Building Bakery From Scratch

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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. Now that the duo has signed a lease on a place of their own, it’s high time for Nopalize to catch up with Amy, a.k.a the one who got us all addicted to Nopa’s spectacular french toast.

Nopalize: Congratulations on finding a place! Tell me all about it.

Amy: It’s in the former Crown Lock in the Outer Richmond, just across the street from the Balboa Theatre, about five blocks from our house. We pretty much have a shell of a building right now, which can be good or bad, depending on who you talk to. It allows us to put in the kitchen we want, so that’s definitely a good thing. We hope to open seven to nine months from now and will have room for 35 in the dining room and possibly another 10 outside.

Do you plan to become a full service restaurant?

We’ll do breakfast, brunch and lunch. We’d like to start with Sunday suppers and maybe branch out to two or three nights a week, but I don’t want to become a full service restaurant. We have a lot of friends in flux and we would love it if they could use the space as a pop-up, or a place where you can teach a class. Rather than having a dark restaurant five nights a week, I’d like to have other things going on. When people walk by a lit place, it peaks their interest.

Was it always the plan to do pop-ups before opening a place of your own?

Not at all. I went away for a couple of months when I left Nopa. I worked with some good friends up in Seattle, took classes on a farm, went to Turkey where I worked in a bakery in Istanbul and followed ideas that I was curious about. When I got back, I was going to write a business plan and go from there. But two weeks into it, I realized my brain just does not work that way. I felt overwhelmed and I soon realized that I work best from the kitchen out. We found a commercial kitchen space where I was going to spend a couple of months on recipe development. We hosted a tasting party and a couple of the people who were there wanted to sell our baked goods and that’s how we started doing wholesale and markets. I’m grateful for that business as we’re not just sitting around watching the money hemorrhage out of us.

How will Marla Bakery be different from other bakeries?

The honest answer? It’s different because it’s me. Marla bakery is incredibly close to Joe and I, that’s the main difference. Bread will play an important role. I’ve also always wanted to follow something to its roots. I like knowing how things are made. So if I serve a bagel and cream cheese for brunch, I’m not going to buy the cream cheese, I’m going to make it. I feel like you can taste the difference, maybe not in a better or worse way, but I just like tasting the hands of the people who made it all the way through. For one thing, it keeps people interested. It’s so much more fascinating to make something from the beginning than to pull it out of a jar.

Even if you need 25 hours a day to accomplish that.

Yes. I don’t choose the easiest, most efficient way to anything. Ever. That’s my drawback.

But it probably gives you more satisfaction in the end.

I think so. Right before I left Nopa, the Prime Minister of Turkey was in the city because his son had just graduated from Stanford. We got word from the Secret Service that they wanted to dine at Nopa. That meant all kinds of things: the menu had to be scoured for anything that was not Halal. There could be no wine or wine products like vinegar in the dishes and everyone was trying to figure out what we could and couldn’t serve. The private chef of the Prime Minister came to oversee everything. I told him I had plans to go to Turkey where I really wanted to learn how to make baklava, from scratch. Of course nobody in Turkey buys frozen phyllo dough. “I’ll show you,” he said. So there he was, in his dark blue suit, cornstarch flying everywhere because that’s how you keep the layers separate. I remember watching him. It was amazing.

And so when I went to Turkey, I had to get to the bottom of this. The baklava bakeries are just incredible. I was there close to the end of Ramadan. It was mid-July, the hottest part of the year with the longest days. Because you can only break fast an hour before sunrise and you don’t eat again until sunset, the bakers worked all day with no food or water. It was also their busiest time. After Ramadan ends, they have a festival of sweets: you visit all of your neighbors and family relations and you present sweets. So this baklava bakery was going full tilt. These guys who usually work 6 hours a day were now working 14 hours on an empty stomach in a basement with no ventilation. Nobody talked because there is so much corn starch in the air that it coats everything. It gets in your nostrils, your throat. They kept bringing me water, even though they themselves could not have any. I was amazed by that kind of hospitality.

Check back for part two of the interview with Amy — including how her past shaped her current life as a baker — tomorrow.

Editorial: Evy Ballegeer
Photography: Molly Decoudreaux

Category: Eat