[Photos: Josh Brasted]
It's been about a year since Megan Forman, the former pastry chef at Bayona and Sucré, opened the doors at Gracious Bakery and let the aroma of freshly-made carbohydrates waft across the Jefferson Davis Parkway, tempting commuters zipping between Mid-City and Uptown to stop and visit one of city's newest bakeries. Forman, with the help of her food-writing husband Jay, has been part of a recent trend in New Orleans of rising local bakeries, though when she decided to move on from her gig at Sucré and open her own place in the Woodward building, she couldn't have guessed how quickly the neighborhood would embrace her.
At about one year in, how are things going?
Things are fantastic, well beyond what we anticipated. I was at Sucré before this, as a pastry chef. I always wanted to do my own thing, and I saw this building going up and thought immediately, "I want to be in that building." I didn't know anything about Woodward or anything, and so a lot of people of course asked me, "What are you doing in this neighborhood? What are you thinking?" You know, I think for people who don't work in the area it's not obvious how many businesses are here, and also what an important thoroughfare it is for traffic going Uptown from I-10. We have are area customers during the weekdays, but we also get a lot of people looking to avoid the weekend congestion. Our busiest time is during the week, and we have a really good breakfast on Saturday. I really wanted to be able to have five days to make our really good money, rather than just make everything during the weekend.
I think it's become a little more of a destination, not just a neighborhood place. Plus, there's plenty of parking, which can be enticing to people in New Orleans.
You were in New York for a while. What brought you back down to New Orleans?
My family is here, and New York really seemed impractical in the long-term. There are tons of chefs, tons of restaurants, and you're opening everyday, closing everyday, and it's just a grind. I thought, maybe with the training I'd received and the great people I'd worked with, it would make sense to come down to New Orleans and make an impression. I worked at Bayona for a while, and then I went to Sucré with Joel and Tariq, and I thought I'd be there for a while and then I'd go and do my own thing. I thought I'd just get some retail background, but then I turned around and it was five-and-a-half years later. Things take time.
I'm so glad to be back, though, because New Orleans is having an incredible food renaissance right now.
There especially seems to be a baking renaissance right now. Is this just a coincidence? Do you think there was a really high demand for more bakeries in New Orleans?
I'm not sure. Right after Katrina, a few places opened, but then, almost all at the same, there are like three brand new places?Bellegarde, me, and Oak Street?really having this focus on artisan bread. I'm a pastry chef by training, but I just thought, "Oh, well, if we're going to open this place, we're going to sandwiches for lunch, which means that we're definitely going to have to do our own bread." That's just how I sidetracked into the bread thing. We have a bread program now, in part because Hollygrove wanted different stuff. We also have some smaller wholesale accounts. That whole bread-making thing, though, happened a little bit on accident, but artisan bread really is making a comeback in a broader sense. Graison [Gill] from Bellegarde was doing bread, then went away to get formally trained and came back because he loves New Orleans?it's a little bit coincidental that all these people are doing it here, right now.
Setting up shop down here, did you ever have to contend with the humidity when you were making your bread?
It's interesting because I recently read something in Gambit about a baker who'd said something about the humidity and the rain and the thunderstorms being a factor, but I've never had a problem. I don't know if it's because we have a pretty temperature-controlled environment?it's always about 75 degrees. It changes a little in the winter because then we don't use cold water for mixing. We usually use ice water, because by the time the mixer is finished mixing the dough, the dough is 72 degrees. Not getting too technical, but, no, we don't experience too many humidity issues, but we do make some seasonal adjustments.
I don't think Graison has air conditioning at Bellegarde, so he's really at the mercy of the weather.
Take me through an average day for you. How much do you do yourself, when do you start making things for the day, and when do you take a break?
I'm extremely lucky because I have an incredible group of employees. When I started, I was making all the bread and pastries, obviously doing a lot. As you grow, you have to hire people. I learned a lot from Sucré, which Joel and Tariq always ran with an eye to the long-term goals. I realized that I couldn't grow my own company if I was doing everything myself, so I found people who could help me out with this. I mean, I have a three-and-a-half year old as well. I have a husband and wife team, and they come in at 4:45, and she starts making the pasties, and he bakes all the bread for the wholesale orders and sandwiches. My duties now are to mix and retard the dough in the afternoon. We put it in the refrigerator overnight, and it has a slow fermentation. In the morning, he comes in and shakes it and bakes it.
Some people have their employees come in at like 1:00 in the morning, but I want to have people who have lives, and have at least a semi-healthy balance. Our process lets them come in at a slightly more reasonable hour. My thing now is dough mixing and desserts in the case. The husband and wife team?he does the bread mixing and she shapes the pastries. We're hiring another person, but there's still a ton to do. I'm lucky, though, because I have a lot of great help.
What's the plan for the next year?
We're planning on expanding our wholesale accounts and our catering business. We'll try to max out as much as we can here, at our flagship building, but we don't ever have plans to leave here. In the future, we might have a kiosk in another office building, or even some little satellite outlets. Moving out of the state would not be part of the plan. Maintaining quality even five blocks away would definitely be challenging.
· Gracious Bakery [Official Site]