If you were to believe most of the bread books out on the shelves these days, you might think that the tide was turning toward a browner, more whole grain future. Heritage wheat and sprouted grains seem prolific. But, If you talk to Metropolitan Bakery owner/baker James Barrett, you’d only be half right. “Baguettes have been our biggest seller ever since we opened. That’s every day for the last 20 years. It’s the bread that people always gravitate towards more than anything. And that’s through all the diet fads, too: South Beach, Atkins, Gluten-free. It doesn’t matter, people always want their baguette.” The second best seller? The Multi-grain Sandwich Loaf.
There’s practically no one better to ask about the state of bread in Philadelphia than James. He started baking bread in the kitchen of, what was arguably the Philadelphia equivalent of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, the White Dog Café. White Dog was known for using the best of what was grown and produced locally. James found that his interest in traditional European bread-making was encouraged there. He began learning the bread-craft through experimentation and inspiration. “At White Dog, I could do whatever I wanted to do. I could spare no expense and I could make the baking as complicated as I wanted. I tried everything I could, all different methods and fermentation times, retarding dough in the walk-in overnight in various ways… I was having a great time.”
Other artisanal bakeries had entered the wholesale baking world in Philadelphia and been successful. Le Bus had started selling wholesale bread in the 70’s, in 1992, Bread Smith Bakery (later, Baker Street Bread Co.) was founded in Chestnut Hill, and James saw room in the market for his unique take on artisanal bread. In 1993, he opened Metropolitan Bakery with his partner, Wendy Smith Born. They wanted to bring the bread of White Dog Café to the rest of Philadelphia. James says the transition from restaurant to bakery gave him a bit of a wake-up call.
Baking in a restaurant is a lot different than baking in a production bakery. It can be very insular. You do everything yourself and can keep an eye on everything. If you have the budget, you can use high-priced or exotic ingredients. And many times the people eating your bread don’t mind paying extra for something a bit more upscale. “When I started Metropolitan Bakery in 1993, I was continuing on baking like I had done at White Dog, but as I was expanding my business I found that skilled bakers were extremely scarce. As I started to scale up, I realized that it was impossible to do a baguette with a super-wet dough because I was the only one who could shape it.” Not just that, but he was finding that customers would only pay a certain price for bread and rolls. And let’s face it, though, there was more demand than ever, he was dealing with a mostly un-educated clientele. Many times he would get complaints that the crusts were “too crusty” or the bread had too many holes in it, “unusable” was a frequently used adjective.
“Part of me wanted to say, ‘That’s naturally leavened bread, that’s just the way it is!’, but I couldn’t. I had to walk a tightrope, compromise. I had to find the balance between baking the bread I wanted to eat and making something acceptable for wholesale. I had to make money and at that time I had just hired two employees, Plus, I had a business partner. So a lot was counting on the business succeeding.”
James learned to make the right compromises over time. “I had to keep the product my number one concern. Without quality and focus behind your vision, you have nothing.” He maintains that he is still “baguette obsessed”after all these years. To that end, Metropolitan Bakery shapes all their baguettes by hand. No machines, no non-sense, and we’re talking hundreds of baguettes, here. But, it means a lot to James that his ideals stay intact.
It’s what made his bakery an institution in Philly and also what draws young people to begin their baking careers there. La Columbe Head Baker, John McGrath, worked with James, as did former Russet and Joli Bakery (Bethlehem)Head Baker, Katie Lynch, among others. The head of production at Metropolitan Bakery now is baker Dane Frazier. James says, “Dane is great and he’s a wonderful baker. He’s a great example of a serious, passionate baker and I rely on him to run daily operations and keep things consistent.” You can tell that James really enjoys the fact that so many talented artisans come through his doors and stay a while. He’s very excited about the new wave of interest in artisan breads.
James was recently introduced to baker Josey Baker on a trip to San Francisco and was impressed by his intensity. “He’s a far out and energetic guy, but most of the better young bakers are. They all want to make their statement with the bread they make. I think it’s great. The new generation of bakers is young energy, new energy. It’s wonderful and I applaud anyone who wants to get into this business and carry on the tradition. After all, we are all just vessels taking in information and carrying it on to the next generation. That’s all we are.”