I’m following Zach Golper through his U-shaped wholesale bakery in Sunset Park, learning about how Bien Cuit mixes, ferments, and bakes its bread and pastries, when he drops a recommendation that shatters everything I thought I knew about eating bread. “Don’t eat bread fresh out of the oven,” he says. “Let it sit and cool, so that the gas dissipates into the crumb and locks in the scent and aroma.” Some breads are even better on day two, he says, when the crust is no longer crackly. I press him and his wife/business partner, Kate Wheatcroft, further about how they enjoy bread, and they tell me to tear hunks off the loaf (“Don’t slice,” says Golper) and eat them with a little cultured butter.
Later, standing over my sink with their miche, a massive, round loaf made with rye and wheat flours that undergoes 68 hours of cold fermentation before baking, I decide that they’re wrong on one count — buttering this bread almost seems abhorrent. It distracts from the complex tang, subtle sweet note, and underlying nuttiness. This is a far cry from white loaves, and each bite invites contemplation, like a good wine or cup of coffee. I don’t want to taste butter with this bread — I just want to taste bread.
Golper has been obsessed with bread as long as he can remember; Wheatcroft likes to tell people about the time he drew a picture of himself wearing a chef’s hat and tossing dough in response to his mother’s question about what he wanted to be when he grew up. He was three. His food education started on an organic farm, which is where he began baking; he started exploring the restaurant industry shortly after.
Traveling through Latin America shifted his perspective on food production — “There was no organic farming in Latin America — they just called it farming,” he says. Because he missed bread so much during his trip, the journey also solidified his desire to become a baker. He was drawn to it, he says, because “bread is like water — it’s so old. Humans have consumed it for ages; it’s really part of what we are. Greeks used to describe what is human and what is not as brosia, or those who eat bread, and ambrosia, those who do not. The gods did not eat bread. They were ambrosia.”
Back stateside, he headed straight for Portland and more or less demanded a job at the famed Pearl Bakery. He learned the ropes, then made his way to Seattle, where he worked at Bakery Nouveau, and then Vegas, where he headed the bread program at a casino. That position came with a state-of-the-art system that allowed Golper to precisely control temperature and humidity throughout the bread-making process, including in his fermentation room. That allowed him to experiment with ideal conditions for baking, which he’d later build into his own enterprise.
Philadelphia’s Le Bec Fin called next, and Golper, champing at the bit to get out to the East Coast, leapt at the idea. Wheatcroft, however, couldn’t stomach their new hometown. So they moved to New York, where they lucked into the Smith Street space that would become Bien Cuit’s storefront. “We were walking down Smith Street and saw this bookstore going out of business, and we were like, ‘Oh, this would be great,’ ” Wheatcroft says. “We were with a broker two weeks later, and that was the first place he showed us. We signed the lease in record time — like three days. We have a great landlord, and it all played out perfectly.”
They launched in 2011, ushering in what could be thought of as, to borrow a phrase from the coffee industry, bread’s third wave — the first wave is the mass-produced processed loaves we’ve been eating since the Fifties; the second wave came when bakers like Sullivan Street Bakery’s Jim Leahy, Amy’s Bread’s Amy Scherber, and Pain d’Avignon’s Uliks Fehmiu, Bane Stamenkovic, and Teofil Zurovac opened artisan shops in the Nineties, using white flour and old-world technique.
Third-wave bakers still use old technique, but they’ve shifted the focus to milling and sourcing. “The more you can incorporate whole grain, the better the bread tastes,” Golper says matter-of-factly. This is because the flavor — and minerals and essential fatty acids — lives in the bran, which is stripped away from flour when it’s processed into the white commercial stuff you find in the grocery store. Third-wave bakers have begun selecting millers who can avoid separating the bran from the germ, delivering flour that’s processed for flavor. Because it’s easy to ruin flour when you mill it this way — and because it spoils faster — Golper and Wheatcroft are constantly on the lookout for millers, both local and national, who make great-tasting product.
Once Golper and Wheatcroft have the product, they use slow (cold) fermentation and a starter culture to turn it into bread, a process that takes at least three days for most loaves. Laminated breads like croissants can take even longer. “Over the course of time, I found that if you use the older technique and slow fermentation and starter culture, you get bread that’s immensely digestible and way more flavorful,” says Golper. “This is the way bakers have been doing it for thousands of years.”
Proof of concept comes from the fact that soon after it opened, Golper and Wheatcroft’s little Smith Street shop was nursing a massive wholesale business that necessitated additional production space. The couple picked up a warehouse and built out a line where scads of eager bakers move flour, yeast, and water through pre-fermentation, mixing, fermentation, and the oven — convection for most breads and pastries, and a deck oven with heated stone slabs for large loaves. Finished products go into the packing room and then out for delivery, which Wheatcroft says is the most challenging part of the process.
Since Bien Cuit opened its doors, scores of third-wave bakeries have debuted as well, but Golper and Wheatcroft don’t worry so much about the competition — “It’s a tight-knit community,” says Golper. “That was an unexpected pleasantry.” Older bakers have been quick with advice, too.
And Wheatcroft is getting ready to launch a software product, born from frustrations with off-the-shelf wholesale management systems, that she hopes will help everyone in the business: “It’s a cloud-based system that manages the entire process,” she explains. “It allows you to turn your orders into recipes, and it keeps track of everything right up to printing delivery slips. It’s built for people who are doing larger baking operations who need to get everything together.” It’s also mobile, unlike the old systems, which run on PCs.
At the end of the day, Wheatcroft and Golper believe that the more good bread out there, the better — changing tastes help drive demand for better farming, and good food helps educate people about what they should be eating. “It really feels good to be feeding a lot of people,” says Golper. “I’m lucky to love what I do.”