The art of bread: A Q+A with American chef, baker and author Jim Lahey

PERFECT PIE: Artisan baker Jim Lahey is a featured presenter at the upcoming 2017 Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers Festival. Photo by Squire Fox

James Beard Award-winning baker, chef and author Jim Lahey is a headlining guest at the 13th Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers’ Festival on Saturday and Sunday, May 6-7. Lahey opened Sullivan Street Bakery in Soho in New York City in 1994. In October 2000, he built the Sullivan Street Bakery headquarters in Hell’s Kitchen, where he has become renowned not just for his bread but also for his Roman-style pizza, rustic Italian pastries and cookies. In 2009, he opened Co. in New York — his first pizza restaurant. He’s currently in the process of launching a Sullivan Street Bakery location in Miami.

Lahey and his businesses have been featured in Vogue, Bon Appétit and The New York Times, and he has appeared on the “Martha Stewart Show” and NBC’s “Today” show. His cookbooks include My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method and My Pizza: The Easy No-Knead Way to Make Spectacular Pizza at Home. In 2015, Lahey was honored with the first James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Baker.

Mountain Xpress: Walk us through the journey of how you eventually got into baking.
Jim Lahey: Well, I knew I would get into something artistic. I just didn’t know what. Like most artists, or wannabe artists, I went to art school and hung with the artist crowd. I was kind of weird though and, honestly, I think I was so weird I didn’t even fit in with the artists. Be that as it may, it’s kind of what artists are …  a bunch of misfits. … I consider myself an artist and, to some degree, all bakers are artists. Here’s an interesting thing, actually, about the word “art” — the ancient Greek word for bread is “artos.”… It’s like the word “company.” I have a restaurant in New York called Co., short for Company, which is an old word that means “with bread.”

I understand that you actually studied visual arts in Italy. How did that experience impact your decision to get into the world of food?
I went to Italy because I had a language requirement to fulfill, and I wasn’t getting very far studying Italian in New York. I was exposed to something there that I had never really seen before, which was this food culture. My aha moment with cooking wasn’t actually with bread — it was with a tomato, something that I had grown up loathing … other than tomato sauce. I would have never eaten a raw tomato. I thought they were gross because all I had ever eaten were those standardized hothouse tomatoes that were grown for durability and put in those plastic sleeves. They were kind of grainy and mealy and lacking any kind of depth of flavor, you know? Anyway — this must have been back in the summer of ’87 — I ended up meeting this fruit salesman in Italy who says to me in Italian, “Here, eat this tomato” … and honestly I had never eaten a tomato like this. … And so unbeknownst to myself, with the intention of studying art, I ended up having this amazing food experience there that gave me a sense of some standards … and I sort of became infected by it. So, I eventually came back to New York without even realizing at the time that I was a changed person.

When did bread come along for you in your cooking training?
I bought my first cookbook, which was a book by Anne Willen called La Varenne Pratique — it’s like a cookbook for general techniques and methods … and began studying and practicing some of the recipes. … And so I started practicing bread, and I became obsessed with baking. … At this point, I was still at Stony Brook University, and it was just sort of done, you know? The transformation was complete. I had become a food person and didn’t even know it.  I just started baking incessantly. … I was living in Williamsburg at the time, and I had retrofitted my $300 GE gas oven with bricks and quarry tiles to make it act or perform better. In my own sort of naïve way, it was this Yankee ingenuity.

What do you think the future of artisan bread looks like?
I’m curious and wondering what bread will evolve into. … Can it traject like the growing culture of coffee, wine and cannabis? Like, will normal suburban culture end up becoming fascinated with selecting great flour … and say, “Oh, wow, that’s really great red fife over at the supermarket!” I don’t know. … I’m not sure that’ll end up happening; I guess we’ll see. … But I think that the more people that open up bakeries, the better it’ll be for humanity and the world if, in the practice of doing this, we’re somehow elevating, raising or creating a higher standard for bread and bread culture. — NW 



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About Nick Wilson
Nick Wilson is a native of the Midwest who moved to Asheville in September of 2016 after eight years in Los Angeles. When he's not writing for Mountain Xpress, his energies are focused on better understanding himself and the rich wealth of history that the world has to offer.

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