Rising to the top: WNC’s artisan baking community nurtures aspiring talent

FLOUR POWER: “The baking community, broadly, is incredibly supportive,” says Old World Levain Bakery owner Susannah Gebhart. “There is a lot of shared knowledge, openness and community among bakers. This is especially true in Asheville.” In addition to producing naturally leavened breads and European-style pastries at her West Asheville shop, Gebhart now offers baking classes for both professionals and amateurs. Photo by Cindy Kunst

While Western North Carolina is widely known for its craft beer scene, brewing isn’t the only artisanal industry on the rise. The Asheville area is also emerging as a nexus in the Southeast for baking knowledge. The growing popularity of home baking, abundance of educational opportunities and strong network of seasoned professionals combine to make Asheville a baker’s paradise.

WNC has long been home to its fair share of skilled bread makers and pastry chefs, but it was the Asheville Bread Festival, launched 14 years ago by Steve Bardwell and Gail Lunsford, that first fostered cohesiveness in the local baking culture. “That was the first time all of us bakers came together, and we realized what a rich baking community we had,” explains Jennifer Lapidus, co-organizer of the event. 

She recalls a dinner event held at The Market Place restaurant in conjunction with the inaugural festival as a turning point for the local industry. “All of us were a bit nervous to sit down and start talking to each other because we were each other’s competition,” she says. “But then once we [did], we realized that, of course, we all liked each other — we were all bakers. We all became fast friends.”

The festival has since evolved into a two-day happening featuring a Bread Fair plus a full day of hands-on workshops for hobbyists, a networking dinner and a six-hour master class for professionals. This year’s event takes place May 5-6 with a few changes that are aimed at cementing a relationship between WNC’s baking and brewing communities, which Lapidus says have a “symbiotic” history of fostering local talent and creativity.

The Bread Fair and “ground zero for the festival” will relocate from its longtime home at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College to New Belgium Brewing Co., says Lapidus. Workshops will be hosted at a variety of locations, including the facility of brewing-yeast producer White Labs, along with Rhubarb, Smoke Signals Bakery and Living Web Farms. 

Lapidus, who at the time of the first Asheville Bread Festival was running Natural Bridge Bakery, later moved into the realm of milling, opening the Carolina Ground flour mill in response to the 2008 spike in wheat prices. But she believes the idea for the business originally took root before the economic downturn. “The very first seed for ‘what if we launched a mill’ was brought together by bringing us all together at the bread fest,” she says. “When the idea came about, I was the one to do it because I had been milling in-house at my bakery.”

Carolina Ground has served to further localize WNC’s independent-minded baking culture by providing a specialty resource. “We have connected these bakeries with growers here in North Carolina by providing them with superhigh-quality, cold stone-milled, North Carolina-grown flour,” says Lapidus. “Inspiring bakers and pastry makers is what enables this mill to exist.”

Baking base camp

Lapidus now fields orders from all over the U.S., which she admits “wasn’t even on my radar when I first started it.” Yet her product remains most popular close to home. Among the many area bakers who use Carolina Ground flour is Rhubarb and The Rhu pastry chef Kaley Laird. Originally from upstate New York, Laird came to Asheville two years ago by way of California and was immediately struck by the area’s wealth of baking talent and knowledge.

This is a really big baking town,” Laird says. “San Francisco is just a great food town with great bakeries in it, but Asheville is a very concentrated area of bakers. It’s not just professionals — it’s people who have an underground operation or do it at home as a passion or side hobby. It’s very saturated; there are a lot of us, and we all kind of know each other. Even some restaurants, like Biscuit Head, do their own baking. As someone who is in the middle of it, it’s huge. It’s all start-to-finish here, to the point where [a major yeast supplier like] White Labs has set up in Asheville, and Carolina Ground provides fresh-milled flour right here in town.”

In addition to doing the day-to-day baking for The Rhu and Rhubarb, Laird works to engage the growing community through education (see sidebar for details on an upcoming sourdough lecture). With the benefit of access to Rhubarb’s event space and demonstration kitchen, she is developing a consistent rotation of educational offerings with the goals of not only bolstering local baking acumen but also of attracting students from around the country.

Like The Rhu, Old World Levain Bakery is a known commodity in Asheville hoping to parlay the popularity of its baked goods into a consistent rotation of classes. “This community is really rooted in making your food at home using natural and local foods,” says owner Susannah Gebhart. “It is part of the common lexicon of Ashevilleans, so I think a lot of our customers are people who are attuned to those values and desires.” 

Gebhart hosted her first class in the OWL space in September with New York-based James Beard Foundation Award winner Sarah Owens. The positive response to the event prompted plans for future workshops for professionals and amateurs alike.

The baking community, broadly, is incredibly supportive,” says Gebhart. “There is a lot of shared knowledge, openness and community among bakers. This is especially true in Asheville. The bread fest has been great for bringing all bakers from the area together — home bakers, amateurs and all the rest —  to create community around that space.”

Education first

Marshall-based artisan wood-fire baker Tara Jensen takes the passion for sharing knowledge even further by making education the primary mission of her business. In 2013, Jensen opened Smoke Signals in the space that had previously been occupied by Lapidus’ Natural Bridge Bakery and David Bauer’s Farm & Sparrow Bakery. She specializes in workshops and wood-fire baking intensives with a mission to “inspire self-actualization through the craft of baking.” 

Jensen, originally from Maine, came to the area to work for Bauer at Farm & Sparrow before starting Smoke Signals six years ago. She refers to Smoke Signals as a “project” rather than a bakery due to the transformations the concept has undergone. Like many getting their start with artisan food businesses, she began selling her products at local tailgate markets with the intention of one day opening a retail space. But everything changed about a year into the project when she hosted a weekend apple pie workshop.

“It sold out, and the whole experience was really comfortable for me,” Jensen recalls. “I am supersocial and loved connecting with people in that way, so I kept offering [workshops], and they became really popular and lucrative, so I made the switch from selling bread to teaching people how to make their own bread.” 

People come from throughout the U.S. and as far as Canada, Ireland and Puerto Rico to take part in Jensen’s small workshops, which often sell out months in advance. Her ever-growing popularity even garnered a glowing 2016 write-up in Bon Appétit magazine celebrating her rural bakery’s signature dedication to simplicity and mindfulness. 

Lapidus, whom Jensen counts as a mentor, still owns the Smoke Signals bakehouse and loves what is going on in her former workspace. “I think Tara is doing amazing stuff out there,” she says. “It’s so exciting to see all the workshops happening because the avid home-baker movement seems to continuously be bubbling up. It’s a continuous growth that has been really neat to watch.”


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About Jarrett Van Meter
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