My watch’s alarm chirped at me at 4:15. It was time for me to get my sorry butt out of bed, shower, and make the 15 minute drive to Cary’s La Farm Bakery. I kept asking myself why the hell I had asked to spend a few hours in this award-winning artisanal bakery. Of course, by the time I arrived at 4:50, Philippe Comte had been there for nearly five hours. That’s the life of an apprentice baker, who has come to the US from his home in Paris to learn from a baking master such as Lionel Vatinet. For me, I was just some “journalist” who wanted to spend a few hours with my hands in the dough.
It was February 14 — Valentine’s Day — but I had totally forgotten about that until I arrived to see Philippe pull a dozen loaves of heart-shaped baguettes out of the oven. That would be the theme of my visit with La Farm, as heart-shaped objects ruled the day. Cookies, tarts, bread and more were being made for the lovers of the world — OK, maybe just the lovers of Cary.
Lionel Vatinet has traveled the world, first to learn to make bread, and then to teach others the secrets of the craft, and then, nearly 10 years ago, to open his own bakery with his then girlfriend and now wife, Missy. There was nothing magical about Cary, as Lionel wanted to set up shop in California, but Missy had some family in North Carolina and wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle. So due to the lack of any firm roots, we here in the Triangle ended up being the beneficiaries of their new home.
Lionel met me at the door, introduced me to the “late morning” crew, and then said, “You look like you need some coffee.” Bakers obviously have a sixth sense, or they just know that normal people don’t get up at 4:15 AM. While the coffee was brewing, he put me to work.
Now, I’m a pretty good home baker who frequently makes both yeast-based breads and quick breads. I once had three different sourdough starters bubbling simultaneously back when I was in law school. I can even handle wet dough without much of a problem. What I’m not good at, however, is dealing with this amount of dough. It is, quite literally, a ton of it, in 20 pound increments. Fortunately, Lionel didn’t start me out with the heavy lifting. Instead, he gave me a spatula, a tub of raspberry jam, and about ten dozen heart-shaped cookies. My job, if I chose to accept it, was to spread a thin layer of jam on each cookie. I was certainly up to the task, and when Lionel realized that I actually had some spreading skills, he joined me. He was a little faster, but not overly so. And I didn’t drop any. As for Lionel, well, it was just one, but one more than me!
The cookies were finished by Gudelia, one of the two pastry specialists who also made heart-shaped chocolate pastries and heart-shaped strawberry tarts. Gudelia was my best friend, as she frequently pointed to the scraps left over from the heart cutter, knowing that I was hungry. If there is a heaven, Gudelia will be there to make sure I get fed.
I then hung out with Philippe, the 20-year old apprentice from Paris — the former soccer goalkeeper who realized that he had to have a job in a field that he liked, and he likes to bake bread. Philippe has been working at La Farm for six months, and being the low man on the totem pole, he gets the midnight shift. His job is bread. Making the dough, portioning it in large plastic boxes to rise for 24 hours, separating the dough into identical, loaf-sized segments, forming the loaf shapes, scoring them with a lamé, and, of course, baking them. He works quietly and efficiently, explaining to me how the different machines operate. He is always smiling for me and my camera, thinking that I am a journalist, even though I explain to him that I just blog about food. He wants to know when my pictures will be on the computer. He just had a date the night before, and I suspect he wants to show off to his new friend what he does for a living. His date should be impressed.
I put a bunch of baguettes in bags. I try to stay out of the way, as it’s constant motion. Danny is wheeling carts of white chocolate bread around, followed by a cart of pastries. The morning rush will soon begin, and Annette and TJ, the two “front of the house” employees of La Farm, arrive with big smiles on their faces. La Farm may be a classic French boulangerie, but Annette is all Southern. With an omnipresent smile, Annette welcomes customers with her thick drawl and a demeanor as sweet as the morning’s pastry cream. TJ is equally charming but maintains a lower profile. Together, they’re a perfect team, turning first-time visitors into long-time regulars.
But just as I’m relaxing, enjoying the hum of the operation around me, I’m put back to work by Lionel. Does this French taskmaster never stop? Of course not. Lionel hands me a plastic box containing 20 pounds of La Farm’s signature sourdough bread dough and shows me what to do. I dust the top with flour. I scrape the edges with a plastic dough scraper, flip the dough onto the wood work area, dust the bin with more flour, slap down the dough, fold it into thirds, slap it down again, and fold into thirds again. All of this is fairly simple, as I have some experience with bread making. Of course, I’ve never tried to lift such a large mass of dough to put it back into the plastic bin. I struggle, with the dough wanting to spread everywhere. Lionel watches with some amusement, and then quickly shows me how to push the dough forward, roll it back onto your hands, and then into the plastic box. I struggle with the first two or three containers of dough, but after that, I’m ready to join the Les Compagnons du Devoir, the French bread making guild. OK, I still sort of suck at it, but I wasn’t that bad. I scrape off the remnants of dough from the work surface with a metal dough scraper without being asked. Lionel smiles at me but says nothing. I’m becoming part of the team.
I asked Lionel whether the repetition of the business got old. He told me that repetition is an underrated occurrence, but then he said that each day is a different challenge. Changes in the ambient humidity affect the bread, so he has to make minor tweaks to the product each day. He has to come up with different products, as the market demands something new every once in awhile. He teaches a couple of classes a month in his shop, as he truly adores interacting with people. I could see how much Lionel Vatinet loves his craft, and that passion is reflected in his bread. It’s good, damn good. His signature La Farm bread is a five-pound wheel of light, wheat sourdough that takes three days to make. This is Lionel’s “masterpiece,” which he developed at the end of his apprenticeship. This is the bread I want to have in my kitchen every day of the year. The ciabatta, the hand-rolled baguettes and the parmesan-asiago cheese bread are all knock-outs.
La Farm is growing, but Lionel isn’t exactly sure where he wants to be in five years. He wants to expand, but now that he sells his bread in all four local Whole Foods and the State Farmers Market, he hasn’t completely formulated a master plan. He knows La Farm will grow, but it needs to be slowly, as Lionel Vatinet also understands that many an operation die when they try to grow too quickly. Sort of like the way bread works.
So as my time was coming to an end, I started shaking the hands of my teammates. Yes, I felt like I was a small part of the La Farm team, even though I did maybe half an hour of work in the three hours I was there. Lionel starts filling up bags of goodies to take home. A loaf of sesame seed bread, a quarter wheel of La Farm bread, white chocolate bread for the kids, some cookies for my secretary, and, of course, a heart-shaped baguette for my wife. “But tell her it’s from you,” Lionel said, that French twinkle in his eye.
I walked to my car with pounds of bread in my hands, but I felt lighter than when I arrived. The smile across my face didn’t leave the rest of the day, as I spent three hours with a team of craftsmen and craftswomen who love to make us happy. Who love to make the best possible breads and pastries using ancient techniques. People who care about us.
La Farm Bakery
4248 NW Cary Parkway
Cary, NC 27513