On Smith Street in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, there’s a small bakery that doesn’t smell like most. The thick, buttery aroma of croissants meshes with the dusky smoke of almost burnt bread–but it’s almost burnt by design.
Bien Cuit takes its name from the French phrase meaning “well done,” as bread is baked past conventional coloration to achieve a dark, Mahogany crust and complex flavor, which has earned Bien Cuit accolades from the likes of The New York Times, Food and Wine, and Harpers Bazaar for being one of the best bakeries in New York.
Food critics praise Bien Cuit. Brooklyn locals flock to Bien Cuit. Zachary Golper feels like an idiot for opening Bien Cuit.
“Like many other dreamers that think opening a bakery is this really brilliant idea–stupidest thing I ever did,” says Golper, baker and Bien Cuit founder. “[Starting out] it does not make a lot of money. I was an idiot. I thought that I would get to do what I love. And in the end, you have to get other people to do what you love.”
Under the tutelage of masters like William Leaman, Jean-Claude Canestrier, and Georges Perrier, Golper was molded into one of the most eminent bakers in the country with his adopted and perfected method of slow, cool fermentation and, of course, bien cuit. But the higher you excel, the farther away you get from the passion that launched you in the first place. In Golper’s case: baking.
That said, new altitudes also grant new perspectives and what Golper is focusing on now is spreading the gospel of fermentation and crusty breads through his book Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread. Along with food critic and author Peter Kaminsky, Golper breaks down classic recipes and new concoctions that he claims any baker, even those confined to closet-sized kitchens, can pull off “well done” bread, done well.
“Doing the book was kind of fun but the whole process, other than the experiments and making recipes, the whole process was new to me,” Golper says. “This is about fermentation; it’s about nutrition; it’s about responsible farming. It’s not about this bakery or that bakery. It’s about learning what this process is and making it available to people so that nutritious food continues to enhance its place on the table of the American diet.”
Golper found the perfect recipe for bien cuit bread–now it’s a matter finding the right mix of meaningful and creative projects to fill the void caused by being too busy to bake. But, in a way given Golper’s past, his path would’ve diverged the way it has, regardless.
The signs were there from the beginning that Golper would become a baker–he just didn’t know how to interpret them.
There’s an anecdote Golper describes in Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread when he was five years old and his mother gave him a paper plate to draw what he wanted to be when he grew up. Golper drew himself with a white coat and a chef’s toque with a heap of dough in his hand and captioned it “Zach Dog”–his mother later clarified for him that he meant to spell “dough.” Cut to 2000 when Golper went to work on an organic farm in Oregon where he met “Andres” (Golper changed the man’s name to protect his privacy.) The warm smell of baking bread kept Golper up at nights until he finally traced the source to Andres who then took him under his wing to teach him the most primal method of bread making: a hand-crank mill for grains, hand-mixing dough, wood-fired ovens, etc. It wasn’t until he took a voyage across Latin America that it all clicked for Golper. The abundance of tortillas and lack of bread was brought into sharp relief when he happened upon a Bolivian woman baking bread, real bien cuit bread, from a hole in the wall.
“That experience formed a realization that I have to be in North America and this is where I need to put some focus,” Golper says. “When I got back to the United States I took it extremely seriously.”
Golper went about studying under the best bakers he could find, and in 2011 he and his wife Kate Wheatcroft opened their bakery Bien Cuit. Although he was living in Brooklyn, Golper’s time in Oregon and Latin America left an indelible impression of responsible agricultural practices and having a better understanding of where food comes from.
“One of the things that we’re finding interesting with the book is that as some of these bakers throughout the country are now baking from the book, they’re finding that by using an electric mixer, my recipes are a little strange–and it’s true. They’re all made for hand mixing,” Golper says. “Part of the idea there was to take the concept of a very refined, finished product and take it back to the level where you’re having a relationship with your food in its development. You’re avoiding putting it in a machine because it really, literally, takes the same amount of time.”
Developing that close relationship with food evolved into what Golper and Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread co-author Peter Kaminsky have coined in the book as “bread quests,” missions of near fanatical proportions to recreate some of New York City’s most iconic breads: Lithuanian table bread, Kaiser rolls, lard bread, sourdough rye, and bagels.
“It’s cool that these breads came across Ellis Island in the minds of bakers. And then when they got here they had to use what was available here to start making it and that became very quickly bastardized,” Golper says. “A lot of these old breads were made before the availability of commercial yeast so all of these tie into my old [training in] ancient baking methods.”
Understanding the root of food, thereby understanding how to circumvent the shortcuts of mass production, goes beyond a foodie fad for Golper–it shapes a set of values the he believes should be passed down to the next generation.
Around 2013, Golper started an after-school program he called Starter Culture, where a small group of high school students would come to his bakery to learn how to bake bread.
“Right here on Smith Street there’s a high school that lets out, so hooligans run down the street and destroy people’s signs and get into fights and harass people–it’s just obnoxious and horrible. And I related not just to their upbringing but to the garbage that they’re eating,” he says. “There’s some correlation between having no nutrition and acting like an idiot. I know when my diet improved, my behavior started to improve as well. I’m not sure if it was direct or indirect but there seemed to be some kind of correlation.”
In addition to expanding their palates by learning how to make pastries that didn’t come from a plastic bag in a bodega or whipping up crème fraîche or fromage blanc in lieu of “L-I-T-E sour cream,” Golper’s goal with Starter Culture’s goal was to give his students a sense of personal and professional responsibility.
“They had no real sense of value of themselves and their importance in the world,” he says. “I would do these faux interviews with them and watch them just fail. By the end of the course, they’d not only would develop an understanding of the palate and understanding of food and fermented things but they’d also learn how to pass an interview with the most important part being you are awesome. You are going to bring something special to this place that you’re trying to get the job.”
Unfortunately, Starter Culture is on hold at the moment because, like his realization that a growing bakery meant less baking for him, Golper couldn’t reconcile with the idea of doing many things mediocrely.
During the first semester of Starter Culture, Golper’s wife fell ill very rapidly. Spending day after day at the hospital and then playing catch-up at the bakery forced him to cancel several classes.
“None of them ever showed up again. And what I realized is that I acted like every adult in their life–I promised a lot, delivered not enough,” Golper recalls. “Most of these kids are coming from damaged backgrounds, and I have to take that very seriously. I didn’t just affect them in this event–I reinforced something they already believed to be a fact, which is that grownups are irresponsible dickheads. And now it justifies their right to grow up and be a jerk. That’s repairable somehow, but I’m not gonna have a chance to do it with those particular kids. I realized the responsibility that I had taken on was deeper than I anticipated. It’s been perhaps even more of a learning process for me than it has for these kids.”
One project that’s been more manageable, however, is the Grains Challenge.
Part promotion for the book, part movement, the Grains Challenge asks bakers to pick a recipe from Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread, and then Golper will send a bag of flour from a mill near their shop to bake the recipe. After which, the baker will send photos of the finished product and a short description of their experience. Whoever has the best story will be flown to NYC to meet Golper and talk shop about bread.
“We’re trying to affect regionally and nationally how people perceive grains and slow fermentation,” Golper says. “The idea there is to get people to understand that there’s really good stuff happening pretty close to them.”
Thinking about how to spread your brand’s mission is a delicate balance of bottom-lines and battle cries: You can’t ignore your core business nor can ignore the bigger picture. Knowing strengths and hiring people to curb weaknesses has been tough for Golper, but he’s well aware that it’s necessary to Bien Cuit’s mission and that of bakeries across the world doing things bien cuit.
“Running a business, I’ve learned that I’m bad it. And then knowing that I’m bad at it has helped me to support my wife who’s much better at it, and to hire intelligently–get people that are smarter at these things than me,” Golper says. “This isn’t just one bakery that does awesome stuff–this is a bakery doing awesome stuff that’s got a book that represents awesome stuff being done by many places.”