WooVoice #2: Bram Yoffie, Urban Architect- turned-Artisanal- Bread-Maker

Bram Yoffie’s truck sits outside his parents’ home on the west side of Worcester.  In February, he returned from an eighteen month wheat growing and bread baking immersion experience in a two hundred person village in France.  Now, he is hoisting his motorcycle on his truck and filling up the cab with stores of canned tuna fish and almonds for his upcoming 6000 mile journey cross country.  His goal is to reach the west coast, anywhere from northern California to Oregon, find a farmer who can grow wheat from polycultures, establish a stone grinding mill and then start baking fine loaves of artisanal bread.  His dream is simply to recreate the paradise of a bread culture he found in France. Along the way, he plans to meet farmers, millers and bakers to share the vision of farm-to-table natural bread. We were lucky to catch him before he left.

Starting in architecture:

"I studied architecture in school and worked in architecture for seven years. My love for architecture got me really interested in city planning because what I was most passionate about with architecture were civil projects – airports, train stations and the interaction of the built environment with people and how design effects people’s emotions and feelings and the interaction between people and how they flow through a space."

Paris and the culture of bread:

"It was a trip to Paris in 2009.  I rented an apartment in the Morais.  I loved the urban life in Paris, particularly the culture around the bread, waking up in the morning and going to the local boulangerie and getting a croissant and then in the afternoon, getting a baguette.  There was a certain interaction that was really special to me between the people in the city and the small artisanal boulangeries.  At 28, I considered myself to be an avid cook and lover of food.  I considered that I had tasted it all in America.  Then, I went to France for the first time.  At 28, this was the first time I had really eaten good bread.  How was that possible?"  

"You talk about cities and personalities of a city.  It’s such a part of the identity not just of the French culture but of Paris, this bread culture. You have the stereotype of the Frenchman in the beret, smoking a cigarette  with a newspaper and baguette under the arm.  Take out the beret and it is exactly still that.  You see men walking home with a newspaper and baguette under the arm and they are tearing off the end piece, nibbling it on their walk home after work with their baguette for dinner.  It is a travesty in France if you don’t have bread at a meal."

"When I went to France, I didn’t just fall in love with the bread.  I fell for the culture of connection.  I specifically remember one morning walking back from the bakery.  I had woken up and gotten a croissant and a baguette.  I’m walking back ( I didn’t speak any French at this time).  The Frenchman walking past me with a baguette just waved to me and said, “bonjour.”  To me, it felt  ‘I’m in this big city and this man with his baguette and me with my baguette’, there was this instant connection and a reason to say hello. This bread culture helps bind the interworkings of a city.  You get to know people in your neighborhood."

Similarities between bread and architecture:

"Really, making bread is not so different from architecture, construction management and urban planning.  It’s just more abbreviated. Instead of putting in months or years on a project, every single day, you get to give birth to something new and see it all the way through to the end.  There’s a real structure inside the dough, the architecture of bread and you are working with something alive.  There’s not another part of the cooking world where you’re working with a living organism.  The two of you have a symbiotic relationship."

A baker’s relationship to the dough:

"The most important part of being a baker is not being afraid to fail.  There’s a quote by Michael Jordan that I live by, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.”  Your sour dough, your levain is alive, never the same thing. Never the same day, never happens twice.  Every day, you are learning something new.  There’s a new communication every day with your dough.  Your whole environment effects the bread – the temperature of the room, the humidity of the room, is it winter, is it summer, is it spring, where is the temperature going to go throughout the day because your dough is sitting outside for some time and it is proofing, a lot of factors that go into the communication that you have."

From baker oven to eater:

 "When I lived in the village in France for the last 18 months, this was another whole culture with a boulangerie inside a two hundred person village.  There was no traditional storefront.  As a baker, you had a true interaction with the community. People would come in to buy bread.  I’d be working at the oven, a large rotating hearth, wood fired oven. I’d be sweating and working really hard putting in one hundred and forty loaves at a time. The people would come over. I would have to stop what I was doing, go over and say hello to them.  They would look over my shoulder, ‘oh, I want THAT loaf of bread! Tell me when that loaf is ready.   Could you cook it a little more for me?  A little lighter for me?”  I got to know my clients and I would set certain loaves aside.  When they come in, I would say, “Oh, your loaf is right there!”   There was no counter, no boundary and people were coming as far away as 20 kilometers just to get our bread.  I would get to know a client and I would know, “this loaf is just for you” and I would bake it and set it aside.  Those relationships are what I love and what I love about baking."

Thoughts on Jane Jacobs and Worcester:

"Jane Jacobs was a New York city person.  She had these ideas about “eyes on the street.”  Parents felt safe with their kids playing on the streets because they knew their neighbors, the shop keepers, the people sitting on the stoops, watching the kids.  The kids were safe so long as people were sitting on these stoops.  It became a big family environment.  It’s difficult to translate directly Jane Jacobs to Worcester because Worcester is such a city with a lot of single family homes.  That philosophy of community is what Worcester can take away the most from Jane Jacobs and building that community where you know your neighbor.  Your neighbor is looking out for you and your kids and you are looking out for them and their kids."

"My family had an old knitting mill, Worcester Knitting Company.  In the 1930s, this knitting mill is where the current Worcester Public Library is right now. There was a lot of manufacturing going on downtown in the city.  People lived downtown and worked in these manufacturingbuildings.  This urban renewal was a tragedy but it happened.   You look at Water Street and you can see still some old abandoned factories there.  Back when I was a kid, I can remember every week, we’d go to Tom’s and get some pickles and go to Weintrab’s for a sandwich and then cross the street to Widoff's Bakery and get some bread.  Even though we lived in these single family homes, we would still go down there to these mixed use areas."

"Here is Jane Jacobs, eyes on the streets and mixed use.  Because if people are going to one place for one function and then leave and there are no people living there, shopping there, walking their dogs there, it makes you feel less safe when you leave the Hanover, when you leave the DCU Center.  If you are walking by the DCU Center at night and there’s not an event, you are not going to feel safe because there’s no one else there. A big part of growing your economy in a downtown area isn’t just building a DCU Center and having bars, it’s having a constant flow of people living and working."

Brooklyn as urban ideal:

 "When I first became a baker, I moved to Brooklyn.  I really loved my neighborhood.  Even though I lived in a residential neighborhood, just a block away from me, there was a main commercial strip with total mixed use.  I had a butcher and two bakeries and a produce store, a full grocery store, a fishmonger and a cheese store.  Having all these little elements, it doesn’t have to be in the same compact Manhattan kind of way.  In Brooklyn, you have residential buildings and then just off on the main street, you have these mixed use buildings.  The real interaction came from… well, you get to know your butcher and then you would walk over to the next store, and then the next store, make these trips stopping into these little stores as you are getting ready to cook your dinner.  Mixed use… that’s it at its best!"

Importance of mixed use

"A good example of taking these old factories in Worcester and turning them into something interesting… I worked for an architecture firm in Boston particularly famous for taking old buildings and re-envisioning them into something new.  In Waltham, the firm renovated a building called Waltham Watch, an old watch factory and transformed it into residential with some mixed use in it.  It was a dream of mine to buy back the old family factory which rests across from Holy Cross and turn it into residential and mixed use retail space."

Importance of affordability and diversity:

"An important element in mixed use is not just to create living spaces for the rich and for those who can afford it.  One the most important things we can do when you are talking about redevelopment of depressed downtown areas is to make housing affordable, making affordable for everyone – low income, young artists, young students, older people with families.  One of the biggest things for families to move into apartments is that you need at least three bedrooms.  Too often, developers are only developing studios, one bedroom and two bedrooms.  They are leaving out the family element and the affordability of it.  It’s a practical thing to do and an important thing from a community standpoint.  I always talk about Worcester being an older city because young people often end up leaving.  The biggest reason why I believe young people are leaving Massachusetts is affordability.   Massachusetts is a very expensive place to live.  Big element of mixed use is affordability and diversity as well because you want to attract students, artists, families, older folks who don’t want to drive as much, who want to live and walk to their grocery store, restaurants, their butcher."

Future dreams of bread:

"In bread, I found my passion and a big part of that is the community element.  Bread is truly the staff of life.  It is why we were able to go from hunter gatherers to forming civilized communities.  When I moved to France , I worked on a farm with a farmer who was working totally organically, not in an American sense, but naturally,   We planted in polycultures where there would be multiple of species growing together in the fields.  We often spoke of mimicking the vibrant biodiversity of the forests that surrounded us.  We didn’t put any additives in the soil, no fertilizers, no irrigation, no pesticides,nothing.  We worked off of the polyculture techniques and the idea that nature gives us the best example of how to grow, respecting the life of the soil.  The root of bread flavor is not just through fermentation.  It’s not just about how you mill but it starts in the soil.  Living in this community where we were growing, milling and making our own bread, it became clear to me the importance of all three processes working together.  You just can’t grow good wheat for flavor and have a bad miller.  You just can’t have a good miller who is going to take a bad wheat to make good flour out of it.  All of it at the end, it becomes the baker’s responsibility to take all that and make something wonderful.  It’s my job as a baker to express through my bread the hard work, sweat and toilthat the farmer and miller has done before me.  My work is an expression of their work."