It's 4:30 on a Saturday morning, and instead of being asleep like any sane person, I'm stumbling half-awake down my steep apartment stairs and though the eerily quiet streets of the Mission. At a nondescript commissary kitchen at 15th and Florida, I am greeted by Marla Bakery proprietress Amy Brown, looking disconcertingly more awake than myself.
I follow her dark red clogs through the expansive, unoccupied kitchen, past the walk-ins and dry storage spaces, the endless rows of proofing bread dough and countless sheet trays. Brown wastes no time settling in. She rolls lavender shortbread dough to 1/4" thickness and cuts it into perfect squares. Brown deftly ping-pongs between ovens, pantries, and buzzing timers, moving with the confidence and ease that comes with more than 15 years of experience. By 6:30 a.m., she has simmered milk and cream for crème anglaise, removed trays of chocolate chip cookies from the oven, and lined tart shells with dough.
Brown's culinary path began on a post-college trip to Italy. She left home with one goal: to master the art of breadmaking. Abroad, Brown fell in love with a craft that would shape her career. "When I returned home 11 months later, I gave myself a deadline. I decided to bake bread until I got tired of it," she says. Thankfully, that day never came. After stints at various restaurants in Cotati, CA, she began working at Citizen Cake's former 14th Street location. When it relocated to Grove Street in 2000, Brown followed as the head bread baker. She stayed for six years, all the while holding down various second jobs: "I worked as a pastry assistant and a line cook," she says. "I even briefly tried my hand at front of the house, but they sent me back to the kitchen."
Upon leaving Citizen Cake, Brown took the helm of Nopa's pastry department. She likens her first days at the Divisadero hot spot to "running to jump on a moving train." In her five years there, that train never slowed. In 2010, Brown added even more to her already-brimming plate with the creation of the much-anticipated and instantly popular brunch menu. That custardy, transcendent French toast? The airy, housemade English muffins served with corned beef hash and perfectly poached eggs? All her.
Nopa gave Brown more than a platform to showcase her talents; it also set the stage for her to meet fiancé (and Marla co-owner) Joe Wolf, who worked as a prep cook at the time. Brown attributes much of Marla's actualization to Wolf, who, Brown admits, is better-suited to handle the financial side of the business. Together, they jumped headfirst into pursuing their dream of owning their own bakery/restaurant. In November, "Marla," (the compilation of the first initials of all the family members who taught Brown and Wolf to cook, as well as an "A" for "Amy," and as Brown says, "a silent 'J' for 'Joe'") became a reality. In December, they began selling their breads and pastries at Thursday evening's Mission Community Market and in April, added Sunday morning's Picnic in the Presidio; pop ups at Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, Dear Mom, and State Bird Provisions followed, as did the accounts. They acquired their first in January, and in just six months' time, they had gained 14 more, including Ritual Coffee Roasters, Pal's Takeaway, Range, Samovar Tea Lounge, and Boulette's Larder.
As Brown prepares for the day's first delivery to Ritual Coffee Roasters, she removes three trays of Marla buns (her version of the morning bun) from the convection oven. She meticulously lines a pastry box with sheets of wax paper and places the buns alongside rows of sweet cheese Danishes and biscotti. When Wolf arrives at 6:45 a.m. to pick up the delivery, Brown's face lights up. "When Joe goes to Ritual, he comes back with coffee," she says with a smile. With the promise of a cappuccino in her near future, Brown readies the red currant pot du crèmes, chocolate chip cookies, and whey crackers for the subsequent delivery to Samovar Tea Lounge.
When Wolf returns at 7:30 a.m., with Brown's cappuccino in hand, we head out to the Alemany Farmers' Market. Because Brown works largely with flour, sugar, and other "season-less" ingredients, her trips to the market are a much-anticipated chance to wield her whisk of creativity. On today's shopping list: stone fruit for a marzipan-rich galette, pistachios for lacy macaroons, and corn, zucchini, and "goldbar" yellow squash for a succotash-studded tart. As Brown walks toward the Bella Viva Orchards stand, she smells, tastes, and touches her way through the chaotic rows, selecting each ingredient with care and reverence. The trip is brief but productive; after one final stop at Dirty Girl Produce for a basket of tomatoes and a pound of spring onions, it's back to the kitchen.
When we return from the market an hour and a half later, I unload and organize the bags of produce as Brown turns her radio to "This American Life." She gathers her scale and dusts the countertop with a generous coating of flour. She momentarily escapes from view, returning with a large metal mixing bowl of puffed whole wheat levain dough. I watch, transfixed, as Brown methodically kneads the dough, adding regular amounts of flour until it reaches the desired consistency. The process of making whole wheat levain is a rather unique one; it is the only one of her breads that she mixes completely by hand.
"Any changes to the dough - the differences in the grind of the flour, the humidity, and temperature are done completely by feel," she says. "I like learning along with my bread and feeling along with my bread ... You never make the same bread twice. Bread is a good teacher. It's a frustrating teacher at times, but a good one." She portions the levain into one-pound loaves and places them on wax paper-lined sheet trays for one final rest.
Brown eagerly anticipates the day when the oven, and the kitchen space that surrounds it, will be all her own. Just three months ago, she and Wolf signed a lease for a 1,400 square foot brick and mortar at the intersection of Balboa and 37th Avenue in the Richmond; if everything goes as planned, she will soon be producing her loaves out of a custom two-deck wood-fired oven designed by a mason in Vermont. "We are still very much in the planning phase," explains Brown. "We intend to open for breakfast and lunch, as well as weekly Sunday suppers. Eventually, we would like to expand dinner service to three nights a week." Also, on her wish list: a marble countertop so Brown can make baklava completely from scratch, a technique she learned during a five-week stint in Istanbul.
While Marla's growth has been rapid and the journey to get there exciting, it has by no means been easy. Brown's workweeks are six days long. Her days begin at 4:30 a.m., and conclude, as Brown matter-of-factly states, "when my prep list is done."
"One of the most difficult aspects is realizing that you are ultimately responsible for everything; knowing that this is it. This is entirely our doing. And at the end of a string of 20-hour work days, when you have to wake up at 4 a.m. again...and you know there is no one else to call, and things have to get done; those are the times when I'm like 'fuck'."
I leave Brown's kitchen at 1:30 p.m., exactly eight hours after I arrived. She stays for another seven. There are more cookies to bake, dough to mix, and galettes to assemble. The almighty prep list must be obeyed.