Cheftell: Local Baker and Owner Jonathan Stevens

Interview with local business owner and baker Jonathan Stevens of The Hungry Ghost on April 10, 2013.

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When you first walk up the hill to the modest Hungry Ghost bakery in Northampton (MA), you will notice a welcoming YES! sign implying that they are open and have fresh bread.  Wheat plants surround the quaint bakery building doors and the irresistible smell of fresh bread embraces you before you even walk in.  The bakery is designed to have an open layout so that all customers can see their bread being rolled out on the large tables and fired in the oven. I recently had the unique opportunity to go behind the bread counter at Northampton’s acclaimed bakery and got an even closer look at what goes into baking a fresh loaf of bread.

Owners Jonathan Stevens and Cheryl Maffei have been selling organic artisan sourdough bread at their current location for over nine years.  Two years ago, in 2011, they were semifinalists for a James Beard Foundation Award. Their bakery produces a superior bread by using a natural yeast, which produces a sourdough bread that is exceptionally flavorful and easier to digest than conventional bread. They call this natural yeast starter The Hungry Ghost because they have to constantly “feed” it to keep it alive.

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They bake fresh bread twice a day, at ten o’clock in the morning and two o’clock in the afternoon. You can find a wide variety of bread everyday including French, 8-grain, rosemary, spelt, rye, savory, Challah, and flatbread. They also offer pizzas, crackers, noodles and various freshly baked items such as cookies, pies and granola.

Jonathan Stevens and Cheryl Maffei are passionate about buying local.  They were baking pioneers in the area because they found a way to initiate growing all their flour locally.  Fields of wheat are not common here in New England, but they were determined and  found a farm in Northfield (MA) that agreed to grow wheat and process it into flour for their bakery.

I got to try the different between week old wheat berries and fresh wheat berries.  The old older they are the more bitter they taste and the fresher ones have a grassy flavor.

I was able to try the difference between week old wheat berries and fresh wheat berries. The older they are the more bitter they taste and the fresher ones have a grassy flavor.

Baker Jonathan Stevens

Baker Jonathan Stevens

Front of the llope oven.

Front of the llopis oven.

L: Are you originally from this area?

J: No, I grew up outside of Montréal.  I went to college in this area in 1981. I’ve lived here on and off for thirty/thirty-two years.

L: Have you always had a passion for baking or was it something you never expected to pursue as a career?

J: Yes and no. I always kind of liked baking.  I started baking bread a little bit when I was a teenager.  I ended up baking bread a lot when I was a stay at home dad for the first time, but I never thought that I would necessarily do it as a job. Ironically enough, I’ve never actually had a job in someone else’s bakery. I’ve had all kinds of odd jobs – construction, being a social worker, being a guitar player, all kinds of things.  But after I had two kids I knew I wasn’t going to make it as a struggling musician.

I built a house over in Leverett (MA) and when I was finished with the house I built a bakery space in the basement.  There was a walk out space in the basement and I built a little oven outside in a courtyard. Then I built a small brick oven inside and I just built it up from there.

I started just doing it by myself, which is not necessarily the most logical way to learn anything.  But for stubborn people like me, sometimes that’s the only way to learn. So I just started learning by a lot of error. A lot of trial and a lot of error and a lot of loaves on the compost pile.

I started selling loaves to the local CSA farms, like the food bank farm in Hadley and stores around the area (wholesale). Then after a few years of that I moved the business to Holyoke in partnership with a neighborhood non-profit. And from there we moved here to Northampton.  Today is actually our ninth anniversary.  So nine years ago Cheryl and I opened up this shop.  I decided that I didn’t want sell bread wholesale anymore.  I didn’t want to deliver and take the returns that were still on the shelf and chase the little margin anymore.  I would much rather stay put and have people come to me.

L: How has your location on State Street been working out for your business? 

J: It works really well. Some of that is by design, some by happy accident.  This ended up being a perfect location for us.  We are not on Main Street, and that means a little less foot traffic.  But it means, both in terms of geography and our landlord, Smith College, that our rent is a fraction of what it would be on Main Street. So that, of course, allows us a lot more latitude with a lower overhead.

But we’re not just over on the side of things. We’re across the street from not one but two long-standing neighborhood grocery stores and a wine shop and a pharmacy.  So in a way we’re complimenting what they do, even though they both sell bread from a wholesaler who took over the business I started in Holyoke.  It’s a sister bakery, so I have no problem with them selling bread there. But you know if people want to venture across the street – they can buy their groceries, buy their bottle of wine and come and buy their fresh bread.

We are on the edge of a neighborhood here and that benefits us as well. So, it’s really worked out well.  As problematic as it might be for some people, we actually have some parking, which you wouldn’t have downtown. So it works out fine. It’s a good location for us.

L: Have you ever traveled anywhere or taken any classes/workshops to learn more about baking?

J: Again that’s a mixed answer – yes and no.  For the most part what I do is what I learned to do on my own. Some books but not even that.  There’s a funny, sort of pathetic story about the very first day I started up in my basement.  It was probably about sixteen years ago. I had bought an old mixer – it was called a Vulcan.  It’s an orbital mixer, a really big, eight-quart thing.  I bought it out of a church in Portland, Maine. It weighed a ton. I wrestled it on to a pick-up truck with some people and I drove it home and wrestled it into the basement. The next day I turned it on.  I had a big glass-measuring cup that I had bought. All I was doing was multiplying the home recipes I had been using.  Home recipes I had been doing since my son was sitting on the counter as an infant, which of course, isn’t necessarily the way to go about it.

I turned the mixer on, it was about six o’clock in the morning, and the orbital arm starts spiraling.  It grabbed the glass-measuring cup and smashed it.  There were hundreds of glass shards all throughout the dough and I just looked down and turned the mixer off and I went back to bed.

What I did do in the next year or two after that is I found a network of people like me – people in their late twenties/early thirties who were coming into artisan baking from different backgrounds. They were just pooling their information. It was a kind of peer education – an incredibly informal network.

There used to be a gathering every year in California, in a place called the Marin Headlands, which is an old army barracks.  Now it is a youth hostile. Just north of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, but in this beautiful little spot.  It was organized by this wacky old Tasmanian guy who single-handedly revived brick oven building. He had published a book that we had all read called, The Bread Builders.  Every year he had a gathering, which I went out to twice. That is where I really learned a lot.

People sat down and they shared all the information they could – My timing looks like this.  My schedule looks like such and such.  My hydrations look like this. I’m having this issue. I fire my oven this way. Just laying it all out. None of this information was considered proprietary.  Nobody was charging anybody anything for information.  We barely knew each other – we didn’t know each other. But we knew we had to help each other and that was remarkable. That was a leap forward. It was a quantum leap forward in my understanding.  It saved me years of suffering.

One of the things that we did do, Cheryl and I, about six years ago was we went to a gathering in France. It was mostly bakers and wheat growers.  I actually learned more about wheat than I did about baking. It was a fascinating gathering in the South of France – people from about twelve different countries.  It was hosted by this network in France of renegade farmers who grow their own wheat, because in the European Union everything is controlled – it’s a little spooky.  But there are certain kinds of wheat, some of them are ancient, less domesticated forms and some are new, copy-written forms and there is everything in between.  And on this list you are really only suppose to use the modern varieties but there is an underground, counter-culture group of farmers who wanted to grow these older forms of wheat.

In order to grow them or to do anything with them once they have grown them (they couldn’t sell them conventionally), they had to produce them themselves. So these farmers developed mills and then they developed their own bread businesses.  There is a whole movement over there of bakers, whom I would love to emulate someday but I’m far away from being a farmer. Just to see what they were doing and to meet people from around the world who were making vastly different kinds of bread – flatbreads from Syria, corn breads from Italy….fascinating stuff.  That was a real fast-paced education – it was my immersion education.

L: What inspired you to go ahead and open your own bakery? 

J: It was a necessity. I am not a person who can easily integrate my imagination with the structure of the economy, such as it is. Like I said, I have had all kinds of strange jobs and none of them felt like a career. I finally realized that okay this is something I can do.  People seem to appreciate it.  I guess I’m pretty good at it. I don’t know why. I’ll just keep doing it.

L: What was the initial vision for your bakery? What was the process like for building The Hungry Ghost?

J: It’s been an evolving dream from the beginning. From the courtyard (really) where the first little oven was that burned everything and lost all it’s heat – this is my fifth or sixth oven that you are sitting next to here. There have been stages all along. We are sitting in the extension. This expansion is a year and a half old.  We had a little bit of money for this building, thanks to Cheryl’s mom.  I had no money at all but I had my knowhow and I had a reputation as a baker.  We needed to raise ten/twelve thousand dollars above and beyond what we had in order to leverage the bank loan for just the minimum of what we needed.

The way we did that was we created what we call Bread Futures. We put the word out, mostly in articles (we weren’t sophisticated enough to do it with Facebook): Hey, we wanted to open this bakery and if anyone was familiar with my bread or me (or trusted me if they didn’t know me) buy these loaves of bread ahead of time at a discount. So we said, okay once we open the shop the loaves are going to be four dollars but if you buy them now before we open they will cost you three dollars. We raised all of that money. It was pretty amazing. It wasn’t just a boost for us but it was a way of creating the community we wanted before we even opened our doors.

A lot of people it seems are able to borrow or leverage or spend money (I don’t know where they get it – money clearly is not my forte) when they open restaurants. They can just drop a hundred thousand dollars and they are like kids in a candy store – I’ll have this oven and this cooler and this counter and use salvaged wood.  We couldn’t do that for better or worse. We scrounged and scrounged.  We bought an oven that we maybe shouldn’t have bought at the time. We took a chance. We did all the work ourselves pretty much. I mean we hired a plumber and electrician but all the grunt work we did.  I did the sheet rock, we did the painting, we scraped the floors, we painted the stuff on the floor. We did it all. And the oven that we had in there for the first seven and a half years was not really the oven we should have had.  It was too small. It wasn’t well designed. Every bake was a little too hot and too cold. It really was a challenge.

So a couple years ago, we decided that we had to push through to the next level. And we pushed through – we literally knocked down a brick wall and built a whole other extension. And again it was us.  It was Cheryl and I and our kids and our crew and we knocked down that brick wall, and we poured this floor, and we built those walls. And we decided we’ve been at this long enough and we’re good enough at it – we get to have the limousine. We get to buy the oven that is really good. So we bought this Spanish oven called a llopis [pronounced yo-pee] and it’s the Cadillac.

It’s got a rotating hearth.  It’s still a wood fire but it is extremely efficient. I come in the next morning after making the nights pizza and it’s hot enough for me to bake.  I don’t even have to fire it first. I can see what I am doing – there is a light inside of it.  I can pour water in and get steam. There is no back of the oven because the hearth rotates.  It’s a dream. That’s where we are at now.

Now we have this whole back of the bakery where the pastry happens. Just last week we got that convection oven so that Ana, who is doing the pastries, doesn’t have to wait for me to be done with the bread production. Up until last week she had to wait for me and that’s why cookies came out late in the afternoon.  That was frustrating for people.

So that’s how we do it. We do it as we go along. We learn things and we forget things and it’s frustrating. That’s how it works but no one is getting rich off of this.  I mean we have a good business and people seem happy with it.  Part of the dream was to have it just as it is – an open shop. People come in and they see us at the mixer, they see me at the oven, they see what’s going on.

L: That’s so important because seeing the bread being made and going into the oven makes it a learning experience.

J: It’s totally important. As is having wheat growing on the front yard.  Little kids come and they make the connection.  I don’t know about you but I grew up never seeing a field of wheat. For them to see the wheat outside, see the flour on the tables, see the dough in buckets, see the bread in the oven it connects the dots and it’s hard to connect the dots. That’s what makes it successful for us.

L: Would you describe your baking as traditional or more unconventional? What do you do that is different or unique from other bakeries?

J: I would say yes to all those things. That is all of our bread is naturally leavened, which means that we are using natural yeast. Sourdough. We keep a culture going in a big bucket.  We feed it twice a day. When little kids ask us what Hungry Ghost means the short answer is that. That [natural yeast] is the hungry ghost. You’ve got to feed that starter all the time or else it dies. That in some ways is the most traditional thing we do. I don’t use synthetic yeast, I don’t use package yeast. All of our bread is sourdough bread. It is very simple. Our recipes are water and flour and sourdough and salt.  Sometimes we’ll add in some herbs or some sprouted wheat berries or raisins but it’s pretty simple stuff.

What I do that is more modern, that I really appreciate, is that I retard the dough over night. Nia mixes in the morning and it proofs through the day in big bins and we fold it a few times. Then at about three in the afternoon we shape it. We scale it out. Then we shape it and dust it and put in baskets and we put it on those racks with plastic covers. We roll it into the big walk in cooler and it stays there over night. That is what I bake the next day. What is going on there is the fermentation, what the sourdough is doing.  Bread is a fermented food. And fermented in this case really means that there are organisms breaking down the wheat so that it is more digestible and more vitamins and minerals become accessible to us. That’s why eating a yeasted loaf of bread and eating a sourdough bread are vastly different.  It’s like the difference between drinking grape juice and a glass of wine for instance. The wine might be alcoholic but it is actually far easier to digest.

So clearly using a big walk in cooler is not traditional, but it is slowing down the fermentation process with it’s lower temperature. And that not only allows me to go home and go to bed and bake when I want to bake (rather than being at the mercy of the dough).  It actually allows the dough to not just ferment more slowly but it develops more lactic and acidic acids. It develops more flavor the slower it ferments, until a certain point. So, that’s kind of a more modern approach.

But there is a mixture of old and modern in terms of the flours we’re using.  One of our biggest innovations here is using local flour, which is something that was unheard of nine years ago. It was unheard of seven years ago. About seven years ago we, before we went off to France, we hosted a gathering of local farmers over at Hampshire College. We just started the conversation – what would it look like to grow some wheat? When was the last time wheat was grown around here? Does anyone remember? What kind of equipment does it take? What would it look like? What do we have to do? What process would we have to go through?

For the most part people shrugged, people laughed, they said it’s impossible. One family said okay we’ll try it. And now, in fact just a few hours ago, they delivered the weekly shipment of four to five hundred pounds of local flour. All of our whole wheat, spelt, triticale, rye, corn flour, barley flour, buckwheat flour comes from the Four Star Farm in Northfield, MA.  And it’s amazing.

L: That’s great that you were able to find a way to keep your ingredients local.  

J: It’s pretty awesome. We don’t yet have a way to get white flour from them. So, the white flour that I’m sitting on comes from Quebec, but that’s actually not so far away.  This mill is about five hours away. It’s not from the Dakotas for instance, which is, say, where King Arthur Flour is from. That’s really a big deal. We are really psyched about that. In terms of innovation, there are recipes that we do, sometimes we tweak them up with something new.  Especially with flatbreads because you have a lot more latitude with them. We’ll throw in shredded beets, shredded carrots some horseradish or some fruit if it is in season. There is definitely some room and there are times when we just get creative for the sake of it.

L: How many loaves of bread would you say that you make everyday?

J: Well I always joke about this because I don’t count. Cheryl keeps count. Cheryl actually runs the business. All I do is the baking. It really varies from day-to-day.  Today it is probably a hundred and fifty/two hundred loaves on a Saturday it is probably closer to four hundred loaves. So it really depends on the day of the week.

L: Do you typically sell through most of them? 

J: Yeah, but it being a retail business it’s impossible to know ahead of time.  You make a guess and you go ahead and do it because, as I described, it takes a couple of days.  You got to just make your best guess based on the weather, what it was like last year at this time, whether school is in session or not.  There are busy times of year and less busy times of year. I don’t know why, everybody eats all the time.  Definitely late spring/early summer and fall are the busier times.  The middle of winter and the middle of summer are very slow times.

L: What do you do with the leftover bread that you make?

J: We send it to the Survival Center.  Every Wednesday morning a sweet older woman named Hannah comes and picks it up and takes it over to the Survival Center.

L: How long does your bread typically last for?  Do you sell all of the bread the day that you bake it? 

J: Pretty much we want to, and we do, sell the bread from that day. The only exception, really, is the rye bread. Rye actually gets better the older it gets.  In some places, like Germany, their loaves have a high percentage of rye. They won’t even sell it until the next day or even two days later. It ripens, it matures.

The phrase day old bread is one of my least favorites. People come in and they say, “do you have any day old bread?” To them that means discount. They want to buy discounted bread.  I’m a little offended at that, honestly. If someone is without resources and they need bread, food to eat, I just give them a loaf of bread whether it is from the other day or not. I give away a lot of bread. The bread itself lasts for days and days. At our house we eat bread that is a week old.

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[Cheryl Maffei comes over to say hi and share a few of her stories.]

C: I have three stories to share.  The first is my first experience with old bread.  It was a rye that was over a week old. It was sitting on my counter and it was a door stopper, but I was desperate and I had this tuna fish and I made a tuna melt.  It was the best tuna melt I had ever had.  I thought I liked rye but this [older rye] was just so good.  So ever since then I do that.  Ten day old rye is perfect sliced thin.  It is hard to slice but if you have a good bread knife it is not a problem.

The second story I had is that we used to not be open on Mondays and we sold rosemary bread on Wednesdays and Fridays at the time.  It was a Monday and a week prior to that I had been at my friends and I brought her a loaf of rosemary bread and it was from Friday. She served this bread again nine days later to me and I said, “I know this is my bread, it’s as fresh as the day I baked it.” I was shocked.

Then I had a story about the French Batard bread, which I never expect to last more than a day or two because of it’s surface area. But there I was at this party and [the host] pulls out this bread [I brought her]. A half loaf, so it was open.  I said, “is this what I brought you last week?” and she said, “yeah, we’ve been enjoying it all week.” So I was really surprised. People always ask me if it lasts, oh yeah. It’s odd because our first year with local flour, I was disturbed because it sort of has a patina of staleness on the outside, yet when you cut it open it is so moist and fresh. But clearly, cutting it right out of the oven it just won’t work. It is actually still in the baking process. It really is important to let it cool completely.

L: Is why you don’t cut any of your bread? 

C: Right that is exactly why.

J: It will last longer if you cut it one slice at a time.

C: Even at night when I bring bread home and I eat it that night it’s still not as easy to cut, as, say, it is the next day.  At home I put out samples of bread and people say, “oh this is yesterdays bread? I can’t tell.” I tell them if you don’t have a bread box that a cabinet is actually perfect.  I discovered that a couple of summers ago. It was hot and humid and I just put the bread in the cabinet and it was really amazing.

J: Too many Americans want it hot and then sliced and then put in a plastic bag, which are all really bad ideas. And then they want to throw it away the next day.

C: But that is yeasted bread.

J: I mean they just don’t know. And it’s a drag.

C: People ask me if we have San Francisco Sourdough. Well, no we don’t we have Northampton Hungry Ghost sourdough.  And people think that I’m being snarky but I’m not. It’s just true.

[Jonathan leaves to go fold the dough and fire the afternoon loaves of bread. I stayed to talk more with Cheryl.] 

Folding the dough for the next day.

Folding the dough for the next day.

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L: Do you and Jonathan have a food philosophy that you try to instill at your bakery? 

C: Certainly: local and organic.  In those levels of priority because Jonathan and I don’t believe that flour from two thousand miles from the Dakotas or wherever can really call itself organic. Not with the cost of fuel and pollution and the footprint of it is just outrageous.  There is really something great about looking at your farmers face and knowing who grows your food.

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[I stopped the interview at this point to go with Jonathon to watch him fold the dough and fire the afternoon loaves of bread in the oven.] 

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For more information on the Hungry Ghost Bakery click on this article or their website.