Originally published in January 2003, this story was nominated for a Beard Journalism Award. The Willamette Week headline:
Yeast of Burden
At 4 am, normally bustling Northwest 21st Avenue sleeps quietly. I wish I were, too. But I need to see a guy about some bread.
A pool of light spills onto the sidewalk, and behind the steamy windows I see Ken Forkish moving purposefully between a massive oven and an oversize mixer, measuring flour, checking temperatures and shaping loaves.
Some of Portland’s best chefs think the bread from Ken’s Artisan Bakery is more than just good.
Greg Higgins likes Ken’s levain breads, the naturally leavened rustic loaves. “They’ve got just enough tang and a complexity of flavors,” he says, “and nobody else in town makes anything like them.”
“Our customers,” says Vitaly Paley, “tell us it’s the best bread they’ve ever tasted.”
“I’ve eaten bread all around the world,” says Bluehour chef Kenny Giambalvo, “and his is up there with the best.”
Good bread is everywhere in Portland these days. Most supermarkets offer a selection of rustic loaves, several bake their own, and even industrial bakeries crank out misshapen loaves they call “artisanal.” With so much good bread around, what makes Ken’s special?
He uses organic flours and French sea salt. His bakery is equipped with the same nine-ton, steam-injecting Italian oven that Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame is putting in his new Napa bakery, a French mixer that costs more than most small cars, and a sort of cooler on steroids called a retarder that slows the fermentation process.
But the real secret to Ken’s bread is Ken himself. He’s a total bread freak. “I treat bread,” he says, “as fermentation craft.”
“I’m not shy about saying that our goal is to make the best damn bread out there,” he says. He refuses to make trade-offs that might reduce the labor-intensive, time-consuming process of transforming flour, water, and salt into bread that is “on par with the best artisan bakers in the world.”
Forkish came to baking the long way. He was part of the high-tech explosion that brought us the Internet. “I had some stock options,” he says, “I could’ve retired.” But he’d always enjoyed good food and wine. Inspired by an article about French baker Lionel Poilane, he traded bytes for bread in the mid-1990s. (Poilane, largely responsible for the rebirth of traditional bread in France, died in a helicopter crash last year.)
He sought out the world’s best bakers, took classes, baked loaf after loaf until he was satisfied that he was making good bread. On Thanksgiving 2001, he opened Ken’s Artisan Bakery in a renovated carpet warehouse at Northwest 21st Avenue and Flanders Street. Forkish says his business “had as good a first year as I could’ve expected,” but concedes that retail bread sales at the bakery were a “disappointment.”
With a daily production of between 300 and 400 loaves, Forkish can’t compete on volume with Grand Central, the region’s powerhouse of traditional bread. With bakeries in Seattle and Portland, Grand Central bakes thousands of loaves every day.
Even with his top-of-the-line kitchen and the added cost of high-quality organic ingredients, he can sell a loaf of his levain-based country blond bread for $3.50, only a few dimes more than Grand Central’s signature Como loaf. He’s expanded his retail reach to a few outlets, but he’d like to add more. “I’d love to see my bread for sale at New Seasons,” he says.
But to make sure that bread is the best it can be, Forkish is up not long after most of the rest of us have dozed off watching Conan. While he wheels a rack of unbaked bread out of the retarder, I’m fighting to stay awake to record his running commentary on what he’s doing and why.
The retarder, Forkish explains, stretches the cycle that begins with mixing the dough and ends with baking it to nearly 24 hours for some of his breads. To make an exceptional loaf, slow fermentation is critical, but he must bake the bread at the moment when it is completely proofed–when the stretchy gluten in the dough has reached its gas-holding limit. Bake too soon, and the bread expands too quickly; too late, and it collapses.
The beating heart of the bakery is the funky-looking, sour-smelling, living-and-breathing mixture of flour and water called the levain. Levain is French for leaven, and both come from the same Latin root, levare, to rise. Most Americans would call it sourdough, but Forkish avoids using the term. “In France,” he says, “if your bread tasted sour it would be considered a fermentation mistake.”
For the past hour and a half, Forkish hasn’t stopped moving. His pastry chefs showed up at 6 am, and they all dance around the tight space in the rush to get ready for the first customers. The smells of orange zest, raisins soaked in Earl Grey tea, and smoky Niman Ranch ham distract me, but not Forkish. My questions have already slowed him down, and he’s running a few minutes late.
“The Marriage of Figaro” blares from the speakers as Ken lifts a heavy plastic bin onto a flour-dusted table, pops off the lid, and inhales deeply the scent that fuels his obsession. The wheaty, clean freshness of raw flour is mingled with a sharp tang of alcohol and a slightly acidic bite from the levain. It’s a familiar smell reminiscent of a brewery or winery or your grandmother’s kitchen. He flips the wet dough out of the bin, divides it and starts shaping loaves.
Across the room a timer chirps, and he scurries back to the oven. With the doors open, Ken shines a flashlight into the heat to check the color, then extracts the morning’s first bread. The crust is a caramel brown, not the tawny gold of most other rustic breads. “The contrast between crust and crumb,” says Ken, “is the difference between good bread and great bread.”
Slicing into a loaf, you feel the crust crackle, but it’s not tough or too chewy. The crumb is soft, moist and riddled with the holes created by expanding fermentation gases. It has that yeasty, nutlike wheat taste typical of good rustic bread, but there’s another, deeper level of complex flavor that’s hard to pin down. It makes you want to keep eating.
Ken watches me chew the bread, and he can tell that I like it. His eyes crinkle up, and he grins. He starts to tell me about the balance of acidic flavors that come from the levain, the way hand-forming preserves the gluten structure, how even the scoring across the top of the loaves affects the outcome, but another timer goes off and he’s gone. Back to making great bread.