by Ashley Lodato, Bluebird Grain Farms staff writer
Like many a good foodie, Avery Ruzicka fell in love with food in France. “I come from a family that enjoyed cooking and respected food,” the North Carolina native explains,” but when I lived abroad I learned how much amazing food there is in the world. In France I got to eat at a few multi-Michelin-Star restaurants and it opened my eyes. The refinement, the focus–the meal was sustenance, but it was also such a full experience.”
When Ruzicka returned to the States, it was with the intention of being a food writer, so she got a job in a restaurant at the “back of the house” (in restaurant lingo, this refers to the kitchen and all the areas of the restaurant that customers do not typically see), figuring that if she was to be a food writer, she needed to understand how the kitchen worked. It was in the back of the house that Ruzicka realized that she loved working in the kitchen. “It was clear that I wanted to pursue a cooking career,” says Ruzicka. So after finishing her undergraduate degree (in politics, international studies, and creative writing) in North Carolina, Ruzicka headed north, attending New York’s renowned French Culinary Institute, including its bread baking program. The program led to work in the kitchen in one of New York’s most celebrated restaurants, Per Se, where Ruzicka learned from master baker Ben Hershberger.
When Ruzicka crossed paths with Chef David Kinch of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Manresa Restaurant (which was recently awarded its third Michelin star), she felt compelled to work in his restaurant. But there was a hitch–the only job available at that time was in the “front of the house” (the entry, dining room, bar, and all other parts of the restaurant that customers occupy). So Ruzicka took the job and for six months worked happily as a food runner. Still, she yearned to be in the kitchen. Soon, Ruzicka found herself spending her time off–which was mornings–back in the kitchen with the bakers, learning their methods. After a while, Ruzicka says, “I thought that I could help make a better product. I reevaluated how the breads were created and made changes to result in better quality breads.” Six months after she started food running, a job opened up in the kitchen and I had to decide whether or not to take it. “When I thought about someone else making the bread,” Ruzicka says, “I got a pit in my stomach.” The decision was simple; Ruzicka moved to the back of the house.
Fast forward a few years; now, under Ruzicka’s leadership, the breads formerly found only on Manresa Restaurant tables can now be acquired at four additional locations: either of two Manresa Bread bakery locations in Los Gatos and Los Altos, as well as at the Campbell and Palo Alto farmers’ markets every Sunday. The markets are open until 1pm and the bakeries until 3pm, but Manresa’s breads and pastries typically sell out long before the markets close; their products are just that popular. And the more Ruzicka and her team bake, the more the customers clamor for. Whether it’s the weekly staples like Manresa’s levain, sourdough baguette, and monkey bread or the seasonal items such as the pumpernickel buckwheat rye and the tartines, demand is consistent.
Does Ruzicka have a secret? Not really, she says, other than her own curiosity. “We’re not doing anything groundbreaking here,” Ruzicka says, “but I am just constantly trying out new things to improve our products.” Like other innovative bakers, Ruzicka is consumed with the quality of her ingredients. “Big batch commodity flour just does not taste as good,” says Ruzicka. “That was one of the first things I changed at Manresa–where we were buying our flours. We stopped buying bigger brand flour and started buying smaller production flour.” That purchasing decision eventually led Ruzicka to begin milling some of her own grains, most notably rye. “Commercial rye just doesn’t move off the shelf as quickly as wheat,” says Ruzicka, so rye often sits on supplier shelves getting old and dry, resulting in a lackluster bread. Now, Ruzicka can mill just the flour she needs on a regular basis in small batches.
Ruzicka is a huge fan of Bluebird Grain Farms’ Einka™ einkorn flour, which she learned about when a Methow Valley customer visited Manresa Restaurant and brought in some sample bags of flour. “I’m always interested in trying different milled products,” Ruzicka says, “and when I tested the einkorn it was really clear that the flavor would come through, even if I was only using 30% einkorn with 70% of another flour. That nuttiness, the subtle sweetness–that’s not true of all grains.” Ruzicka is partial to Bluebird’s Emmer Flour as well, and enjoys mixing both flours with others in order to achieve depth and texture in her loaves.
Bread has been given a bad rap lately, what with all the low-carb diet propaganda circulating. What does Ruzicka have to say in defense of bread? Like a growing number of grains revolutionaries, Ruzicka believes that the problem lies with the quality of the breads that are most readily available. “It’s a good bread versus bad bread question,” says Ruzicka. “Processed white flour grocery store bread is just not that good for you. There’s no fiber in it. All the vitamins have been processed out of it.” Ruzicka, on the other hand, uses freshly milled flours from small batch producers. Her bread has a long, slow fermentation process (36 hours minimum), which breaks down the gluten, and much of it is leavened with sourdough starter, not commercial yeasts. “All those things aid in the digestion process,” Ruzicka says. She adds, “All of my team is around these baked products and testing them all day long. We all feel great and I don’t think anyone has gained an ounce.”
Of course, that might be simply because they are working so hard. A self-professed night owl, Ruzicka copes well with both the early hours required of bakers and the long days necessary for farmers market sales. Still, the schedule seems punishing. “This is my life!” Ruzicka laughs. “I wouldn’t recommend this job to anyone in the culinary world who isn’t incredibly passionate about it. It’s so much fun, but so much hard work.”
Ruzicka doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, however. “I want to be a part of the food world AND fine dining AND bake bread,” she says. “My time at Manresa Restaurant taught me to pay attention to the small details,” Ruzicka notes, “and that helps set the tone for the bakery.” Although the bakery creates artisan-style bread and pastries and wouldn’t “throw away a baguette that was 1/2″ longer than intended” (implying that this actually happens in some bakeries!), Ruzicka and her team want to understand WHY that particular baguette didn’t conform. “We want to know why one grain or process is better suited for a particular need,” says Ruzicka, “we don’t want to force something to be what it isn’t.” Which sounds a bit like Ruzicka’s own process, figuring out through exploration and discovery what suits her best.
If you find yourself in the south San Francisco Bay Area, stop by one of the Manresa Bread locations.