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The Pain of It All 

Bay Area bread-makers challenge the French for world baking supremacy

Wednesday, May 28 1997
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Craig Ponsford is a world champion, and he has the trophy to prove it, an enormous silver cup that dominates one corner of his cluttered Sonoma office.

"Bread's a big deal in Europe," he shrugs, a little embarrassed. But it's fair to say the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie is a big deal in culinary circles everywhere. The international baking competition is even televised in France; Ponsford's win in the bread category marks the first time an American has taken the cup.

Alarmed by this loss and a disturbing trend -- more mass-produced bread and less bread-eating, countrywide -- the French government has begun an ad campaign exhorting its citizenry to consume more pain. The decline of the baguette, the ads warn, symbolizes the decline of French culture.

The Bay Area has no such bread problems. More craft bakeries are thriving here -- where some half a million pounds of handmade bread is eaten each week -- than anywhere else in the country. Part of that consumption relates to San Francisco's long-established foodie culture, but craft bread is a democratic pleasure here, bought by many more than just those in snobby gourmet circles.

Certainly, the rise of Bay Area bread has nothing to do with a laid-back lifestyle. It's hard making a living baking bread. The hours are almost impossibly long. The work is physically demanding. Overhead is high, profit margins are narrow, and, one baker claims, everything that can go wrong does so -- at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning.

"It's a great mix," says Ponsford cheerily. "Food and hard work, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

San Francisco has loved bread since the gold rush; every schoolkid knows about the prospectors and their cherished sourdough. But when mass production came to the baking industry after World War II, even sourdough became standardized, treated with dough conditioners and preservatives.

Smaller bakeries were all but pushed out of the market.
"We started our operation at a point at which wholesale baking of crusty breads had reached an institutional low point in this country," says Steve Sullivan, the founder of Acme Breads and the de facto godfather of artisan baking in the Bay Area.

Like many other food world stars, he started at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, busing tables while baking bread at home as a hobby. Then chef/owner Alice Waters asked him to bake for the restaurant. The next year, 1979, he dropped out of UC Berkeley to work full time.

"It was really a heady kind of thing," says the deeply tanned, silver-ponytailed Sullivan. "I'd bake bread in the morning, pizza in the afternoon, and then in the evening, if the busboy didn't show up, I might end up serving my bread to the customers myself."

Acme opened its first location in 1983 and was an instant success. "Our emergence really sparked the renaissance in this area," Sullivan claims. "I know that three of the bakeries in the Bay Area really arose because people saw that we were able to do it."

Sullivan says neighborhood bakeries help revitalize communities by creating well-paying blue-collar jobs -- 105 at Acme alone. He also believes he's putting wholesome food within everyone's budget. "One of the great things about bread is that you can provide the best in the world of something for just a few cents more than crap," he says.

But the public still has to want to pay those few cents more, and in the Bay Area, the public does.

Michel Suas, founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute in South San Francisco, theorizes that the success of Bay Area bread-making correlates to the rise in cost of almost everything else here.

"Everything becomes so expensive," he explains. "Real estate, everything. What you have left is actually food to enjoy."

Suas, who set up his consultancy in 1986 after immigrating to the Bay Area from France, imports baking equipment and has helped most of the top bakeries in North America develop everything from business plans to signature breads. Suas' executive baker, Lionel Vatinet, waxes poetic, explaining the near-mystical connection he and many craft bakers have with their bread. "You work every day with something alive," he says. "The dough is breathing, just like us."

Vatinet calls the decline of craft baking in France "catastrophic," and believes bakers everywhere have a duty to do good work. "Every piece they make is going to be shared with a family, with someone," he says.

Today, Suas and Vatinet are making chocolate cherry bread. The pieces are shared; unsurprisingly, they are delicious.

Tom Frainier, a co-owner of Semifreddi's, an Emeryville-based bakery, likes to drop by the Baking Institute in time for lunch, when chocolate cherry bread and other experiments are divvied up by the staff. "And then you can go, 'Oh, hey, are you guys eating? Gee, mind if we join you?' " Frainier says.

A brash newcomer to the business, Semifreddi's has grown from three employees to nearly 100 in just under a decade, and Frainier, a self-proclaimed "bread nerd" who frequently bounces on his toes as he speaks, says the bakery will likely outgrow its current space soon -- and again.

Bread may never put the Bay Area on the map the way zinfandel and chardonnay have. Craft bread, after all, is highly perishable; it must be sold within about an hour's drive of the oven. Most tourists only get as far as a mass-produced sourdough round, filled with Fisherman's Wharf chowder. But the Bay Area's successful bakers now teach and consult all over the world, spreading word of the bread renaissance here as they go.

Frainier recounts a conversation some friends had while visiting France. "In Paris, they asked someone where they could get a good loaf of bread," he says.

The Parisian answered, "Berkeley.

About The Author

Laurel Wellman

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