When it comes to her passion for baking, Nadine Salameh is not afraid to speak her mind. She believes there can be no shortcuts when producing high-quality artisan breads. She follows the philosophy that it takes a long, slow process to create Old World breads made the way nature intended them to be.
However, Ms. Salameh is also very pragmatic. As executive vice-president of Bakery de France, she oversees operations at the company’s Rockville and state-of-the-art Frederick, MD, bakeries. A strong proponent of the art of baking and all that it implies, Ms. Salameh, along with husband and CEO John Salameh and chairman Joe Asseily, work closely with equipment suppliers to push the envelope on technology to make long fermentation affordable through automation.
Founded in 1986, Bakery de France began as a small local operation selling to hotels and restaurants throughout the Washington, DC, area. Today, the company serves the national foodservice and in-store bakery channels with high-quality par-baked artisan breads. In our report, Ms. Salameh offers no apology for her outspoken convictions developed from spending the past 28 years in the baking industry.
Baking & Snack: How do you define true artisan bread?
Nadine Salameh: Over the years, the word “artisan” has been so misused. It really doesn’t give any justice to what it truly represents. Bakery de France started working in the artisan world of baking, and our world is made of three critical components. First, it begins with a natural levain. Second, you need to make the commitment to the time it takes to make the bread. It’s no longer a four-hour process from mixing to packaging. Some people aren’t ready for that commitment. Third, which is the most important, is our passion for baking. We believe in doing it the right way. It must be made with a levain, no additives and from scratch, which we do.
How do you describe your Old World products?
We have gone away from using the word artisan. We are more focused about our all-natural philosophy with GMO-free ingredients and a clean label.
What does not qualify as ‘authentic’ artisan?
There are attributes that are easier to replicate than others. Creating the appearance of artisan breads is not that difficult, but the appearance is often deceiving. True authentic artisan bread must have the aroma that comes from proper hydration, fermentation and resting times that also give the bread a longer shelf life. The bread should have a regular honeycomb — those irregular bubbles in the crumb — that gives the texture to pain levain. Appearance is not difficult to replicate. But the true virtues of artisan bread are very difficult to replicate.
How do you automate such a long process?
We do it in steps. You cannot do it continuously. It’s not like a sponge process. To mass produce artisan bread, you need to do it in steps so that the real estate is not too expensive. We start with our levain, which has a very long fermentation time. This is why the fermentation system in our Frederick bakery is so large and our Frederick plant so huge. It’s to accommodate the fermentation, the resting time before you mould the bread, the resting time after you mould the bread and the long proofing time. If you put all of those times together, you will find that some of our breads take 22 to 24 hours to make. But keep in mind, the process is in steps.
Do consumers appreciate quality bread?
They do appreciate good bread due to the surge in international travel. You see more Americans overseas than ever. Before, many people waited until they retired to travel. That is no longer the case. Consumers are also looking for a clean label. They are demanding higher quality regardless of the price. It doesn’t matter if the economy is good or bad. To pamper yourself with high-quality bread requires only 10 or 15¢ more. Consumers are willing to pay a slight price difference to pamper themselves. Everybody likes an everyday luxury, especially when it’s just a small, affordable difference.
It’s a cliche, but how is baking an art and science?
Yes, it’s such a cliche when we say baking is both an art and a science, but when you think about it, the standards of the baking process are very exact — that is the science of baking. But when you are creating a formula, you encounter the truly artistic unknown about how this formula is going to fare. It’s during this part of the new product development process where science meets art.
How do you balance Old World baking processes against the need for automation?
You need to fully partner with equipment manufacturers. There’s no doubt about it. The bakers cannot do it without equipment companies, and the equipment companies cannot progress without bakers. Unfortunately, in the last century, there was a bit of mistrust between the two. When the artisan phenomena came out of mid-sized bakeries that were making products by hand and needed to automate because of pricing and the need to produce products for the masses, this sort of mistrust had to be put aside.
I know we work very closely with some of our suppliers. We needed to explain to them that in order to replicate the baker’s hands, the equipment had to be very, very gentle. We couldn’t divide with pistons anymore because they punished the dough. We worked together to adapt the equipment during every step of their process to replicate every step of our process — and not the other way around when people bought traditional dividers and moulders and found they needed conditioners to divide the dough, to produce at much faster rates and to retain hydration. This is what prompted the change in artisan baking over the years.
In France today, every village has six bakers who can still make the product by hand to meet consumer demand. That’s not the case in other countries where they don’t have bakers making products by hand in every town.
What is the greatest challenge facing artisan bakers?
Truly, our biggest challenge is differentiating our products from everyone who uses the term “artisan” without any real commitment to the process or the investment, which dilutes the value for artisan breads in the short term. But the market is maturing, and we see a differentiation occurring. Therefore, change is coming slowly. It’s definitely coming.
What is your point of differentiation?
It’s that we stayed the course. We remained focused. We didn’t let our philosophy be swayed. If we did, we’d be in a price war with commodity bread. This is not our vision. It is not our passion for baking. We have recently been to Europe to see new equipment and how it has evolved. Our focus is to go to a larger scale without compromising our integrity. I’m confident that we will be able to offer our customers the highest level of quality product and innovation without the highest price.
Describe your passion for the industry.
The baking industry grows on you, and what pushed me to further horizons is the need to revive being a baker as a profession. It is a noble profession. Passion is something either you have or you don’t.