Saturday, May 6, marks the start of the 13th annual Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers’ Festival on Asheville’s A-B Tech campus. The two-day event offers the chance for bread enthusiasts and professional bakers to get together and celebrate bread, hone their baking techniques, explore ideas and network within the artisan bread community. This year’s festival will feature the talents of five of the United States’ most respected bakers: Jim Lahey, Peter Reinhart, Lionel Vatinet, Tara Jensen and Kaley Laird.
The festival was started in 2004 by husband-and-wife bakers Steve Bardwell and Gail Lunsford of Wake Robin Farm Breads. Bardwell is amazed when he reflects on how the festival has grown in scale over the past 13 years. “The very first event we held was actually at the little café in Greenlife grocery,” says Bardwell. “Now somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 people will show up on Saturday morning at A-B Tech. It’s unbelievable.”
The festival grew from a cunning plan Bardwell and Lunsford devised as a means of meeting one of their baking heroes. “When my wife started our bakery, one of the books that was a big inspiration for us was Peter Reinhart‘s book The Bread Baker’s Apprentice,” says Bardwell. “We were really intrigued with Reinhart, and so my wife said, ‘We gotta meet this guy.’ … So we thought, ‘You know what we could do? Let’s start a bread festival and invite Peter Reinhart, then we’ll have a chance to meet him.'”
At the time, Reinhart was a professor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. They contacted him about their hastily conceived event, and the rest is history. “He’s been involved with the festival every year since then and is always a big draw,” says Bardwell.
This year’s festival schedule is packed with events. From 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, May 6, 15 local artisan bakeries will sell bread and offer samples. “The amount of bread that’s brought in and sold is astounding,” says Bardwell. “Last year, I think there were 16 bakeries that sold over $10,000 worth of bread in about three hours.”
There will also be hands-on workshops and lectures by the featured guest bakers from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at the same location, as well as a site visit to Carolina Ground Mill and a presentation by Stephanie Swane, managing editor for Modernist Cuisine. That evening, the public part of the festival concludes with a dinner with the bakers hosted by Rhubarb chef John Fleer.
On Sunday, May 7, a six-hour master class for professional bakers will offer intensive instruction and discussion with Lahey and Vatinet. “I think the professional class might be the most important part of the festival,” says Bardwell. “I actually think we’ve helped improve the quality of bread in the Western North Carolina area by providing local bakers the opportunity to learn how to bake better bread over the years.”
The Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers’ Festival’s showcase of bakers takes place 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, May 6, at the Magnolia Building on the campus of A-B Tech, 340 Victoria Road. Admission is free. Workshops are scheduled from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. that day at the same location with an additional workshop and demonstration at Carolina Ground Mill at 2 p.m. Tickets are required for all workshops and cost $15 each. A festival dinner takes place at 6 p.m. Saturday, May 6, at The Rhu, 10 S. Lexington Ave. Tickets are $50 each. The master class for professional bakers happens Sunday, May 7. To buy tickets for workshops and the dinner, visit ashevillebreadfestival.com. Professional bakers interested in attending the master class should email firstname.lastname@example.org.