Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Meet the Bakers: Louie and Clinton Prager

You know how sometimes when you walk into a bakery, you don't really need to see the bread, from the fragrance in the air, you already know it is going to be good? Well, that's how it is at Prager Brothers in Carlsbad, California, except that you can't help seeing the bread anyway because several loaves are sitting right on the front counter waiting for the bakers to offer you samples...
And the bread is good indeed. Very good. All entirely naturally leavened (except for the pinch of yeast added to the baguettes) and all slowly fermented. Louie and Clint do have a retarder but they no longer use it. They reworked the production schedule so that every dough gets shaped, proofed and baked when it is ready. Sometimes all the breads are ready to go in at the same time and things get a bit hairy but then running a bakery is a long learning process...
Prager Brothers opened in May 2013 in an industrial park in the city of Carlsbad, north of San Diego. When the two brothers moved in, the place was bare. They built everything themselves, buying all the equipment (except for the oven which they got new) from a pizza place that was closing down. Everything was covered with what Clint describes as thick "pizza grease." He spent days on end scrubbing the residue off the metal shelves. Elbow grease against pizza grease! Elbow grease won but as the two brothers soon discovered, the real work began when the bakery opened for business...


They work sixteen hours a day, sometimes more. Louie says he's so tired when he gets home that he barely has time to make himself a grilled cheese sandwich before falling into bed, dead to the world. Nights are mercilessly short and come morning, the cycle starts all over again.
A plant biologist with a degree from the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, Louie, 27, started selling bread in April 2012. First he baked from an Alan Scott oven he built in his backyard and sold to neighbors and friends, then a nearby pizzeria gave him permission to use its oven at night, which made him eligible for a permit to sell at a farmers' market. Soon he was approached by other farmers' markets and started making more and more bread. He did this for about a year investing any money he made into more baskets and more racks. Louie recalls baking sixty loaves a week and bringing home sixty dollars, having given away most of his bread in the form of samples. When you plan to open a bakery in an area where handcrafted and naturally leavened bread is almost completely unheard of, educating tastebuds is indeed the best (perhaps the only) way to build a customer base...
While in school in San Luis Obispo, Louie met Richard Webb, an older local baker whom he credits with teaching him most of what he now knows about the craft. Soon he started reading all the bread books he could find. Later he also helped out in a brewery where he learned how temperature affects fermentation and generates flavor. His scientific training, and more specifically the classes on metabolism he took at Cal Poly, also helps him tremendously with the maintenance and use of natural starters: it has given him a keen understanding of the way micro-organisms work and taught him the discipline of writing everything down (although he acknowledges with a soft laugh that he often doesn't have time to jot down the results of his experiments). Louie and Clint also get help from Jeff Yankellow, who lives in the area and drops in occasionally to share his knowledge and know-how with them. Since Jeff is one of three members of the Team USA who took home the gold at Coupe du monde de la boulangerie (the Olympics of bread baking) in Paris in 2005,  the two brothers are truly learning from a champion...
A huge batch of rye starter was softly humming to itself in the big Benier mixer when I first came in. It looked so satisfied I could almost imagine a smile on its rugged and bubbly face. It had been fed a couple of hours earlier and smelled like honey. It tasted marvelously sweet. But then, neither of the Prager starters is sour. They get fed as often as needed for the flavor to remain predominantly lactic instead of acetic. The rye for instance is fed twice a day most of the year and three times a day in the summer. It is not refrigerated.
Clinton, 26, is a professional musician; he plays the guitar and he sings. Like Louie though, he has been badly bitten by the bread bug. He has taken the Ancient Grains class at the San Francisco Baking Institute but most of what he knows about baking, he learned from Louie. He is keenly interested in eating wholesome food; making and selling bread from all organic flours and almost all organic ingredients is one way, not only to feed himself properly, but also to help other people eat better.
Louie and Clint are already training Lauren, 23...
...and they are looking to hire another baker so that they can establish two shifts. Once they do that, they'll be able to revise their production schedule and bake more: they are considering making more rye bread for wholesale; they would also like to increase the retail side of the business by developing the front of the store. One of their friends who is a chef will help them put together a couple of lunch items, for instance soups that they could pair with a slice of bread and offer to the many office workers in their neighborhood. They are literally bursting with ideas but they cannot possibly do more than they do now until they hire help. Between the three of them (Louie, Clint and Lauren), they already cover six farmers' markets a week, two on Wednesdays, two on Saturdays and two on Sundays. When Louie is at the market, Clint is at the bakery mixing and baking, and vice-versa.
Baguettes sell really well and so do the country loaves. The bakers have learned that, interestingly, different markets have slightly different tastes: they sell more whole-grain (100% whole wheat with seeds and walnuts, sprouted spelt) for instance at the Carlsbad and Vista farmers' markets than at the Little Italy one, a variation that Louie thinks is correlated to the number of yoga people in the various communities. The more yoga lovers, the more requests for whole grain...
Louie starts mixing the dough for the rye. Based on the percentage of dry flour, he uses 200% rye starter. He adds pumpernickel flour, more water, quickly-soaked raw sunflower seeds, yet more water, stops the mixer, checks the consistency, checks again and again, checks constantly. The formula is taped to the wall behind the mixer but what he reads is the dough, not the printed page.
Once done, the dough is divided among oiled bins. The last batch left in the mixer gets a few handfuls of currants before being set to ferment.
A bit later, I watch the two brothers oil pans, scale and shape the rye dough, wordlessly switching workstations mid-process. I ask how it feels to be working so closely with a sibling on an everyday basis. They glance at each other : "It wasn't easy at first and still isn't sometimes." Then they laugh in unison, shoulders shaking with mirth. The pros clearly beat the cons but the cons save the relationship from boredom. Not a bad setup.

Despite the high percentage of starter, the resulting bread tastes surprisingly mellow...
A customer walks in, asking for a raisin-walnut loaf. The bread is still in the oven. Louie feels bad, he's the one who told her earlier to come back at 4 but they are running late today. He asks her to please wait a few minutes. As soon as the loaves are out, he slips one in a brown paper bag and hands it to her: "It's on the house. But please remember to cool it on a rack when you get home." The customer thanks him and leaves, a happy smile on her face. I pack up my camera and my notebook and start saying my goodbyes just as another customer comes in, asking for rye bread. But the rye is still proofing. Louie sells her the one half-a-loaf he has left and tells her there'll be plenty more in the morning. Holding the wrapped bread close to her chest, she says with surprising fervor: "Please, please, don't ever go out of business. I love your bread! I am from Germany and your rye tastes exactly like ours back home." When she's gone, he says: "You know, that's what makes it all worth it. That's why we don't mind the long shifts and the tough schedule. Meeting people and making them happy by feeding them good bread... That's what this is all about." Clint chimes in: "Good food, good people and the pleasure of knowing we are working for nobody but ourselves. What else is there to ask for?"

13 comments:

  1. Farine, since Phil doesn't read your blog (or any food blog for that matter), I think it's safe for me to say that bread bakers are for the most part drop dead gorgeous. (sigh)

    :-)

    Seriously, what a couple of handsome guys… now, back to bread. Awesome looking loaves, and I could kick myself because we were in Carlsbad during our recent trip to California… I could have stopped by to look at the… loaves.. :-)

    (sorry, I am in a silly mood today)

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    1. Handsome bakers, gorgeous bread! What's not to like? Put the bakery on the map for your next trip to SoCal and let me know what you think!

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  2. I love the story of all your Bakers, Farine. So nice and heart warming. The best read on this cold miserable day!
    mantana

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    1. Thanks for visiting, Mantana. Sorry about the cold and snow back East. Just the right weather for a French onion soup with thick country bread and melted cheese on top. Time to feed your starter!

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  3. I love your Meet the Baker series, I adore the multiplicity of photos and the way you make them come alive - it is such a pleasure to visit bakeries I will in all likelihood never see through the medium of your blog and be enthused by all the vitality and work going on here there and everywhere. I was intrigued by their comment about how different markets have different preferences. Thank you, I really enjoyed this :) x Joanna

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    1. Thank you for such a lovely comment, Joanna! I too am awed (and inspired) by the passion and energy bakers bring to their craft and most of them are so modest. Silent heroes whose hard work is often ignored or taken for granted or, worse, mocked by industrial counterfeit loaves labeled "artisan"...

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  4. Replies
    1. Thank you, Graham Jose! How's the baking going on your side? Please send more pictures if you have any.

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  5. Hi MC,
    Wonderful story about these 2 bright and hard working young men. I really enjoyed your comments about the people stopping in for bread at the end of the day. I can well imagine what a gratifying feeling it was for all concerned. I love reading about all these small bakeries selling their loaves as fast as they are baked.
    Thanks for sharing your visit!
    JanetH

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    1. Hello Janet,
      I love it too when I see bread flying off the shelves. Especially in an area where people used to get it bagged from the supermarket together with their laundry detergent and their rolls of paper towels. Carrying on the real bread movement, one tastebud at a time, that's what these bakers are doing. So glad you enjoyed reading the article! Any bakeries like theirs where you live?

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  6. Hi MC,
    Yes, my house :) Not really because I only bake for friends and neighbors but they do come and collect their loaves as soon as they are done:)
    Seriously - I don't think so. I live in the suburbs of Denver and most people around here buy artisan loaves at Whole Foods market which I would not consider in the same league as the individual bakers you highlight. We do have a baking company somewhat near by - Great Harvest - where the bread is baked and sold in the shop but they are big distributers also. They do use whole grains and would be the closest to what you highlight here so often but I am still thinking it is a whole different set up and commitment. Bakers are hired hence they come and go not a one person operation fueled by a passion for baking and good bread.
    I would imagine there are probably are some small bakeries around and I simply do not know about them….I don't venture into Denver much at all anymore so I am not up to snuff on what is available there. Pat (proth5) is probably a better source than I in that arena as she lives in the heart of the city and is much more of a traveler than I am :)
    JanetH

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  7. Wow, what a great example of people doing what they live.
    It would be so great to have a good Western bread culture here in Dubai....

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  8. Hi MC,
    It was a pleasure meeting Louie at Kneading Conference West and I’m very glad your travels brought you to Prager Brothers Artisan Breads – it’s a delight to see the beautiful loaves these bakers are making.
    What a welcome to their customers, with loaves like that set out for tasting!
    I wish the bakers well, with their future plans.
    :^) breadsong

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