by Liza Roberts
photographs by Nick Pironio
At 2 a.m., as liquored-up college kids are polishing off a game of cornhole outside the Back 9 Pub in Cary, master baker Lionel Vatinet is arriving at work next door.
The yeasty scent of just-baked bread welcomes him like a warm fog. Loaves are already out of the oven, because at 2 a.m., work is well under way at La Farm, the bakery he opened 14 years ago. Named one of the “20 great American bread bakeries” by Saveur magazine last year, La Farm’s kitchen has miles to go before sunup.
Nevertheless, it’s quiet inside; the four bakers already working are focused and busy. And it’s bright, the antithesis of night: fluorescent light, gleaming surfaces, flour, dough, and white La Farm T-shirts make for a bleached, monochromatic scene.
“This crew does not drink coffee,” says Vatinet with a Gallic shrug, handing a bleary visitor a steaming cup. With his crisp white baker’s jacket, closely shorn hair, discreet goatee and gold hoop earrings, Vatinet, 47, looks French before he opens his mouth. When he does, there’s no mistake.
With noontime energy, and in rolling, trilling, nonstop French-accented English, he talks about his passion: Baking, bread; his wife and business partner, Missy; their two young children; his devoted cadre of long-term employees.
One is Fernand Somadjagbi, 39, a native of the French-speaking West African republic of Benin and an employee of the past 11 years. At careful intervals, he takes the temperature of dough he’s making in a cauldron-sized mixer and records it in neat handwriting. His hands shape the dough into loaves as he speaks rapid French with his boss, and they go over the night’s plan.
It’s a busy one. More than 1,000 loaves of bread of 15 different types will emerge from the ovens before morning. About 80 percent of these will be sold to customers here in the bakery; the rest will head to the shelves of local Whole Foods stores, or be sold at farmer’s markets around the Triangle. Some will be FedExed all over the country.
If Vatinet’s fan base is already broad, it’s about to grow. Because in November, his book, A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker, will be published by Little, Brown. Jacques Pepin has already called the book “remarkable” and La Brea Bakery founder Nancy Silverton, a renowned California pastry chef, describes it as “a masterpiece of baking.”
2:30 a.m. Baker Stephan Wittwer, 22, and Vatinet together slide linen-wrapped loaves the size of deflated basketballs into the European stone hearth oven. These are La Farm’s signature five-pound sourdough boules, made from locally milled organic flour, and after Vatinet dusts their tops with a little more flour, he uses a lame, or handled razor blade, to score them with the wide tic-tac-toe pattern that makes them unmistakably “La Farm.” This practice allows some carbon dioxide to escape and is also rooted in history: For centuries, in community ovens across France, families kept track of their loaves by marking them with distinctive scores like this. The scores also provide a clue to the done-ness of the loaves, Vatinet explains. When the inside of the score begins to brown, it’s time to take them out.
But before these boules go in the oven, Vatinet has to slide each loaf out of its linen proofing cloth, or couche. These wick away a bit of moisture, helping to create a crunchy crust, and provide support, separation, and protection for the raw dough: “Bread is very fragile,” Vatinet says. “We don’t want it kissing.” His mother, who lives in the small town of La Tranche-sur-Mer in Western France, made each of La Farm’s several hundred couches by hand, cutting them from a roll of French linen and hemming them just-so. As Vatinet rolls each boule out of its couche, Wittwer hangs the linen to dry on a wall rack to dry. By the end of the morning, the rack will be fluttering with them.
3 a.m. Vatinet is discussing the weather. “The weather doesn’t adapt to you; you adapt to the weather,” he says. “Every day you have to change.” The extreme humidity on this night means that the gluten in the flour will absorb water more quickly, and the dough won’t ferment as long, he says. Humidity and temperature affect not only the behavior of the dough, but how many people are likely to be out buying it. Accommodating mother nature is one of many ways that baking is simple, but it’s not, Vatinet says. “There are only four ingredients, flour, water, salt, and yeast. But there are so many things we can do with them.”
Vatinet has been steeped in the baking tradition since he was 16 and an apprentice in Les Compagnons du Devoir, the prestigious baking guild where he studied for seven years. It was there that he met and befriended Eric Kayser, the now-famous Parisian baker whose Maison Kayser has 80 locations around the globe. And it was in the guild that Vatinet’s early passion for bread baking became a lifetime pursuit. “It became a calling right away. I found a joy and a challenge,” he says. It hasn’t stopped: “The making of bread remains my life’s consuming passion.”
La Farm’s head baker, Brook Berkeley, 36, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, arrives. Like the others, he’s early for his shift. “Punctuality is very important,” Vatinet says. “The yeast doesn’t wait for you.”
Berkeley checks an order book to ensure the day’s preparations are under way, and begins weighing dough for loaves. Baking, for Berkeley, is also a passion; he sought a job at La Farm after eating the bread at Whole Foods. “Every day is a little different,” he says. “It’s definitely a challenge.” The process is rewarding: “Seeing it from start to finish, mixing it, shaping it, seeing it come out of the oven – there’s a lot of pride put behind it. It feels good to put out a good product.”
3:30 a.m. Prince Ndey-Bhoyo, a native Congolese and fellow French speaker, arrives to pick up loaves for Whole Foods. “Hello, ça va,” Vatinet calls out. They chat happily while Wittwer continues putting loaves in and taking loaves out of the oven, then sliding them on to the stacked shelves of rolling racks.
The fact that it is the middle of the night seems not to occur to any of these people. When do they sleep? The question seems to confound them all.
“I am a baker by trade,” Vatinet says. “When you are sleeping, we are baking.” He grins broadly and gestures to his employees: “They are here, they are smiling. You definitely become used to it.”
“It’s challenging for some,” says Berkeley, who typically gets four or five hours of shut-eye before work every night. “But it’s something I really like doing.”
Somadjagbi rejects the question out of hand: “I don’t sleep,” he says. “I barely sleep. An hour, 30 minutes. When I have a day that I’m off, though…”
“I’m more of a cat sleeper,” Vatinet admits, one who takes a “little bit of a siesta” some afternoons, and the odd 20-minute nap. “For me, 20 minutes is magical. If it’s more than this, it’s more difficult.”
Gudelia Martinez works a few yards away, making scones, quiches, cream puffs, eclairs, and tarts. She has been here for 12 years and comes in every night at 11 p.m., leaving at 7 a.m. Sleep, for her, happens between the hours of 8 or 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. “I like it here,” she says. She gestures to Vatinet: “I like him. He’s my teacher.”
4 a.m. Vatinet and Somadjagbi are tossing balls of dough into a machine that rolls them into long tubular loaves: baguettes. Vatinet is talking about his wife, Missy, whom he met in the mid-’90s. “When are you going to open your bakery?” she asked him. “She’s an entrepreneur, a locomotive,” he says. Soon, they were in love and making plans together, researching the country for the best place to launch a bakery, a place where they could make a mark right away.
Cary won out: There was nothing like it here; Missy had relatives nearby; they learned that people from all over the world were moving to the area. He gestures around the bakery: “What you see is her, what you taste is me.” He credits the community’s reception for the success and expansion of La Farm. “The people who live around here are incredible,” he says. When the bakery expanded, opening an 80-seat café, they came in droves. Still, “we are a bread bakery, first and foremost.”
4:30 a.m. Wittwer, who grew up in his father’s bakery near Stuttgart, Germany, maintains his nonstop pace at the oven. “In Germany, small bakeries like my father’s are dying off,” he says, sliding out a sheaf of toasty loaves, each holding a secret: a small well of olive oil and herbs baked within. At La Farm, he says, he can do the work he loves and in a country he has grown to love, too.
Wittwer’s area is silent but for the sliding sounds of his wooden paddle into and out of the oven. From the back of the bakery comes the smack of plastic bins of dough on the floor, the thud of wooden boards that hold the rising dough, and the music of French banter. The smell, everywhere, is heaven. The bakery is now filling up with cooling loaves of a dozen varieties; pastries, too, are baking and cooling.
Vatinet joins a visitor at a table in the still-dark café. “If I sit down, I have a hard time getting back up,” he admits. “You stand for whatever time it takes.”
5 a.m. The outside world rears its head: NPR comes on the radio, and Eric Hodge of WUNC-FM begins delivering the day’s news. The tile floor is now so coated with flour that to walk across it is like ice skating.
Vatinet takes a moment to show a visitor a few tricks of the trade as he forms loaves of the soft, sliceable bread called pan de mie. “You want to work with the flour, not in it,” he says, demonstrating the proper way to flour the work surface: With a tiny amount in his palm, he tosses it across the table the way a child skips a stone across a lake. It makes for a barely there misting.
Next to him, Somadjagbi, 39, follows suit. “I learned everything here,” he says. “I love every aspect of it.” He uses a Sharpie to mark the names of the loaves he’s creating on the parchment lining of baking sheets. He uses a spray bottle of egg wash to spritz their tops. “People don’t realize how hard it is to work overnight,” he says. “People don’t realize what it means to make everything from scratch.”
5:30 a.m. Sylvia Villalpando Lopez is putting orange ganache between meringue cookies. Next, she’ll make a chocolate cake with Nutella mousse.
6 a.m. Vatinet is checking a clipboard that logs what they’re baking, what they’ve sold. He’ll adjust numbers to reflect the weather forecast, the sales numbers, the availability of certain ingredients. La Farm makes dozens of different seasonal breads and pastries at different times of year – rabbit-shaped loaves for Easter; buche de noel at Christmas – and these change constantly, too.
“We are not really a French bakery,” he says. “I come with a base of what I learned in France, but here is such an incredible melting pot, we want to reflect that. We have American cookies, Eastern European rye bread, Italian ciabatta.”
It’s a particularly un-French attitude, he concedes. “I see so many times, (bakers) come with their French ego to this country, (they) say: you will buy what I make, I won’t speak English, only French. Instead of adapting, they try to impose. I’ve never been like that. And Missy understands our customer.”
6:45 a.m. Customers are arriving. As the first one parks in front, awaiting La Farm’s 7 a.m. opening, loaves sit on racks, making faint crackling sounds as they cool. “The bread is singing,” Vatinet says.
Fresh croissants are being tucked into baskets; scones crowd tiered trays; baguettes fill a wicker tube like pencils in a jar. Cinnamon pull-aparts fill the air with sugar, and Celio Mendoza, a line cook, is assembling dozens of croque monsieurs and croque madams, traditional French grilled cheese sandwiches.
In the back, Somadjagbi eats an omelet and mixes a last batch of sourdough before he leaves; it will rise for 24 hours before it takes its turn in the oven. A barista tastes a first cup of coffee from the beans he has just ground and the espresso machine he has just prepared. A store manager bustles between cooling rack and display rack.
“They give so much of their time and their heart,” Vatinet says, watching this speedy work. “We are in this beautiful, positive momentum now,” he says, considering his line of customers – they’re bustling out with full paper bags of fresh bread – and his book, about to be published. “We would like to have the energy to continue that.”
As if on cue, Vatinet’s wife Missy arrives, a whirl of charm and smiles. She is clearly his biggest fan, overflowing with details of his accomplishments; offering bread to taste. “Bread is life,” Vatinet says. “If you can make bread, you can live on it.” He smiles, reflecting on the metaphoric meaning of his words: “What we have in this world needs to be shared.”
For more on La Farm, located at 4248 NW Cary Parkway in Cary, go to lafarmbakery.com.