always going to have on the menu is her chocolate marble cake,” he says. “She would make one almost weekly when I was growing up...I still can’t nail it the way she does, but I’m trying. She loves it when I can’t make something as good as she can. She loves rubbing it in.”
He's also part Portuguese, and plans on delving into the grander theme of heritage with his menu. “There’s not a lot of Portuguese pastries out there, but there are a few good ones that I would like to modernize,” he says. “There’s that egg custard tart that you see around Chinatown, which actually originates in Portugal. It’s the one claim to fame we do have, but it’s cloaked in mystery and nobody has an actual recipe for it.”
As a result, his repertoire is a blend of time-honored cultural pleasures and things he wishes he saw more of around town: bagels, canelés, donuts. He has a soft spot for French and Italian pastries, but echoes Suas’ assessment of the so-called classics. “You really need to create for a modern palate. Classic pastries are sugar bombs. They’re huge, and cloying and you can’t really eat much of them,” he says. “I want something that’s a little more manageable and a hell of a lot less sweet.
“There was a moment where everything had to be hyper-modern,” he continues. “Everybody wanted to play with hydrocolloids or make something into a sphere or use foam. Now, everybody just wants to be satisfied and satiated. Substance over style. I don’t like when something is so stylized you don’t really know what you’re eating. I don’t know how to connect with it.”
“There are too many big-headed chefs who think they walk on water,” Suas says.
“What I appreciate here is that everyone does what they know, in his or her style, and doesn’t care what the other one is doing. So as a consumer, you’re able find different things. When everybody does the same thing it’s boring.”
In San Francisco, as must be the case in this strange new world, individualism trumps all. We’ve entered a golden age of demand for quality, and with the guarantee that our expectations can and will be met by following the right magnetic pulse, what do we value? We value the underdogs, the hustlers, and the honest. And yes alright, perhaps a small dose of surfer chill in the face of monster swells.
We want it all, and in the realm of the modern patisserie, we can have it.