When Michael Pollan visited SHED earlier this year in support of his new book Cooked, he joked about the experience of shaking master baker Chad Robertson's hand. Michael hesitated to wash his own hands later, thinking that perhaps, just maybe, something magical and yeasty from Chad might have translated. Something he could use in his own bread to bring it even halfway to the greatness that the Tartine Bakery, which Chad co-owns with wife Elizabeth Pruitt, daily achieves.
But as became clear when Chad talked about his new book, Tartine No. 3, with our own Lora Zarubin at SHED on Sept. 14, 2014, it takes more than a mere handshake to glean some of his mojo. Chad is a man obsessed, a fermentation geek and a chemistry nerd whose experiments just happen to be delicious.
What he experiments with in No. 3 are whole grains. But he doesn't just do a straight trade with white flour recipes for its browner cousin. Rather, he deconstructs and then reassembles the very nature of bread's essence using many whole ancient grains which now rarely feed us. Moreover, he ferments. Anyone who proofs yeast engages in the fermentation process, but the secret to Tartine Bakery bread is in the length, the delirious lassitude, of the ferment. Chad regularly lets his loaves rise for 10 to 12 hours before baking.
Of course, certain grains have fallen out of favor for understandable reasons: they're difficult to bake with and require clever work-arounds to make edible, let alone delicious. Chad and his team — including head baker Richard Hart, who was onsite at SHED to assist — regularly make what they call "porridges" from "difficult" regional grains.
Inspired by René Redzepi's work with ancient Nordic grains for his world-renowned restaurant NOMA and emboldened by the superior team he had in the kitchen, Chad took his essential recipes and reimagined them for an older larder. One a pharaoh might recognize.
Remembering Chad as a "surfer/baker dude" in Pt. Reyes when he and wife Elizabeth first opened their Bay Village Breads Bakery out there over a decade ago, Lora asked Chad about the impetus of this newest cookbook, the third in his series emanating from Tartine Bakery's work.
"It started as another bread book and then went into pastries," Chad said. "I knew there was more we could do with whole grain pastries." He added, "I was getting slightly tired with the taste of white flour. I wanted to go back with my team and see what we could imagine, rather than just swappping out the white flour.
"We didn't go back to the drawing board," Chad stressed. "We went to our basic way of making breas and adjusted from that. We deconstructed it, trying different grains, particularly those without gluten, to incorporate into the breads. We made porridges and tried sprouting grains to discover new ways."
Chad discussed growing up in the French pain levain tradition and living in France with Elizabeth, who has gluten-intolerance, yet could eat the bread without distress. Broke and baking, bread is something they ate without cease. When they returned to the U.S., her discomfort and symptoms returned and she had to stop eating bread again.
"That was the 20-year question for me," Chad said. "Why could she eat bread there and not here?"
He came to understand that fermentation probably has a lot to do with it, meaning that the way bread is produced might indicate whether it will cause upset to someone who has difficulty processing gluten (unrelated to celiac disease). "We were already making bread that gluten-intolerant people could eat," Chad says. "We just didn't know it."
Heritage, ancient, whole grains have less gluten than the enriched white flour that forms the basis of most modern bread today. They're also extermely versatile, as Chad's team discovered during the year that they devised and tested recipes for the book.
"Our goals was to show the range of possibilities," Chad said. "We stopped at 10 recipes for porridge, for example, but we could have gone on and on."
Other questions included whether his bread is affected by place (not unless he's using local flour, in which case it adds its own terroir); if he prefers high-tech or wood-fired ovens (he loves them both for different reasons but misses working so much with fire); when his Tokyo store will open (mid-year, 2015); does fresh-milled flour affect the taste? (yes, it's like the difference between fresh ground pepper and a box of the dusty stuff from the store); does he collaborate with any farmers (he works closely with the Bread Lab at the University of Washington, which is experimenting with 40,000 different grain varieties); what's the best way to keep your sourdough starter alive when you're on vacation (either spread it out on a piece of parchment paper set on a cookie sheet and let it air dry while you're gone or take a small amount and add a lot of flour, until the consistency is like Play-Doh — that slows the starter down vastly and it can be reconstituted upon return); how to get airy bread (be careful with your preshape molding: the tighter you make the bread, the less air holes you'll get); and what he would do if he didn't bake (restaurant owners and trained chefs, he and Elizabeth would cook).
What should home bakers take away from the book, Lora asked.
"A lot of people don't know how to use amaranth or other grains that I've learned to work with," he said. "This is a way to incorporate these grains into your diet. There are other grains than wheat and they're very interesting and have their own unique qualities."
One of the ways that such decidedly non-sexy items as old grains become fashionable, Chad said, is to be championed by those bakers and chefs who want to use them, making it sensical for farmers to grow them, making them available to consumers to taste them.
"I'd like to help reposition old grains in a more stylish way," he said, "so that people choose to eat them and not just for the health reasons. Before, it was boring; there weren't a lot of choices.
"Now, we have hundreds of varieties of wheat to choose from."