(This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
When ten-year-old Zach Golper bit into his first authentic croissant at a café in Paris, he had no idea it would inspire a prolific baking career – he just knew it was unlike anything he had tasted. With its subtle buttery flavor and airy texture, the croissant in question had been out of the oven for less than two hours, and it forever changed how he felt about food. It was the first of many moments in which he, as a child, first recognized that food could be extraordinarily delicious.
Today, Chef Golper has been the recipient of five James Beard Outstanding Baker Award nominations, and his cookbook, Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread (Regan Arts, 2015), has been a commercial and intellectual success. His bakery, Bien Cuit (which means “well done” in French), has successfully weathered the COVID-19 crisis – Golper has been able to keep two of his three New York City locations open for pickup, and he has created Bien Cuit Provisions (biencuitprovisions. com), an online service that delivers his bread and groceries directly to people’s homes. Throughout the crisis, Golper has somehow managed to keep his entire staff on the payroll. “Our customers have demonstrated gratitude for our efforts to keep serving them, and tolerance for all the changes we’ve undergone in order to pivot the nature of our business. It’s been remarkably positive, and it makes me grateful for my community,” he reflects.
Golper’s baking career got its start through serendipity. After finishing high school, his parents offered him several options to continue his education. Motivated by curiosity and a fondness for baked goods, Golper chose to go to a meditation center in Oregon, where he worked as an apprentice, trained by a master artisan to bake bread from grains grown on site. Golper and his mentor began each morning at 1 a.m., working by candlelight, shaping, mixing, and fermenting the dough in an old sheep barn, and baking it in a hand-built mud oven “just down the trail a little ways” with a shelter over the oven to keep the rain off. At first, Golper had a great deal of difficulty shaping the dough to his mentor’s satisfaction; it took him months to get the technique right. “I just realized it was something I wasn’t good at.” But he persevered, and he also picked up knowledge about grains which would ultimately help him become a better bread artisan: he learned about crop rotation and other environmentally sound farming techniques. At the meditation center, they produced grain that was not only delicious in breads, but was also good for the planet. In Chef Golper’s opinion, wise farming is as much a part of being a good professional baker as method, technique, and watching the bottom line. “Feeding the nutrients from the air, the soil, and the sun – how you treat the grain affects the people who eat it, which in turn affects the people in their lives. At the end of the day, it’s still a craft, and you have to pay attention to what you are doing.”
After leaving the meditation center, Golper worked at many bakeries, including for several
years with the renowned M.O.F. Jean Claude Canestrier while opening a hotel bakery in Las Vegas. “You have to be the absolute elite to become an M.O.F.,” notes Zach. “[They’re] very prideful and very, very, very good at the craft.” With Chef Canestrier’s assistance, Golper finely tuned his pastry skills and learned how to create visually alluring modern desserts. He also realized that he wanted to do something else. “[I learned to make] shiny, colorful petits gateaux. [I made] food do, dare I say, unnatural things. Texturally, some of these can make for interesting bites. None of these things to my knowledge ever made the food taste better, or feel better once in the digestive process. So in my experience, fermenting of flours ground from cleanly grown and minimally processed grain is the key that unlocks flavors in a way that no other process can touch. Once I started down the road of exploration of fermentation, there was no turning back. I can evoke profound gastronomic experience with four of five simple ingredients that I mix by hand, and then nature does the rest of the work.”
At the Bien Cuit locations in Brooklyn, Chef Golper and his team rely on the process of slow fermentation to achieve peak texture and flavor. Most loaves ferment for about three days. In contrast to many professional bakeries where the goal is to get products baked and out the door as quickly as possible (freeing up precious cooler space), the goal at Bien Cuit is to allow the bread to develop as much flavor as possible and to allow the yeast to consume as much of the flour as possible. It is his theory that the lengthy fermentation permits most of the less healthy, non-fibrous by-products of flour to be digested by the yeast, creating a bread that is not only healthier and easier to digest, but also more delicious. “The more time enzymes can have to work on the dough – while the yeast and bacteria reproduction are kept to a minimum through cold temperatures – the more starch will be converted to simple sugars, and the more micronutrients will become available. Bread, once baked, will have a larger and deeper array of flavors, and will not only be easier to digest, but the minerals and vitamins will be more easily accessed by the villi in the small intestine.”
The pandemic may have changed some of his business strategies, but it hasn’t changed Chef Golper’s overall philosophy. He continues to rely on his friends, staff and family, just as he did before COVID-19 hit. In fact, it was a friend in Hong Kong who initially informed him of the seriousness of the virus. “Like everyone else, the first reports we were getting were from news sources reporting on an outbreak in Wuhan. We began thinking of how this might look if it doesn’t get under control then and there. Shortly after, we heard news from a friend in Hong Kong via social media. He said he could tell from what he was reading that people in the U.S. clearly had no idea what was about to hit them. He told us Hong Kong was on total lockdown and the government was going door to door to take the temperature of everyone in every household, and hauling people off to quarantine if they had a fever or other symptoms of COVID-19.”
At that point, it became clear to Golper and his team (which includes his aptly named wife and business partner, Kate Wheatcroft) that they were going to have to change, and change quickly. “We immediately began to discuss with our team what might be some of the right moves to make. Several people on our staff have family members that are immunally compromised or elderly. We contacted them to make sure they were informed of the extent of risk COVID-19 posed to them or their family members according to the information that was available at that time. We wanted to make sure every member of the team was as safe as possible, and we began to consider shutting down the entire operation so as to put zero of our staff at risk. The overall consensus was that most people were able to get safe transportation to and from work and that they would prefer to keep working. We looked at who wanted to work and realized that we could keep making food based on the individual skill sets of the staff that wanted to keep coming in.”
But there were more decisions to be made. Before COVID-19, two-thirds of the bread Bien Cuit produced was for the wholesale market, going to restaurants and cafes “in the wee hours of the morning.” With food venues being shuttered throughout the city, they no longer had a wholesale business. But they did have an online ordering system already set up, as well as delivery vehicles, so they decided that the best thing to do would be to deliver to retail customers. “We started having the drivers do contactless deliveries to people’s homes throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan. People would place their orders online through the new addition to our business that at first we called Borough Provisions, but have since changed to Bien Cuit Provisions. The orders (exactly like our wholesale was set up) required three days advanced ordering so that we could have the necessary time to ferment the loaves, Viennoiseries, etc.” Golper and his team decided to offer baking supplies such as vanilla in bean and extract form, flours, eggs, sourdough starter, etc. “We did not expand what we were doing at all, except for bringing in pantry items from really great sources,” said Golper. “We kept the same menu for pastry and savory items as well as bread and Viennoisierie. The pantry items we brought in to sell are staple items that one might need in quarantine. These items are of extremely high quality. Additionally, we sold a lot more books (my book), and also sourdough starter kits and flour for people wanting to take on bread making at home. I’ve enjoyed watching the craze over homemade bread. I think it has helped a lot in people’s understanding of what we, as bakers, do for them every day. I’ve gotten a lot of questions from the public about sourdough and bread making in general. This makes me think that on the other side of all this, a craft that was once common in every household, but then faded to a rare hobby, will once again have a place in the American homesteader’s foodscape.”
When it comes to the future of his business and the industry, Chef Golper is hopeful, knowing first-hand the resourcefulness of the baking and pastry community. Adapting quickly to changes in the commercial landscape has worked well for him and his team. Pleased with the success of the pantry, the Bien Cuit team decided to expand the website’s offerings, which now include meal kits, teas, coffees and varied charcuterie. “I think it’s the small business owners that can turn this around. We have the ingenuity and adaptability – that large companies don’t have – to turn our businesses into greener, smarter, globally and ethically healthier organizations that usher in a new era of responsible business practices. I think if you’ve shut your doors but want to re-open them, it should be with renewed integrity. I think if your doors never shut, you are a surviving example to your business community and should take responsibility over actively shortening food supply chains for your ingredients. I think pastry chefs and bakers should take this time to hone skills. Learn to bake with what you have available in the area. Learn to bake for survival and sustenance, rather than abundance and opulence. Do this, but never give up quality. People are so happy when you make them nice food!”