The Bread Controls You

Nick Muncy, pastry chef at Michael Mina, explains how making bread in a restaurant differs from preparing it at a bakery.

Making good bread is not easy. 

It involves trying to control a constantly shifting set of variables and running on the bread’s schedule, not yours. To get some perspective on the art, SF Weekly spoke to someone who’s responsible for making it on a regular basis, but isn’t a baker. 

Enter Nick Muncy, who joined Michael Mina’s eponymous flagship restaurant in January as executive pastry chef. Muncy, previously a pastry chef at Coi, also runs his own independent magazine, Toothache Magazine. He shared his thoughts with us on bread and baking. 

Q: What kind of breads do you make?

A: Everyday we do some flatbreads. All the breads were developed prior to me starting. I haven’t adjusted or changed any of them, they’re pretty great how they are. We do a baladi. It’s really soft dough. It bakes and souffles in the oven. It’s a pita-ish flat bread. We’re doing laffa as well, it’s thinner. Those are the two breads we make in-house for bread service. I also make a tomato focaccia  and we make gluten-free bread for people. Depending on the menu, we’ll have regular brioche. It’s kinda hard to do a French baguette at an Egyptian-influenced restaurant. We [also] bring in some bread from Firebrand that we also serve, that’s our levain.

Q: What’s the key to making good bread?

A: Bread is an interesting thing because it’s a living thing, a living organism. You have to time everything perfectly. You don’t really control bread, it controls you. For example, if a timer goes off and I’m in a meeting, I need to leave and start shaping the bread or it doesn’t turn out right. The most important thing with bread is mastering fermentation and knowing when things are proofed. You bake it 10 minutes early, it does something different.

Q: What’s the hardest part?

A: Figuring out when it’s ready. I’ve talked to bakers and it seems like a lifelong pursuit. You’re constantly learning. It’s pretty difficult with bread for it to be the exact same timing-wise. Especially in a restaurant, you’re making small batches of dough. It’s more finicky. It depends on the temperature of the room, how much water is in the mixture, what temperature the water is, who’s touching the dough, whether they’re overhandling it, etc. 

Q: There’s a lot of variables. 

A: Yeah, it’s hard to make a bread recipe you’ve made a million times in San Francisco and you go to New Orleans, it’s not gonna work the same. The temperature and humidity affects the bread. A lot of things have to be done by feel. Pastry is measured and exact. In bread there’s a lot [done] by feel. 

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Q: Do you have a preference?

A: As a pastry chef, I prefer everything to be measured and exact. With bread making, I’m very exact with all the ingredients that go into it. Making those things exact takes out a lot of the wiggle room of things being different. It mostly comes down to the handling and the baking of the bread. 

Q: You run Toothache Magazine, too, right? 

A: [Yes, and] I’m actually doing a piece on restaurant bread. A lot of people want to make bread like Tartine, but you need a commercial oven. When you’re baking out of an oven in the kitchen, it’s not going to bake the same. You don’t get the rips in the top and that kind of thing. I kind of believe Tartine-esque bread in a restaurant, it’s not really worth it. You’re kind of working against everything that it takes to do that. A lot of the breads I like to do are like enriched breads with butter and berries. Things that aren’t sourdough baguettes. It’s hard to get a crust in a restaurant oven. 

Q: What’s your favorite bread to eat and what’s your favorite bread to bake?

A: I really enjoy eating parker house rolls. They’re a fun, light, fluffy, and delicious bread that goes well with butter. I have made those in the past, they’re fun enough to make. Not sure which are the most interesting to make. I like tweaking the bread. I lean toward those softer breads. My teeth are always hurting. I’m working in desserts and really crusty breads are not what I’m in the mood for. Still, I’m not gonna say no to a slice of Tartine. 

Q: What’s your least favorite bread to bake?

A: It would probably be that big, crusty type bread just because I don’t have that experience. I didn’t work in bakeries and I don’t feel that’s my strongest skill set. I know what will work and what’s feasible in a restaurant. That big Tartine loaf is just something I can’t make in a restaurant unless I’m making one or two loaves in a Dutch oven. I can’t make it for a whole restaurant on Saturday night. 

Q: Do you have any advice for anyone interested in getting into breadmaking?

A: Start with breads that don’t involve sourdough. [People] want to make a big sourdough loaf and to get that flavor, it’s a whole other aspect of difficulty. If you’re just starting, learning to work with dough, handle it, learning how to not get it all over the table or yourself, those are the first steps. Once you feel comfortable and you’ve made bread enough times, then you can try something like sourdough. You don’t want to run before you can walk. Start with more easy, basic breads. Focaccia can be an easy bread to make depending on the recipe. 

Q: You mentioned earlier that you make a tomato focaccia at the restaurant. What’s the key to making that?

A: At the time, Chef Raj [Dixit] had these semi-dried tomatoes that came in and he made a puree, but they were a little salty. We decided they’d be great in the bread dough. It makes the dough bright orange and gives it a little tang. My cooks are consistently making it and it’s coming out great. … That final rising of the dough is where it comes down to knowing when it’s good to go. It can vary whether it’s a hot day or a cold day, if you put it closer to the oven. That’s the key to that turning out well.

Richard Procter is the Editor in Chief of SF Weekly. You can reach him at rprocter@sfweekly.com.

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