It's 4:30 on a Saturday morning, and Marla Bakery proprietress Amy Brown is already working hard at a nondescript commissary kitchen at 15th and Florida in the Mission. She rolls lavender shortbread dough to quarter-inch thickness and cuts it into perfect squares. She deftly ping-pongs between ovens, pantries, and buzzing timers, moving with the confidence and ease that comes with more than 15 years of experience. By 6:30 a.m., she has simmered milk and cream for crème anglaise, removed trays of chocolate chip cookies from the oven, and lined tart shells with dough.
Brown's culinary path began on a post-collegiate trip to Italy. She left home with one goal: to master the art of bread making. Abroad, Brown fell in love with a craft that would shape her career. “When I returned home 11 months later, I gave myself a deadline. I decided to bake bread until I got tired of it,” she says. Thankfully, that day never came. After stints at various restaurants in Cotati, Calif., she moved to Citizen Cake, where she became head bread-baker in 2000, and then took the helm of Nopa's pastry department.
She likens her first days at the Divisadero hot spot to “running to jump on a moving train.” In her five years there, that train never slowed. In 2010, Brown added even more to her already-brimming plate with the creation of the much-anticipated and instantly popular brunch menu. That custardy, transcendent French toast? The airy, housemade English muffins served with corned beef hash and perfectly poached eggs? All her.
Nopa gave Brown more than a platform to showcase her talents; it also set the stage for her to meet fiancé (and Marla co-owner) Joe Wolf, who worked as a prep cook at the time. Brown attributes much of Marla's actualization to Wolf, who, Brown admits, is better-suited to handle the financial side of the business. Together, they jumped head-first into pursuing their dream of owning their own bakery/restaurant. In November, Marla became a reality, and has enjoyed a stream of pop-ups at places like State Bird Provisions and Dear Mom, appearances at small markets, and accounts at Pal's Takeaway, Boulette's Larder, and Range, among others.
As Brown prepares for the day's first delivery to Ritual Coffee Roasters, she removes three trays of Marla buns (her version of the morning bun) from the convection oven. She meticulously lines a pastry box with sheets of wax paper and places the buns alongside rows of sweet cheese Danishes and biscotti. When Wolf arrives at 6:45 a.m. to pick up the delivery, Brown's face lights up. “When Joe goes to Ritual, he comes back with coffee,” she says with a smile. With the promise of a cappuccino in her near future, Brown readies the red currant pot du crèmes, chocolate chip cookies, and whey crackers for the subsequent delivery to Samovar Tea Lounge.
When Joe returns at 7:30 a.m., with Brown's cappuccino in hand, it's time to head to the Alemany Farmers' Market. Because Brown works largely with flour, sugar, and other “season-less” ingredients, her trips to the market are a much-anticipated chance to wield her whisk of creativity. On today's shopping list: stone fruit for a marzipan galette, pistachios for lacy macaroons, and corn, zucchini, and “goldbar” yellow squash for a succotash tart. The trip is brief but productive; after stops at Bella Viva Orchards and Dirty Girl Produce for a basket of tomatoes and a pound of spring onions, it's back to the kitchen.
Brown's back in the kitchen by 9 a.m., and puts “This American Life” on the radio as she gathers her scale and dusts the countertop with a generous coating of flour. She then brings out a large metal mixing bowl of puffed whole wheat levain dough and methodically kneads it, adding regular amounts of flour until it reaches the desired consistency. The whole wheat levain is the only one of her breads that she mixes completely by hand.
“Any changes to the dough — the differences in the grind of the flour, the humidity, and temperature are done completely by feel,” she says. “I like learning along with my bread and feeling along with my bread … You never make the same bread twice. Bread is a good teacher. It's a frustrating teacher at times, but a good one.” She portions the levain into one-pound loaves and places them on wax paper-lined sheet trays for one final rest.
Brown eagerly anticipates the day when the oven, and the kitchen space that surrounds it, will be all her own. Just three months ago, she and Wolf signed a lease for a 1,400-square-foot brick and mortar at the intersection of Balboa and 37th Avenue in the Richmond; if everything goes as planned, she will soon be producing her loaves out of a custom two-deck wood-fired oven designed by a mason in Vermont. “We are still very much in the planning phase,” says Brown. “We intend to open for breakfast and lunch, as well as weekly Sunday suppers. Eventually, we would like to expand dinner service to three nights a week.”
While Marla's growth has been rapid and the journey to get there exciting, it has by no means been easy. Brown's workweeks are six days long. Her days begin at 4:30 a.m., and conclude, as Brown matter-of-factly states, “when my prep list is done.”
“One of the most difficult aspects is realizing that you are ultimately responsible for everything; knowing that this is it. This is entirely our doing. And at the end of a string of 20-hour workdays, when you have to wake up at 4 a.m. again … and you know there is no one else to call, and things have to get done; those are the times when I'm like, 'fuck.'”
We depart Brown's kitchen at 1:30 p.m., exactly eight hours after we arrived. She stays for another seven. There are more cookies to bake, dough to mix, and galettes to assemble. The almighty prep list must be obeyed.