Last month, Zachary Golper and his wife, Kate Wheatcroft, opened the doors to Bien Cuit, their brand-new bakery on Smith Street. The couple came to New York from Philadelphia, where Golper baked bread and pastries for Le Bec-Fin, one of the city’s most renowned restaurants. Philadelphia was one of many stops on Golper’s long and winding road to Brooklyn: Born in Portland, Oregon, he began baking bread on a farm at the age of 19, and worked his way through kitchens in Las Vegas, Austin, Taos, Seattle, France, and Portland.
At Bien Cuit, Golper’s breads, tarts, and pastries have already won a following both in the neighborhood and here at Fork in the Road — we’re big fans of his tarts and zucchini sandwich. So we called Golper up to learn more about his work, and he told us quite a bit. Tomorrow, in Part 2 of our interview, he’ll tell us even more.
How did you start baking?
It’s a pretty simple story. A lot of bakers, even though they don’t dramatize it too much, the reality is we all have an attraction to that fermentation process. There’s something about it that lures us in.
I wanted to learn a little bit more about farming, and they had me in the orchard working with pears, apples, and nuts. There was this guy who every three days would start this process in this tiny little room, by candlelight. He was baking in a wood-fired oven; it was attractive. I’d walk by him every now and then, and asked if he minded if I cut in and helped him a little bit.
So I came in in the mornings and he showed me the process, the old European way where you start with a little piece of starter, build it up the second day, and the third day add salt, water, and flour and turn it into this mass. It’s all done by hand, and he showed me the rhythm to it, the way you move your hands. The oven was adobe-style, extremely efficient. When we were ready to bake, the sun would be coming up and the entire staff on the farm would wake up to the smell of baking bread. That was of course the first thing that attracted me to it: “Oh man, it smells so good.” The aroma brought me in.
Bread bakers seem so serious about their work — it’s almost as if bread has some kind of religious aspect for them.
It’s certainly a cycle, in that life is obviously a cyclical event, and some people will go even deeper into the bread and talk about the birth of the sourdough starter and that most ultimate fate, which is to die in the oven. And we of course appreciate the carcass once it’s there. [Laughs.]
There’s certainly some larger metaphor for what we do. To me, it’s just about doing what I love to do. I’m fortunate being a baker and it being such a repetitive process — every single day, I’m forced to do what I love to do, otherwise the process dies. She’s [the starter] temperamental, but if you know how to work with her, she gives you this fantastic product that usually people are drawn to.
It’s more than good taste or texture — there’s something indescribably attractive about that substance that we as bakers, our livelihood is based on. But I also love my relationship with the starter. We’re starting to branch out and take her in different directions. Little by little, she has to get used to her environment and her feeding cycle. When her metabolism is firmly established on a 12-hour cycle, that’s when the bread comes out correctly. We know what to expect from her and she knows what to expect from us.
You talk about the starter like it’s a person.
She acts like it — she’s either happy or not happy. [Laughs.]
Why did you and your wife decide to open a bakery here and not in Philly?
I’d had New York in my sights for quite some time. I had this place in my heart; I felt New York is where some of the best food, certainly in our country, is being made, and I wanted at some point in my life to become a part of that place. When someone is genuine about what they’re making and has good training and good instincts, what they’re making will come out very nice. I felt when we came to New York, it would be good to us.
I had the opportunity to do [the bakery] in Philly — I approached this guy I knew through Le Bec-Fin and asked him, and he looked at the menu, got excited, and said, “Let’s do this in Philly. I don’t want to go to New York.” I didn’t want to do that. This is where I wanted to be, and I think sometimes, if it’s what you want to do, you’ve just got to go there. So I said, “No, thank you,” to him. It would have been easier, but also the foot traffic in Philly is not the same as it is here. And the level of sophistication in the way that people look at food does exist in Philly, but not on as large a scale as it does in New York, so I thought that would be good for business on many different levels.
So far, it seems like New York has been really good for your business.
I certainly hope it works. We’re trying to make very nice food. That’s what the core of it is. As long as you make very nice food, people will enjoy eating and coming to it as a place for congregation. I think wherever you do it, a bakery of our style will be to some extent successful. And really, New York is such an extraordinary place with a tremendous amount of diversity and fun. People are exciting here, and on the move. I love it.