It may be hard to believe, but Josey Baker is an artisan of toast, that insert-bread-into-slot standby that even 5-year-olds can handle. Every detail is lovingly attended to, from heating up the toaster to carefully spreading almond butter on every corner of the bread, and by the time he finishes up with a theatrical flourish of salt it seems (almost) a shame to eat the masterpiece.
Baker debuted his signature toasts today at The Mill, his still-under-construction collaboration with Four Barrel on Divisadero. The bakery/coffee shop won't officially open until September, but the crew has set up a makeshift tent café in the active construction site. A saw whined in the background as Baker cut a healthy slice of this morning's sunflower-pumpkin-flax-sourdough bread and held his hand over the toaster to see if it had reached the optimal temperature.
Though Baker subscribes to the philosophy that good bread should speak for itself, it took him a while to master the particular properties of toast. "Each type of bread, to be its highest form of itself, requires a little bit of a different treatment," he says. Dense, dark rye breads need to be cut thinner than airy sourdough, for example. The toaster also plays a role. "It took me some tweaking to realize the benefits of preheating the toaster a little bit so you can get the outside crisped up before you start to dry out the inside," he says.
The results of his tweaking put everything I knew as toast to shame; it made me realize how good a slice of toast could be. The bread's exterior was perfectly crisped, a little darker around the edges, and the inside was soft enough to have a nice amount of chew. The flavor changes in your mouth: a hit of sourdough tang, a whisper of pumpkin sweetness, a crunch of sunflower seeds. Topped with Baker's homemade almond butter, Sonoma butter, and a sprinkle of salt, it would made for a supremely satisfying breakfast or mid-morning snack.
Baker doesn't have a schedule planned for his daily bread and toppings, but mentioned incorporating local jams, honey, fresh fruit, maybe some avocado. "We're going to keep it pretty simple, though", he says. "Just a couple different things on top and let the bread speak loudly." And when his flour mill is installed and fully operational (he plans to grind his own flour in-house), he's looking forward to experimenting with flours and grains to make bread exactly to his specifications.
This sort of single-minded dedication could become pretentious in a hurry, but the former teacher keeps a sense of perspective about the whole endeavor. "Probably a lot of people don't pay as close attention [as I do]," says Baker. "I mean, it is just toast."
Find Josey Baker in action at The Mill, 736 Divisadero (at Fulton), S.F. Hours: Wed.-Fri. 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.