After five years as the pastry chef at Nopa, Amy Brown left last May to launch her own project, Marla Bakery. With her partner Joe Wolf, the former pickler at Wise Sons, she sells her baked goods at pop-ups all over town, from brunches at State Bird Provisions to the weekly Mission Community Market.
Nopalize: The name Marla is an acronym for all the people in your family who inspired you to cook and bake. Can you talk a little about how you started out in the kitchen?
Amy: I baked and cooked as far back as I can remember. I’ve always been in the kitchen. My mom and dad separated when I was one and were in different states by the time I was five. In my mind they have two very separate ways of approaching cooking. My mom grew up on a dairy farm. She cooked simple food, but always from scratch. I never saw things out of boxes or cans.
My father on the other hand would read a cookbook or watch a TV show and go on a quest to develop the best Middle Eastern meal he could. Now, this was Phoenix, Arizona in the ‘80s. I remember going on these wild goose chases for the one Middle Eastern store in all of the Phoenix metropolitan area to find this one particular type of pomegranate molasses or something like that. And then he got into Chinese cooking and he wanted to make a truly authentic hot and pungent soup. We had this recipe with 40 ingredients and we had to go looking for tiger lilies. (laughs) He also decided he couldn’t get good coffee beans in Arizona and so for a while he was roasting his own beans. That sense of discovery, of following something through and making it as authentic as possible, is something that I love about cooking.
When I was at the bakery in Turkey I saw again how you can follow a culture by its food. As cultures move and the diaspora grows, you loose the language in a generation and you loose the music, but food you can trace generations and generations. It’s literally a tangible thread. Whenever I don’t know what to do next, I have to hit myself in the head. There is so much out there.
They say most people either cook or bake. Are you a baker who cooks or a cook who bakes?
A lot of people make that distinction for me. I apparently do not fit the typical mold of a pastry chef. Maybe it’s because I didn’t come to it through school, but through baking and cooking on my own? I feel like I’m an intuitive baker for good and bad, and people tend to see that more as the way a cook cooks: tasting and changing and tasting and changing. For me it works well for pastry too. If it doesn’t taste good, fix it.
I was a horrible baker as a kid. I was very impatient. I tried to make sourdough bread in junior high. I used a crappy recipe but I tried to make it again and again. I never let it rise enough and always ended up with these bricks. My poor mom.
I went to college for Community and Environmental Studies and when I graduated I wanted to travel to Italy and bake bread. I was able to go to a friend’s family in Puglia and work in the bakery of a good friend.
Why bread? Italy is not exactly known for its bread, is it?
No, it isn’t. However, Puglia is the main area of wheat growing and the region is considered to have the best bread. They laugh at the Tuscan bread that has no salt. Italy does not have the same regional differences in bread like France, but they do have local sweets. We made this wonderful flatbread with local olive oil… Puglia is considered to have the best. We also used these tomatoes that are hard-skinned and you see people drying them on the outside of their houses. We would press these very intense tomatoes into the flatbread, with local garlic, olive oil and dried oregano.
Coming from the US, that was the first time I experienced what a difference these strong local ingredients could make. It was the best flatbread I’ve ever had.
Is this also the place where you learned to make your now-famous panettone?
Yes, although they never gave me the recipe. At the time, I was 22, I envisioned staying forever and the father said: “We’ll only give you the recipe if you promise to never come back to Italy and open a bakery”.
Sounds like a pretty formative experience.
For sure. When I went back to the US, I first started working as the bread baker at a café up North and then I got a job at Citizen Cake where I became the head of the bread department. I would make pane pugliese and there were certain memory triggers. I would look for a certain texture, listen for a certain sound. It was maybe frustrating for the people who worked with me, because I couldn’t really tell them when it was right but as soon as I saw or smelled it, I would say: this is it.
Photography: Molly Decoudreaux