Ken’s Artisan Bakery brings Paris to Portland
Sometimes all it takes is a trip to Paris. After tasting the traditional breads and pastries of France, Ken Forkish decided to leave his corporate career to open a bakery in the style of French boulangeries and patisseries.
“My original inspiration for becoming a baker was Lionel Poilan. The first time I had Poilan’s bread, it had this wine-like complexity. I learned the ingredients were just flour, water and salt, but that’s what fermentation is all about. I resolved to open a bakery that does bread in that same rustic, boulangerie style,” Forkish says.
After training stints at the San Francisco Baking Institute, Culinary Institute of America-Greystone, the National Baking Center in Minneapolis (now defunct) and L’Institute Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, Forkish opened Ken’s Artisan Bakery in Portland, Ore., in July 2001. It specializes in scratch made bread and viennoiserie. Other than mixing, most production is done by hand, with a focus on long fermentation times to add complexity and depth of flavor. Levain breads, such as country brown, batard and boule, feature a partial whole wheat levain that’s refreshed and fed three times daily by the bakery staff.
“From start to finish our levain breads take 18 hours,” Forkish says. “That’s where the great flavors come from. Industrial baking is all about doing it fast so you can maximize output and get it out the door. We’re basically the antithesis of that.”
A little levain also goes into brioche, baguettes and croissants. While staple bread and pastry items are on the menu, formulas aren’t completely set in stone. “I like to tinker,” he says. “We might change the schedule to put in a little less yeast and give it more time, or maybe change the temperature. No matter how good something is, there are always ways to improve. It’s about engaging with the product. If you understand what’s going on you can do that.”
Ken’s Artisan sources local produce and nuts for galettes, fruit tarts, filled croissants and macarons. “It takes time and part of it is following the seasons for local fruit and other produce–fruit drives our pastry case here,” Forkish says. Ken’s even sources local flour from a co-op of about 50 farm families in the Northwest. The farmers all plant the same varieties of wheat, which is identity preserved throughout the harvest and milling process. “Flour is a commoditized ingredient, so we’re really fortunate that we have access to local flour,” he says. Though the bakery’s margins are skinnier given the quality of the ingredients, Forkish makes up for it in volume.
When asked about changes the word “artisan” has undergone since he first opened 11 years ago, he laughs, saying, “Well, I won’t use that word in any future business name. The meaning of the word has been diluted. My roots in baking are French, and there the word artisan is still respected, so that’s all I care about.”
Quality is 24/7 at Bennison’s
For Jory Downer, owner of Bennison’s Bakery, Evanston, Ill., a great baguette is something like a piece of art, to be appreciated and savored. “A baguette is most unique,” he says. “A great baguette is rare. It’s bread in its simplest form, the way bread should be. It’s baked without the benefits of a mould, freeform–the way bread baking is implied etched on the pyramid walls.”
From donuts to cookies to brioche to pies, each product at Bennison’s gets the same respect and attention as the baguette, which Downer attributes largely to the Bread Bakers Guild of America and the now defunct National Baking Center in Minneapolis, where he learned about what constitutes high-quality baked products.
“The instructors taught me that you must respect the baking process and start with the best ingredients available,” Downer says. “My first day back from class, I began my search for the proper flour, much milder than what we had been using.”
The best quality product starts with good flour, Downer says, which to him means more than just wheat flour. “Understanding flour, where it comes from, how it is milled, how it behaves, how it impacts the process, is overwhelming. As an example, we buy organic rye flour, which is dry milled on a stone mill. It is whole rye, meaning the bran and germ have not been removed. It makes rye bread with loads more flavor than bread made with conventionally milled rye.”
He also replaced shortening with butter and nondairy/whipping cream blend with 100 percent cream, and began sourcing produce from local farmers’ markets.
Downer’s education also encouraged him to pursue designation as a Certified Master Baker with the Retail Bakers of America, as well as to compete on Baking Team USA at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, helping the team win a gold medal in 2005.
Today, quality is a 24/7 job at the bakery. Even when the store is closed (albeit just six days a year), employees must come in to feed the starters and mix doughs that require fermentation, such as croissants, Danish, brioche and sourdough breads. Although it’s a lot of work, Downer still enjoys the process of creating great products.
“I’m in the bakery every day if I’m in town, with apron drawn and flour on my shoes,” Downer says. “I don’t get to do nearly as much baking as I used to, but there is nothing I enjoy more than production.”