Twenty years ago, Jim Lahey flung open the doors to the first Sullivan Street Bakery in Soho on a mission to get Americans to eat better bread. His goal hasn’t changed much — “A lot of chefs put mediocre bread on the table,” he says — but the culinary landscape certainly has.
“Twenty years ago, chefs spent most of their time in the kitchen instead of traveling halfway around the world narrating the social ills and extolling the culinary virtues of places that are far away,” he says. “I’ve been around long enough that I remember life before Food Network and after. In relation to our narrative, it’s like the coming of Jesus Christ. Any one who bathes in its light is holy, and anyone who didn’t make it is not. It’s really changed the whole narrative about food. It was really cool to witness that and the change in our food system.”
And Lahey’s life has changed, too: “Twenty years ago, I was in my kitchen, and I rarely made it out to bars,” he says. “By the time I finished work, the bars were closed. So I would go to a deli at 8 a.m., and I’d get funny looks from people as I put my beer on the counter.”
He’s survived, he says, because of luck and consistency, adding, “I’ve worked my ass off.” Sullivan Street continues to make baked goods in small batches, and it continues to turn out good bread. That Soho shop is gone — a partner in the business acquired it and converted it into Grandaisy Bakery in 2010 — but he still owns a pair of outlets, located in Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea, as well as Co., a Chelsea pizzeria. This year, he has plans to make Sullivan Street the greenest bakery in the country; he’s already installed an oven that uses less energy and powers his hot water and heat.
Moving forward, he’d also like to see more small producers open up shop in NYC. “I’m not against scaling up, but we need more boutiques, more bakeries on the scale of Sullivan Street or Dominique Ansel or Bien Cuit,” he says. “We don’t have enough.” He’d also like to see more butchers and cheesemongers; it’s those small purveyors, he says, that really push the industry forward. Though he cautions people starting in the industry to understand what they’re getting into, especially if they’re just hoping to end up on TV: “If you work your ass off for five years, you know what you’re going to have at the end? A job,” he says. “I hope all these kids graduating from culinary school consider their motivations for what they’re doing — if you’ve got talent, and you’re lucky, you might make it.”
Sullivan Street is celebrating its birthday with a number of deals; stop by either location today or any Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday until April 17, and you’ll get a slice of pizza bianca for $1, the original 1994 price. Each Thursday from now until April 17, you’ll be privy to an extra deal; look for 1994 bread prices on April 3 and a buy-one-get-one special on slices of Roman-style pizza on April 17.
Here’s to 20 years. “It’s been but a blink of the eye,” says Lahey.