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Lionel Vatinet: Champion of Artisanal Bread

Enter Eataly NYC, the massive Batali & Bastianich food hall located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, and you walk into an explosion of sound, color and fragrance. Foodstuffs—both Italian and local — are on shameless, flirtatious display. Throngs of gape-mouthed people go ooo, ahh, woww.

Off to the side is a sound-resistant, quiet space with large kitchen, tables and chairs —La Scuola di Eataly. That’s where Vegetarian Gazette met chef Lionel Vatinet, a master baker of bread who was in La Scuola to teach a hands-on bread baking class. We wanted to know a bit more about bread and who better to learn from?

Chef Vatinet is a reminder that when craft, art, tradition and passion combine, the result is some pretty good eats.

His journey through bread started officially when he was 16 and accepted for membership in Les Compagnons du Devoir, an esteemed, intense apprenticeship program where he labored and learned in leading European bakeries. Seven years later he received the title of Maitre Boulanger (roughly equivalent to a PhD in bread).

Since 1999, Vatinet, a French native, has lived in Cary, North Carolina, where he presides over Le Farm Bakery.  He has been in the forefront of the U.S. artisanal bread baking scene for the past 25 years. He is a restless teacher, communicator and experimenter. He tells us he’s had a lifelong “search for understanding of fermentation.”

As a result of that search, Vatinet produces 15 different styles of breads daily, plus more than 20 seasonal breads. These include his five-pound sourdough boule, “La Farm,” as well as such offerings as Asiago-Parmesan, White Chocolate Mini Baguette, Cinnamon-Raisin-Pecan, Multi-Grain and Honey-Spelt. He is the author of A Passion For Bread: Lessons From A Master Baker (Little, Brown & Co, 2013),

We wondered when Vatinet realized bread baking was his life. When he was choosing an apprenticeship, he would spend a day with an artisan of one trade or another. The day he spent with a plumber? Feh! The  electrical engineer shop? Meh!

“But,” he said, “when I walked into a bakery it was magical  —the smells, the heat, everything altogether.”

He sees bread as an extension of the hand.
“With bread,” he explained,  “You push, fill, grab, and hold. You scoop up sauces. It is the first thing you put in your mouth.“

And there is so much you can do when baking bread. For example, if you anticipate pairing it with cheese. Vatinet said, “you can add nuts — walnuts or pecans— to balance everything when you are going to have it with a strong cheese. For a mild cheese, such as a young chevre, you can add lemon or rosemary.”

As an unofficial spokesman for bread, he finds himself combating a conventional wisdom.
“People say, ‘I don’t have time to make bread,’ but mise en place,” he said, invoking the classic French term for having all your ingredients measured and ready beforehand.

“If you are organized,” he added, “ it only takes 20 minutes of physical time.”

And then there is bread’s role in the big picture issue of planet sustainability. Vatinet has been working with miller/baker Jennifer Lapidus of Carolina Ground and Professor David Marshall of North Carolina State University in championing a variety of hard winter wheat called TAM 303. (This variety differed from the area’s standard wheat that was soft and more suitable for pastry and not good for real bread.) The wheat is ideally suited to growing in rotation with tobacco. At this point, Vatinet buys a ton of flour made from this wheat every three weeks.

(For more about the Lapidus/Marshall/Vatinet effort see the as yet unscheduled PBS’s “Original Fare. Also in the works is “The Grain Divide.”  It is a documentary about “growing concerns with modern wheat and grains” and includes an interview with Jennifer Lapidus about  the grain leap forward in North Carolina. Watch this soace for  release dates.)

“I want people to be aware of making bread from sustainable grain,” said Vatinet. “We dream of how we can feed the world and bring a smile to everyone and to every belly.’

For more information, about Chef Lionel Vatinet, click here. And yes, you can order the boule online and have it sent to you.