Up In the Air

September 17, 2013

I am flying across the country to bake. Not a celebrity chef going to a James Beard Foundation fund-raising dinner, I am instead on my way to the San Francisco Baking Institute to select a bread-baking oven.

We may learn in a couple of weeks that the electrical upgrades we must make to the little building on Connecticut Avenue will cost $30,000 – possibly even more. We know we’ll have to have to fabricate a stainless steel hood for our kitchen stove, grill and fryer – and that may cost $20,000.  We’ll have to buy and install a large new gas meter and do an enormous job of plumbing and install a grease traps and floor drains for cleaning.

A little later, I’ll have another oven to put into the pastry room too.  If our business is enormous we might eventually have to buy a rotating convection oven as large as a large closet. But we are going to start in our pastry kitchen with a double-deck convection oven. That we might be able to get on the used equipment market.

The bread dough mixer is also a very important and costly ($17,000) machine and the water chiller ($10,000) and the retarding and proofing box ($19,000) that makes it possible not to bake through the night.



But the bread oven will cost between $55,000 and $80,000 and so which to buy is is the most important, expensive equipment decision I must make in this six-month process of creating Bread Furst and it justifies a two-day trip to San Francisco.

These ovens are special; they’re not mere hyperthyroid versions of what’s in a home kitchen. They are big steel boxes with insulated stone decks two and half inches thick and they sit on cement foundations specially made on the floor on which they will reside.

They are constructed to hold steady heat when 120 pounds of cold dough is put on those decks. And they have generators that inject steam onto each deck so that loaves of bread can expand to their maximum and develop color and flavor from caramelization of their crusts.

bread oven

These ovens are made to order. They come in standard sizes and they are made with the same specifications but they don’t sit on showroom floors like Steinway pianos. They are made after they have been bought.

I have to make this decision now, six months before we open.  We are going to want that oven to be delivered in January toward the end of our construction. To bring it into to the store we’ll have to remove the front widows – the oven panels are that big. We’ll have to build the foundation first.

We can’t wait until November to order the oven. By that time the factories will have started to slow down for the holidays. And in any case, suppose when the oven arrives by ship in Baltimore or Newark, the customs inspectors are backed up and our delivery is delayed. These things happen.

The oven must be ordered now.

Rather than flying across the country I could be going up the road to Cranbury, New Jersey to choose a Bongard, a French oven that is the most widely used steam-deck oven in the world.  It’s what you’re likely to see if you peer into the back of a little neighborhood bakery in Paris.

I bought a Bongard when I opened my first bakery in 1990, Marvelous Market on upper Connecticut Avenue.  It was the only oven I knew then and at that time only very few people in the U.S. were baking what we then called “traditional bread,” and there were not so many people to advise me.

The Bongard at Marvelous Market always baked unevenly, a very important deficiency as it requires the baker to move breads continuously around the oven, doubling, tripling the burdens of an already demanding job.

In spite of that in 1992 I bought a second Bongard four times as large for my very unwise expansion of Marvelous Market.  It had so many serious deficiencies that the repair establishment in the U.S. washed its hands of the oven and I was forced to make a trip to Strasbourg to plead for help from the manufacturing plant.

It never functioned well.

I won’t consider a Bongard but other ovens are now available. But I am returning to SFBI where I bought the oven for The BreadLine.

I am going there because of Michel Suas who in 1986 started a bakery equipment and consulting business.

Michel Suas

He is an old Briton who became a pastry chef in the traditional way, apprenticing himself at the age of 14 to a small restaurant in Brittany and then to others. At the age of 19 he went to work for Charles Barrier, a Michelin three-star chef in the Loire. But in 19, Barrier expressed his dissatisfaction in the manner of French chefs of the time and kicked Michel down a staircase. That’s why Michel Suas came to America.

A soft-spoken, somewhat diffident but opinionated man, Michel is an utterly reliable advisor and I have been depending on him for 21 years. So it’s only sensible that I am here again to talk about Bread Furst, to get his advice, and to try these ovens for myself. I know that if I do buy one here, I will get a fair price and a guarantee of proper installation and good service.

I will make three doughs tomorrow, a rye, a whole wheat, and a baguette.  After a few hours of fermentation, shaping, and proofing I will bake them, looking at the two ovens for steam capacity, heat rentention, and evenness of bake.

And then I will choose between them.

bread oven

I wish I didn’t have to buy this oven now. We have just started working on Bread Furst’s development. I wrote three checks yesterday and mailed them today – one for $3,000 to Mr. Wyble, the engineer, another for $3,000 to Alto-Hartley, the kitchen engineers, and a $1,000 down payment to our attentive lawyer, Richard Levin.

I haven’t yet raised all the money we’ll need for equipment, construction, and utility upgrades. I haven’t made even a downpayment to our architects who have taken a big risk with me by having done so much work even before I finally signed the lease.

But here I am, about to land at San Francisco Airport where I will pick up a rental car. I will drive immediately a short distance to SFBI and start making pre-ferments for the doughs that I will make and then bake tomorrow, some in one oven, some in the other, hoping I can make a choice and particularly the right choice.

  1. Laura Lee says:

    With your vast experience and expertise I have complete confidence that you will make the best possible choice for this new bakery. I’m just glad that it is you making it and not me! Welcome back to the West!

  2. Phyllis Richman says:


  3. Joe Cameron says:

    First of all, a hearty THANK YOU for bringing quality bread back to DC! Like so many others, I am very excited about the forthcoming bakery. I do have one burning question (please forgive me if you’re tired of being asked). Will you have breads, especially baguettes, for those of us who LOVE good bread but just don’t like the taste of sourdough? Perhaps a blog posting on sourdough vs non-sourdough would be of general interest. Also, thanks for generously sharing the details of the evolving Bread Furst via this blog. I wish you the greatest success!

    • Thank you for the generous sentiments.

      We will have sourdough breads but not a sour baguette.

      My taste has changed over the past two decades and like you, I don’t care for the sour tang when it’s in a baguette, a bread I have come to think is meant to be fresh. Our baguette will be thin crusted and light, full of holes and with a faintly sweet, almost milky flavor of fresh wheat.

      It will be baked every four hours and unlike other breads that benefit from a long cooling and settling of more complex flavors, our baguette will be best an hour out of the oven.

  4. […] have already bought the oven and I am told it is in production.  I made that choice after that three-day trip to San Francisco I wrote about last month.  After trying the two ovens and agonizing, I made the safe but expensive choice and bought the […]

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