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DonRocks

A Chat With Mark Furstenberg

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I'm honored to introduce Mark Furstenberg as our inaugural guest on this forum. Mark will be participating in a week-long chat here beginning on Saturday, June 11th, and running through the following Friday, June 17th. Please feel free to begin asking him questions this week, but also understand that he will be unable to reply before the upcoming weekend, and will only be available as his busy schedule permits. Welcome in advance, Mark, and thank you!

A brief biography of the chef:

From the War on Poverty to The BreadLine

Mark H. Furstenberg is the founder of The BreadLine, a baker who teaches bread-making, consults to other companies, and writes about breads and traditional foods.

In July 1990 he introduced high-quality traditional breads to Washington when he opened his first bakery, Marvelous Market. His breads were so novel and attractive to customers that they stood in long lines to buy the two loaves to which they were limited.

In 1995, Furstenberg developed the bread program for Greystone, the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America which opened that year.

In 1996, Furstenberg sold Marvelous Market and in 1997 opened The BreadLine, a restaurant that makes bread-based foods traditional in many cultures. Since then it has been each year one of the Washington Post's favorites and one of America's Top Restaurants, according to the Zagat guide by that name. Its bakery makes bread for many of the well-known restaurants of Washington.

In 2002 Furstenberg began to consult to Thomas Keller and helped him open his bakeries in Yountville, California and in New York and Las Vegas. In 2004 Furstenberg broadened his consulting to other restaurants and food markets. He was a 2005 James Beard Foundation nominee for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic and is currently writing a book about bread in America.

Before turning a lifelong baking hobby into a profession, Furstenberg worked as a writer for ABC News and the Washington Post. He was on several Presidential commissions that studied crime and violence in America. He was, in addition, Personnel Director of the Boston Police Department and President of the Reading Tube Corporation, a large manufacturing company.

He began his career working in the White House, one of a small staff pursuing President Kennedy's interest in starting a war on poverty. His office was one block from what is now The BreadLine.

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Mark,

You come across as a big proponent of supporting the artisan, the craftsman, the individual- and family-owned restaurant. Certainly, sighting you in a Cheesecake Factory would be equivalent to that time I walked in and saw my clergyman in the adult book store.

Oops.

Are there any friends of yours, any individuals in this area you'd care to name as being underappreciated or underpublicized, people that need our support but don't have the resources available to drum up a buzz? How about people that work with you at Breadline that may not get the attention they deserve?

Will we be seeing your smiling face on jars of pasta sauce anytime soon?

Cheers Mark, and welcome!

Don Rockwell

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Hi Mark, thanks for joining us...did Mark Bittman ever pay for the bread he ran off with during the Citronelle episode of How to Cook Everything? The scene was great! How long did it take to get that scene right or was it one shot and done?

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Chef Furstenberg, if you are taking technical questions regarding baking...

I'm an avid (or possibly even rabid) home baker and every summer my sourdough starts giving me fits. I am 98% sure it is due to the higher ambient temperature in my house, but I am at a loss how to work around it with my limited home resources.

My usual winter method:

Sponge:

8 oz. 100% hydration starter

12 oz. water

16 oz. flour

Ferment at room temp. ~5 hours.

Dough:

All of sponge

8 oz. flour

1st rise ~4 hours. Form. Proof ~8 hours (overnight). Bake.

Following this method in the summer results in thin-crusted, over-proofed loaves with less sour flavor than we prefer (my husband is a SF Bay Area native and is accustomed to that style of sourdough).

I have tried doing the sponge fermentation and the final proofing in the refrigerator, but neither of these variations gets me the quality of loaf I am able to produce in the winter. I suspect the refrigerator is just too cold and retards the loaves too much.

Do you have any ideas on how to overcome a warm summer house and make great sourdough year-round? (Short of converting my extra refrigerator into a dedicated retarder or the whole house into one using the A/C!)

Also, and this is probably like asking a parent to pick his favorite child, what is your favorite type of bread? To bake? To eat?

Thank you!!!

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Chef Furstenberg,

I enjoy the occasional email essays you send out. Any plans to turn the Breadline blog into a more regular forum for your musings?

Chris

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Hello Chef-- I consider myself a competent and perhaps even slightly accomplished home cook, but baking is almost completely missing from my repertoire. I've dabbled in focaccia, played with pastry dough, and experimented with a friend's bread machine, but I need to round out my skills. I must admit, I've been somewhat intimidated by it all.

Can you think of any particular cookbooks that would help send me on my way to amateur baking greatness?

Thanks!

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Chef,

Thank you for your tuna sandwich. It is a work of art. I never knew that tuna could taste that good. (Please don't tell my mother!) What is your favorite sandwich?

Sincerely,

A reformed tuna hater

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Mark,

You come across as a big proponent of supporting the artisan, the craftsman, the individual- and family-owned restaurant.  Certainly, sighting you in a Cheesecake Factory would be equivalent to that time I walked in and saw my clergyman in the adult book store.

Oops.

Are there any friends of yours, any individuals in this area you'd care to name as being underappreciated or underpublicized, people that need our support but don't have the resources available to drum up a buzz?  How about people that work with you at Breadline that may not get the attention they deserve?

Will we be seeing your smiling face on jars of pasta sauce anytime soon?

Cheers Mark, and welcome!

Don Rockwell

Don:

I suspect there are lots of underappreciated people in our business in Wasington. Vince MacDonald who created Vincenzo's just above Dupont Circle where now his Etrusco is producing pure, simple, classically Italian food. Frank Ruta who is finally getting attention. Susan Lindeborg who has a following but doesn't get the buzz at Majestic Cafe. Lots of people -- I will think of more during the week.

As for seeing my face on a jar, not likely; I don't like that sort of thing.

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Hi Mark, thanks for joining us...did Mark Bittman ever pay for the bread he ran off with during the Citronelle episode of How to Cook Everything?  The scene was great!  How long did it take to get that scene right or was it one shot and done?

That scene was quite spontaneous. Well, not exactly perhaps. Mark arrived with his producer, Charlie Pinsky and couple of camera people and Michel and we just did it. And no, Mark did not pay; but I must say he is an old, old friend.

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Chef Furstenberg, if you are taking technical questions regarding baking...

I'm an avid (or possibly even rabid) home baker and every summer my sourdough starts giving me fits.  I am 98% sure it is due to the higher ambient temperature in my house, but I am at a loss how to work around it with my limited home resources.

My usual winter method:

Sponge:

8 oz. 100% hydration starter

12 oz. water

16 oz. flour

Ferment at room temp. ~5 hours.

Dough:

All of sponge

8 oz. flour

1st rise ~4 hours.  Form.  Proof ~8 hours (overnight).  Bake.

Following this method in the summer results in thin-crusted, over-proofed loaves with less sour flavor than we prefer (my husband is a SF Bay Area native and is accustomed to that style of sourdough).

I have tried doing the sponge fermentation and the final proofing in the refrigerator, but neither of these variations gets me the quality of loaf I am able to produce in the winter.  I suspect the refrigerator is just too cold and retards the loaves too much.

Do you have any ideas on how to overcome a warm summer house and make great sourdough year-round? (Short of converting my extra refrigerator into a dedicated retarder or the whole house into one using the A/C!)

Also, and this is probably like asking a parent to pick his favorite child, what is your favorite type of bread?  To bake?  To eat?

Thank you!!!

Gosh, this is so complicated and without seeing what you do, I can't respond properly. I don't know why you make a sponge with your starter. If your starter is well-tended it should eliminate the need for that step. Sponges are generally made to add flavor and hydration to a dough but the starter should do that.

You can get more sourness by adding a little bit of white rye flour to your starter, very little.

The refrigerator is indeed too cold for proofing. You might use it for retarding and then pull the loaf out for three-four hours for a final proof. Or if you would prefer not to retard, put the bread in whatever room(s) in your house are air conditioned.

Your first fermentation is very long. I hope you are folding the dough at least one time during the fermentation.

My favorite type of bread to bake is the baguette because it is the one I never get right. And to eat, I most love a campagne.

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Hello Chef-- I consider myself a competent and perhaps even slightly accomplished home cook, but baking is almost completely missing from my repertoire. I've dabbled in focaccia, played with pastry dough, and experimented with a friend's bread machine, but I need to round out my skills. I must admit, I've been somewhat intimidated by it all.

Can you think of any particular cookbooks that would help send me on my way to amateur baking greatness?

Thanks!

Peter Reinhart's book, Crust and Crumb, as is Jeffrey Hammelman's. I am working on one myself in an effort to help people who feel just as you do. If I were starting, I would make focaccia and try to perfect it and along the way use that dough for grilled pizzas and try to perfect them. Leave the Poilane loaves and baguettes for much later.

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Chef Furstenberg,

I enjoy the occasional email essays you send out.    Any plans to turn the Breadline blog into a more regular forum for your musings? 

Chris

I feel guilty all the time about not writing more frequently. The one underway is about why people don't cook anymore. As I cannot seem to manage to send more of these and as I am working on a book, I don't expect to do anything as ambitious as a blog, a form of writing that in any case seems to me awfully undisciplined.

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Chef,

   Thank you for your tuna sandwich.  It is a work of art.  I never knew that tuna could taste that good.  (Please don't tell my mother!)  What is your favorite sandwich?

Sincerely,

   A reformed tuna hater

A BLT when tomatoes are in season. Thank you.

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Mark,

As Breadline becomes more-and-more surrounded by establishments such as Potbelly Sandwich Works, Subway, etc., do you ever feel like you're swimming upstream, perhaps fighting a losing battle against The Borg?

How does a relatively small proprietary business go about fending off these heavily-subsidized corporate loss-leaders in the tussle for prime real estate?

Also, what are your favorite things at Breadline, perhaps the things you're most proud of, as well as the things you'd recommend to a first-time visitor?

Can you go into any detail about the upcoming book?

Thank you!

Don

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Gosh, this is so complicated and without seeing what you do, I can't respond properly.
I certainly understand that and really appreciate the time and thought you've given my question. Thank you.
I don't know why you make a sponge with your starter.  If your starter is well-tended it should eliminate the need for that step.  Sponges are generally made to add flavor and hydration to a dough but the starter should do that.
Yes, but I must confess that I am a notorious starter abuser... I only bake with my starter once a week at most and tend to leave it ignored in the refrigerator in the interim. So the sponge step is more of a feeding for my starter than anything else.
Your first fermentation is very long.  I hope you are folding the dough at least one time during the fermentation. 
A bit too slack to fold, but a stir might work. I've never tried that. Thank you. This is the step I have been thinking of tweaking to improve my summer version. I suspect that it is simply too long of a ferment with the higher ambient temperatures. I am making a batch today and cutting it down to 2.5 hours, so we'll see...
My favorite type of bread to bake is the baguette because it is the one I never get right.  And to eat, I most love a campagne.
Thank you very much for your insights!

And couple more questions, if I may...

What brand of flour do you prefer to use? And do you find a noticeable difference between different brands of flour?

Edited by mktye

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  In 2002 Furstenberg began to consult to Thomas Keller and helped him open his bakeries in Yountville, California and in New York and Las Vegas.  In 2004 Furstenberg broadened his consulting to other restaurants and food markets. 

Mark,

I was stunned to read of your consulting work. I think it's wonderful, but so many chefs have run into quality problems when they started expanding their operations--you, clearly, haven't, as Breadline is still far beyond the top of the game. How on earth do you do it?

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You've been the driving force behind one of the major shifts in D.C. foodways over the past decade and a half: Thanks to you, we've now got good bread throughout the city. My Saturday mornings start with a slice of bread and butter from the Breadline stand at my local farmer's market, where I buy a loaf for the week (we freeze half and gobble the rest.)

What other changes have you seen over the years? Who else has been working to inject good food into the bloodlines of this city?

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Mark,

As Breadline becomes more-and-more surrounded by establishments such as Potbelly Sandwich Works, Subway, etc., do you ever feel like you're swimming upstream, perhaps fighting a losing battle against The Borg?

How does a relatively small proprietary business go about fending off these heavily-subsidized corporate loss-leaders in the tussle for prime real estate?

Also, what are your favorite things at Breadline, perhaps the things you're most proud of, as well as the things you'd recommend to a first-time visitor?

Can you go into any detail about the upcoming book?

Thank you!

Don

Enough already, Don. First, on the subject of chains, it's difficult but not impossible. Potbelly, Corner Bakery, Cosi, Quiznos, Starbucks, and a new place that has chain aspirations are all within a block of us. They have lots of advantages that we don't have; we have the advantage of flexibility and creativity. No doubt they affect our business; but it's not impossible.

I am far more fearful, if the truth be known, about the banks that are gobbling up prime locations everywhere in downtown.

My favorite things at The BreadLine: Whatever we are doing that is new and/or seasonal -- and most of all, the bread itself.

As for the book, let's wait, if you don't mind, for three more months.

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I certainly understand that  and really appreciate the time and thought you've given my question.  Thank you.

Yes, but I must confess that I am a notorious starter abuser...  I only bake with my starter once a week at most and tend to leave it ignored in the refrigerator in the interim.  So the sponge step is more of a feeding for my starter than anything else.

A bit too slack to fold, but a stir might work. I've never tried that.  Thank you.  This is the step I have been thinking of tweaking to improve my summer version.  I suspect that it is simply too long of a ferment with the higher ambient temperatures.  I am making a batch today and cutting it down to 2.5 hours, so we'll see...

Thank you very much for your insights!

And couple more questions, if I may...

What brand of flour do you prefer to use?  And do you find a noticeable difference between different brands of flour?

Yes, there are great differences among flours. I think that King Arthur is the best flour that is widely available in small quantities.

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Mark,

I was stunned to read of your consulting work.  I think it's wonderful, but so many chefs have run into quality problems when they started expanding their operations--you, clearly, haven't, as Breadline is still far beyond the top of the game.  How on earth do you do it?

I am chronically unhappy about what we do at The BreadLine. I look at the bread, the tuna salad, the greens, everything and am dissatisfied. I keep wanting to change things -- and in truth, I think change is the biggest casualty of my consultation to others. I had a program for next week and then I was asked to fly to California to speak to chefs from the Brinker Corporation, owner of Chili's, Corner Bakery, Maggianos, Macaroni Grill, et al, about nutrition. How can I give up the possibility of having a slight impact on the quality of the food offered by a company with such power?

So I have to shelve my dissatisfactions with The BreadLine until later.

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You've been the driving force behind one of the major shifts in D.C. foodways over the past decade and a half: Thanks to you, we've now got good bread throughout the city.  My Saturday mornings start with a slice of bread and butter from the Breadline stand at my local farmer's market, where I buy a loaf for the week (we freeze half and gobble the rest.) 

What other changes have you seen over the years?  Who else has been working to inject good food into the bloodlines of this city?

You see many of them at your farmers' market -- local growers, cheesemakers, butchers, the craft side of our business. McLeod Creamery in Marshall, Va, for example. A fomer government worker, Stan Feder, who is about to start sausage-making here. This is important and is going to be more and more prominent, I hope.

In fine dining, Jean Louis Palladin inspired and befriended many of us and for a long time was the name brand in Washington. His role has been taken by Michel Richard who now inspires many chefs of the city. At the same, a lot of youngish chefs have been able to open restaurants and are certainly making a big difference here.

Phyllis Richman made a big contribution for more than 20 years by imposing her standards on the restaurant community.

And the ethnic restaurants of the city's suburbs; Washington has been quite hospitable to this development.

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Thank you so much for doing this chat and for opening on Saturdays. While my office is only a few blocks away from BreadLine, I don't often get out of the building for lunch. I'm selfishly glad you are getting more accessible. How do you decide how to expand your accessibility? How did you decide to start at the Mt. Pleasant farmers' market and will you be going to others?

I'm counting down the days until the BLT is back in season.

laniloa

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I am far more fearful, if the truth be known, about the banks that are gobbling up prime locations everywhere in downtown.

Why?

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I'm going to ask this question even though I suspect you despise it:

Which Breadline creation would inspire you to walk 45 minutes in 100 degree weather without sunscreen, given that tomatoes are not yet in season?

edited to add:

oh! And please explain the cucumber & fruit water? I'd never, ever, tried to balance a full cup of water with a tipsy lid while biking through downtown traffic until I got addicted to that stuff. What inspired it?

Edited by babka

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Why?

Small business is very hard. Small business is not very profitable. But small business enriches communities in a country where retail is increasingly homogonized. Carr America rented The BreadLine's space to me when I was in personal bankruptcy because of my reckless expansion of Marvelous Market. The Carrs, father and son, and their president John Donovan wanted an interesting retail in a space they could have rented to any chain. That's unusual; that's remarkable.

What most property owners want to do is rent to tenants who can pay very high prices, ask very little allowence from the landlord in the construction of the space, and are utterly dependable about paying rent. (At one point in The BreadLine's history, our landlord allowed me to go $48,000 in arrears; they stuck with it "to see what was going to happen.")

Starbucks, Corner Bakery (Brinker Corp.), and banks are utterly dependable. They have deep pockets and don't have to be profitable at every location. They are ideal from the perspective of landlords. That's why banks are popping up everywhere in the downtown. It's a bad thing for Washingtonians.

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