La Farm Bakery's artisan roots run deep

by Andy Nelson
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'Your hand is the most important tool of a baker,' says Lionel Vatinet, founder of La Farm Bakery. Image courtesy of La Farm Bakery
 

CARY, N.C. — Cary-based La Farm Bakery’s roots run deep. The bakery’s founder, Lionel Vatinet, joined France’s acclaimed Les Compagnons du Devoir when he was just 16. After seven years’ apprenticeship, he earned the title of Maitre Boulanger (Master Baker). In 1999 he founded La Farm, bringing Old World craftsmanship to his new home.

For Mr. Vatinet, a 2015 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Baker award semifinalist, there are a number of ways to interpret “artisan,” but it all starts with hand craftsmanship.

Lionel Vatinet, founder of La Farm Bakery

“Your hand is the most important tool of a baker,” he said. “Your hand is your memory.”

Next, Mr. Vatinet said, comes the materials those hands work with.

“For our team, our goal is to use the highest quality ingredients,” he explained. “Our passion as artisans is to work with the natural elements as we work with four simple ingredients — flour, water, salt and yeast — to foster the best environment for fermentation.”

Knowing the scientists, farmers and millers who are behind those ingredients, and are just as passionate as you about their craft, also is vital, he said.

La Farm bread, Mr. Vatinet said, is crafted one loaf at a time. That sounds obvious enough on the surface, until you see how that focus on the task at hand affects other, more conventional ways of measuring “success.”

“We’re asked how many loaves a day we make, and honestly, as a company we don’t count, because we are so focused on each single piece of dough and its fermentation to craft the single best loaf,” he said.

La Farm bread is crafted one loaf at a time.
 

As La Farm has grown, it has added a fermenter to take care of its “mother starter” and dividers to speed the production process. The company also relies on mixers, a hearth oven and a cooler to help preserve shelf life and control the speed of fermentation. But at each stage, from flour to shaped loaves, product is handled by human hands, Mr. Vatinet said.

The most important “upgrade” La Farm has made is in its human tools.

“If anything has increased over the years, it’s our ability to train our team as it has grown,” he said.

Looking ahead, Mr. Vatinet said he doesn’t know how much more La Farm can grow and still maintain its high standards. But he knows that it is possible to scale up without sacrificing quality.

“There are other teams, while few, around the world who have maintained the integrity of artisan breads, have not compromised quality for speed and who make a lot more breads than we do,” he said.

The bakery uses unbleached, unbromated flours and locally grown ingredients when possible. Image courtesy of La Farm Bakery
 

La Farm’s growth has been mirrored by growth in artisan industry-wide, as American consumers have broadened their food horizons, Mr. Vatinet said. As a result, there’s more demand now for artisan bread than ever before.

“Over the past 25 years in this country, it has been great to see the communities increasing their understanding of quality breads, and the grains the loaves are made with,” he said. “The customer is more knowledgeable than ever and seeking higher quality choices.”

 As other artisan bakers scale up to meet the growing demand, it’s La Farm’s hope that as many bread varieties as possible are produced using heritage grains, organic grains and grains from nearby farms, and — most important —  that bread is produced with respect for fermentation. 

“The more we educate our bakers, develop farming equipment and manufacturing equipment to preserve the nutrition of a single kernel of grain, the more tables in this country will have nutritional bread to feed their families,” he said.

When it comes to the task of building even more demand for artisan bread at retail, merchandising plays a key role, Mr. Vatinet said. Retailers must train their instore bakery associates about product, and then pass that knowledge along to customers, particularly via sampling.

“It brings knowledge on what are quality breads and grains, and through taste, they delight in each grain’s individual flavors,” he said.

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