Artisan Breads: A Staple Becomes a Statement
November 1, 2002

Everything is in place: the table is beautifully appointed, the chef and waitstaff are at the ready, and the host has ushered the guests   to their tables. The diners order drinks, and the cloth-lined basket of baked goods is set before them. The first bite of one of the simplest and least expensive food items—bread—sets the tone of everything to follow. Manhattan's Amy Scherber, owner of the ten-year-old Amy's Breads, believes that serving artisan breads makes a statement about quality and good taste, even in the most casual restaurant. When the roll is cracked open or a piece of bread is split, the customer can smell the wonderful fragrance and savor the taste and texture. This, says Scherber, "excites the senses and whets the appetite for the exciting dishes to come."

Style and Substance
Scherber sells a full line of artisan organic breads and rolls and many nonorganic selections through wholesale and at retail shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Her signature bread is a semolina loaf dotted with golden raisins and fennel, and her black olive twist is a hot commodity among local restaurateurs. "Nonartisan-style breads may cost less," she points out, "but they also broadcast the message that the restaurateur—or the chef—does not value this part of the menu." True, artisan rolls and breads can start at $.35 to $3.75, versus the $.24 and $1.50 of nonartisan rolls and breads, but, as Scherber says, "Artisan breads should be viewed as a reputation builder that can increase profitability in due time."

Georgia restaurateurs Chris and Michele Sedgewick supply their three restaurants—Van Gogh's, Aspens Signature Steaks, and Vinny's—with sourdough, whole wheat sourdough, ciabatta, and focaccia from their own bakery, Theo's Brother's Bakery. As Michelle explains, "We realized we were spending so much money on bread that we knew we could do better. . . so why not do it ourselves and benefit both ways?" All of the Sedgewicks' restaurants are within a ten-mile radius of the bakery, so it's an easy and profit-building transition from diner to a bakery patron. In all three restaurants the waitstaff is trained to market the breads and the bakery, and palm cards are an additional marketing tool. Michelle continues, "The dining public at our restaurants really appre-ciates the high-quality artisan breads and recognizes their role in the overall excellence of the fine-dining experience."

Bread Winners
The pricing of bread currently falls into what Melba Fer-nandez of McCormick & Schmick's in Redondo Beach, California, calls the "Q Factor." This category also includes ketchup, steak sauce, salt, and pepper, and a minimal cost for each is figured into the cost of each dish on the menu. Robert Wemischner, a chef and baking instructor at Los Angeles Trade Tech, cautions that bread may be a minor part of the meal, but it's not a minor expense. The industry average for bread is about $1 per person, spread over the cost of the entire meal. This allows for the considerable amount of loss due to stale-ness and consumer waste. But. Wemischner notes, the cost of bread should not exceed more than 25 percent of the retail value.

It was once the custom for restaurants to charge a "bread and butter fee," but this system went out of fashion many years ago. Now that more attention is being paid to the quality of the bread, Wemischner suggests reinstating this fee. He comments, "Not only would it be a workable way for the bread to 'pay for itself,' it would prevent a great deal of waste."

Michael Cimarusti, chef of L.A.'s contemporary seafood restaurant the Water Grill, agrees that bread is a considerable cost, but he is able to use the overstock for other dishes. For the 2,000 to 2,500 diners served per week at the Water Grill, Cimarusti spends about $1,200 to $1,500 on bread, which is factored into the $1 per person charge for "other" menu costs, such as linens, breakage, and condiments.

Getting a Rise
Where there is bread, there must be yeast, flour, and water. Baker and grain consultant Thom Leonard of Heartland Mills—a Kansas-based, farmer-owned seller of fine grains and flours—says, "It's a mistake to think that only the flour or the yeast or the water are what count. Making fine bread is about processing; it's the • fermentation of the yeast and the skill of the baker that create a great loaf of bread."

For Kate Buccigross and Valerie Forburg of the Portland, Ore-gon, restaurant-bakery Il Fornaio, the only equipment is a mixer, and baking bread is still a three-day affair. Italian bread, which tends to be chewier and darker than French, begins in Fornaio's kitchen with a starter mixture of flour, water, and fresh compressed yeast. They don't use butter or salt, both of which can make the yeast rise out of control. The mixture is left overnight, and the following day they mix the dough, allowing it to rise for another day. On the third day they bake the dough. "We only use the traditional Italian bread-baking methods," Buccigross reports. "It takes time, but is worth it." Buccigross and Forburg go through about 750 pounds of flour every three days, which is typical for a small bakery.

From a base of 14 breads, Ii Fornaio introduces different breads each month to match their regional menus. Rosemary bread is offered all year long, and other pop-ular breads include potato and parsley, Farmer's Market Uva (a dense raisin bread), and ciabatta (Italian for "shoe sole"), a flat, dusty white bread perfect for sand-wiches or for dipping in oil and vinegar. Since Ii Fornaio is part restaurant and part bakery, diners can take home the breads they've enjoyed.

In the Kitchen
Although there are myriad ethnic types of loaves, rolls, and flat-breads, white and wheat bread are still the two main choices. Superior examples of Italian and French white breads—such as baguettes and loaves, ciabattis and hard rolls—are widely avail-able. The braided sweet challah is no longer the province of Jewish bakers, and it's a popular source for French toast and other sweet-bread dishes. Sweet Easter breads, once the sea-sonal offering of Greek and Italian bakers, are also available year-round.

With the inclusion of more international cuisine on restaurant menus, today's chef can experiment with Middle Eastern pitas, lavash, and flatbreads; multigrain peasant breads; English crumpets; and Indian chapatis and rotis. And you can purchase everything from fruit and nut breads made with raisins, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, pecans, cranberries, and dates, to breads dotted with olives, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, or potatoes.

Artisan breads are essentially used in the same way as conven-tional breads, but because they are fresher, have more substantial texture, and are chewier, they are a great complement to any dish. Try using a fresh French brioche cored under the knob and stuffed with foie gras; making toast points from a French baguette and serving with caviar; or cutting rounds from an Italian white bread, toasting them, and assembling a tomato-and-garlic-soaked bruschetta. Or for alternatives to the afternoon sandwich, consider fruit and nut breads with cream cheese, savory cheese breads with slices of Roma tomatoes, kalamata olive bread with eggplant "caviar," or rosemary (or other herb) bread with creamy Danish butter. Serve entrée-style salads with Parmesan-toasted multi-grain bread, potato bread, seeded baguettes, savory dried tomato and onion bread, or garlic bread made from unbleached white bread.

Caveat: Artisan breads must be eaten the day they are bought because they do not contain chemical or natural preservatives. But certainly, a chef can make bread crumbs, bread pudding, soups, or other dishes with the leftovers.

Summing up the allure of artisan breads, Buccigross says, "The choices for both restaurateurs and home chefs are legion. Once someone tastes an artisan bread, they have the same reaction: 'This is what bread should be."

By Diana Rosen