When I first met William in early April, I had just returned from Paris where I had witnessed Team USA 2012 win silver at this year's Coupe du monde and he was ebullient both at the victory and at the fact that his friend and former employee Jeremey Gadouas had been on the winning Team.
I saw him again in September when I took visiting friend Hannah Warren of Eden Valley Bakers on a walking tour of West Seattle (one of my favorite parts of the city with fantastic views of Elliott Bay, the Seattle skyline and the mountains): on the way back, we decided to stop at Bakery Nouveau for lunch. While there she took a few pictures that she kindly agreed to let me use, so don't be surprised if the copyright is hers on some of the photos below (thank you, Hannah!)
It was sheer luck that we happened to see William that day, giving me an opportunity to ask him if I could return and interview him for the Meet the Baker series. He kindly agreed and on a cloudy mid-October Friday (the first grey day after a seemingly endless streak of magnificent dry weather which had some Seattleites yearning for good old rain), I went back to the bakery by myself.
This time I parked in the back which gave me a glimpse of the employees' entrance...
I was early for my appointment with William and it was lunchtime. So I walked around to the front...
One bite from Bakery Nouveau's jambon-baguette though and I knew I was in good hands: not only was the baguette both crisp and moëlleuse (mellow) (not really surprising in a bakery whose owner was a world champion) but there was a hint of real French Dijon mustard over the thick layer of butter; crunchy slices of cornichons (tiny French gherkins) were nestled under the upper crust; the ham tasted as it must in heaven and the cheese had just the right amount of fat to balance the acidity of the cornichons and the heat of the mustard.
I was sharing a table with two other women and as we ate, we talked. One of the women had been living in West Seattle since forever and she remembered Blake's, the bakery that had occupied that very space for four generations. Blake's had made cakes, breads, breakfast pastries, chocolate, candy, etc. The last baker had been in his eighties when he had finally sold the business. She hadn't patronized the old bakery much herself (not her style) but it had been a beloved fixture in the neighborhood. She loved Bakery Nouveau and stopped by regularly for lunch. She said one of her sons had lived in France and thought Bakery Nouveau was way above many of the French boulangeries-pâtisseries he had known.
Another woman, slim and petite, said she loved the selection of savory lunch items and was mostly able to resist the sweet offerings, except on special occasions. She too stopped by regularly for lunch, often with friends. She said the bakery had been entirely remodeled when William took over and had become an anchor for "the Junction" as the neighborhood is called. During the week the customer base was mostly local but on weekends, Bakery Nouveau was heavily patronized by downtown residents at lunchtime and by Eastsiders (people who live on the other side of Lake Washington) in the afternoon. It was never empty and everything was always fresh out of the oven. She pointed to a young woman coming in from the back carrying a tray of round spinach croissants which she proceeded to unload onto waiting shelves. I turned around for a better look.
Here is a glimpse of what I saw:
Carefully crafted breads...
I drooled. But by then, it was one o'clock. I said goodbye to my new friends and asked to see the Chef. He was upstairs making chocolates but he came down to greet me. I followed him back to the tempering machine and we talked as he turned out rows after rows of plump chocolates. He described the different types of cocoa he used and how he blended them and what their flavors were like. He showed me the cocoa butters he sprayed on the molds to give each creation its specific color and pattern. He explained about the mousses and the ganaches he used as fillings. My head was spinning. I never realized there was so much to know about chocolate.
The b... word! The one I had been waiting for! I pounced. William didn't miss a beat. Yes, everything had started with bread but he had learned a lot from doing other things, which had helped with flavor profiling. Today bread remained important or rather it remained supremely important that it'd be excellent. To that effect, he trained his bakers himself and spot-checked quality regularly.
Because these platforms are of fine quality, William and his team (two of his assistants, Jay and Towner, have a solid savory background) are able to build on them layer after layer of tastes and aromas and the customers flock in: the savory program accounts for one third of all sales at the bakery. It also makes life decidedly more interesting both for the bakers and for the eaters: the bakers get to think up new flavor combinations and new bread pairings, the eaters are learning to relate to different flavors. Free samples are a big plus when introducing new products but word of mouth and online comments help too and it is immensely rewarding to watch the customers' palates evolve.
As William recounts it, one of the reasons he and his wife Heather chose West Seattle when they decided to open a bakery in 2006 is that the area is surrounded by agricultural land and abounds in farm products. William has more than a passing knowledge of farms: he grew up in rural Arkansas where his grandmother ran an egg business. She was a good cook. At her farm, he learned the value (and the flavor) of fresh ingredients.
Today many of the ingredients for the savory program are farm-sourced but processed at the bakery. The bakers pick the bread or dough that will best showcase each of them and they run with it. Witness the gravlax of king salmon on 100% rye bread; or the roasted heirloom tomatoes heaped on a croissant base over a soft mix of sun-dried tomato pesto and bechamel. I saw Jay make the tart, topping the colorful fruit with caramelized onions and fromage blanc. I just couldn't resist. I bought one to take home and share as an appetizer. The flavors played seamlessly together as if orchestrated by a maestro and it didn't hurt that the product was gorgeous.
The first time I visited the bakery, duck legs had just come out of the oven and were resting on a bed of caramelized onions. "Duck confit", said William casually as we walked by. I later learned that this home-made confit would be served on pavé au levain with pickled pearl onions, pickled mild mustard seeds, and a parsley-chive aioli.
So watch what he does: he takes his finest laminated dough, cuts it vertically in strips, pipes Dijon mustard on each strip, measures the sausages and starts wrapping...
Et voilà! Into the proofer they go... I longed to see for myself what they would look and taste like once baked. William generously offered to let me take some home but I didn't want to risk messing up the proofing, thus compromising his work. Taking advantage of a BBGA class in the neighborhood, I went back to the bakery the next day, hoping to pick up some. They were sold out! The woman behind the counter said they went really fast and unless I came first thing in the morning, I had to order them. So I did.
We went back to the bakery the following Sunday to pick up the order.
Now if you think this is slow food (and it would be hard to argue that it isn't), wait and see what goes into the making of the kouign-amann.
bakery's blog, a kouign-amann is "essentially pastry dough layered with butter and sugar which caramelizes as it bakes." William is a firm believer in the triangle principle: each product needs one structure and two flavors. More than two flavors and you lose the storyline. Less than two and there is no story unless the main ingredient is stellar. The kouign-amann is perilously close to being an one-ingredient product: butter takes center stage both in the dough and in the filling. Being the star, it needs to perform flawlessly and to carry maximum flavor.
The bakery tried different commercial brands. None was up to the challenge. William approached local butter people. Nobody was interested in culturing butter for him. As a kid, he had made butter on his grandmother's farm, so he ordered cream from a local dairy farm and tried his hand at it again. The butter came out wet and tasteless: the cream wasn't rich enough. He tried a few other local farms: "Their cream was like milk, I couldn't make butter with it." Not easily deterred, he kept looking. When he heard that an Oregon farmer was keeping one hundred Jersey cows in Southeastern Washington, he knew he had finally hit the jackpot.
Today he makes all the butter for the kouign-amanns himself, culturing heavy cream with flora danica until it turns into crème fraîche (depending on the amount of culture, it takes anywhere from sixteen to twenty hours at 80°F), then churning it into butter which adds an incredible flavor profile to the pastry. Since a by-product of butter churning is buttermilk, the process also yields enough buttermilk for the one hundred and forty German chocolate cakes the bakery bakes every week. Nothing goes to waste and tastebuds win all around.
A piece of baguette (still a bit warm from the oven) spread with freshly churned butter: the crunch of the crust, the complex flavor of the two pre-ferments (poolish and levain) in the crumb, the grassy aroma of the butter, its intense color - so yellow that it is almost green - reflecting the diet these cows are on (pure alfalfa), I can't even begin to describe how unique the experience was... If Bakery Nouveau ever gets into the butter business, I'll line up outside on churning day for sure. Meanwhile William kindly gave me some butter to take home. Not sure how best to use it, I put it in the freezer. Securely wrapped in plastic, it shines at me like a frozen sun every time I open the drawer and it makes me happy just to see it there. As if a direct connection had been suddenly established from our freezer to these Jersey cows in their alfalfa fields...
Back at the bakery, I reflected that for a baker to culture and churn his own butter was a lot of hard work and a serious commitment. But then as you probably already figured out, William Leaman is no stranger to hard work. I won't go into details regarding his career as you will find an excellent profile of him in Pastry & Baking, 2011, issue number 6. The article is available online for free although you do have to register.
Suffice it to say that he acquired his many skills the hard way and mostly on the job: there was never any money for school as he was growing up. He actually considers himself lucky to have grown up poor in Arkansas, thus acquiring a work ethic that has served him well.
To this day, he thinks that learning on the job is the best way to go for a young baker. His apprentices come from all over: Georgia, Alaska, Japan. They spend two years learning the ropes, moving from station to station: bread, viennoiserie, desserts, chocolate, bake station. He prefers to hire apprentices who haven't been to school: there is no need to correct or re-direct. They save money by not going to culinary school and they learn more. In four or five years, they figure out what they'd like to focus on more and then take a week-long or a two-week long class with a professional: William himself once worked for six months with Didier Rosada and recalls vividly that two years later he was still processing the seeds of the experience and learning from it.
He tries to have different people responsible for different products but at the same time, he also tries to cross-train them. Nicky has worked his way from dishwashing to bake station to cake and now to bread. He has two degrees in economics and wants to open a bakery in Mexico City. William sees the value of training people who can give back to their community and their family: "I consider it as tangible a gift as flour or dough in your hand".
Speaking of dough, William knew I was eager to see him do some shaping and since he loves rolling out baguettes, he agreed to demo his technique for me. Ever the teacher, he even had me rolling dough at his side! My first baguette fought me from start to finish and I was mortified (I don't know of a more humbling experience than trying to emulate a champion at what he does best!) but he was very kind.
He had me palpate my reluctant baguette: "Can you feel its spine right there?" I could. "Well, it shouldn't have a spine. A spine means air pockets. If you flatten the dough before rolling the baguette, you'll get rid of these bubbles and you'll have no problem." And you know what? He was right. Of course! How could he not be? The next half-dozen baguettes literally sprang from my fingers as by magic (not as pretty as his but still better than any I had every made before). Thank you, chef!
I said that William was going places with his flights of flavor and he is. He recently visited the labs at Modernist Cuisine and came back awed, fascinated by the sous-vide, curious to explore ways in which the technique could help infuse meat with flavor or to see for himself if extracting oxygen from ganache filling might concentrate the flavors of the chocolate or the fruit puree. Modernist chef Johnny Zhu came to the bakery where he spent two days making bread. Who knows what will come out of that line of research?
But then, as William reminded me, "nouveau" is a French word which has been officially part of the English language since 1813. It means “newly developed.” He chose it as the name of his bakery because it accurately describes his business philosophy: innovation through quality craftsmanship, the only limits being imagination and commercial common sense. I for one fully intend to keep an eye on what William Leaman comes up with next. My tastebuds are fully ready for the ride. Besides, with a bit of luck, baguettes sous-vide will be clear of air pockets...