This past weekend, the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI) marked its twentieth anniversary by launching its first ever L’Atelier du pain (bread workshop) serie. The event featured renowned bakers Steve Sullivan of The Acme Bread Company, Dave Miller of Miller’s Bakehouse and Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery as well as two talented in-house bakers and instructors, Miyuki Togi and Mac McConnell. While it was streamed live across the world to anyone who had bought a ticket, a lucky few (thirty in all) had been randomly selected to attend it in person.
I hadn’t make the cut originally but someone desisted and I was next on the list. We were asked to come in an hour before the start of the workshop. Breakfast would be waiting for us. Indeed it was. And while there was plenty of bread, jams and other goodies, I must confess I made a beeline for pain au chocolat, an old favorite of my Parisian childhood.It was such a good chocolate croissant that it did what all perfect croissants are supposed to do. The minute I bit into it, it burst into a million delicate shards of the lightest variety imaginable. Which made it very hard to eat with a modicum of dignity. Oh well, that’s what happens when you allow yourself to travel back to your childhood en public.
While trying not to project pâte feuilletée crumbs all around me and surreptitiously brushing all evidence of croissant explosion from my clothes, I got acquainted with my neighbors: Daniel, a baker from Texas whom I knew from his beautiful Instagram feed and was delighted to meet in person, Gary, a serious home baker from Manila here on vacation, and Andrew, who had come all the way from New Zealand for the occasion. Talk about bread love!
In his opening address, Michel Suas, SFBI’s founder and President, reminded us that indeed bread has the power to bring in people from different countries, backgrounds and cultures. As evidenced by the three guest bakers, approaches, visions and philosophies may differ but one thing remains constant: the focus on quality.
SFBI was created in 1996. Michel told the story of how, ten years earlier, he and his wife, both native of France, had been traveling all over the United States for nine months, sleeping in their trailer, only to run out of money in San Francisco.
Capitalizing on his baking experience, he started a consulting business. It involved a lot more traveling, this time for work. After ten years, he got tired of being constantly on the move and decided to create a business model in which people would come to him instead and that’s how SFBI started. Since he wanted a school where bread-baking could be taught in a neutral manner free of allegiance to any particular product, he forsook sponsors or investors. The beginnings were therefore modest but with help from baker friends sharing the same vision, the business grew and in 2002 he was able to move it to where it is now. The rest is history.
Bread baking is an art. It comes from the gut, not from a formula. Today’s bakers are lucky in that they have a wide variety of flours and grains to choose from whereas in the old days they had to make do with very strong flours and not much else. But no matter what you have at your disposal, you can make the bread your own by varying fermentation, texture and flavor.
Speaking of formulas, we were asked not to share any of the class material in any shape or form. Accordingly I won’t post or otherwise communicate the formulas. Please note however that the videos have been put online and that it is possible to purchase tickets, thus gaining immediate access to all the documentation.
I have no commercial connection to SFBI and won’t make a cent if it sells more tickets but after attending the two-day workshop, my personal opinion is that these tickets are worth their cost. If you can afford one or if you know someone looking to treat you for your birthday or for the holidays, go for it.
Just watching these guys’ hands fly weightlessly over the dough as they shape is a thing of beauty. Mesmerizing. Like ballet steps. To the point that you find yourself catching your breath. How do they do it? When we asked Dave to slow down so that we could better follow his movements, he said he couldn’t really. If he did, the dough would probably catch and stick. Actually I am not even sure his fingers would obey. We are in the realm of magic here.
Purchasing access makes it possible to enter that realm again and again. Bread heads will probably understand the appeal. Others, probably not.
Meanwhile I will put on Farine some of my notes and pictures in the hope that, like me, you will be amazed by the range of breads and bakers that the same four basic ingredients -flour, water, yeast and salt- can give rise to.