Notes from the Kitchen: Oh la la, Le Marais Bakery
What do you get when you leave a Frenchman in California for too long? A Frenchman in desperate need of a good croissant.
The San Francisco Bay Area may be known for having some of the country’s best bread, but baked goods worthy of a Parisian palate continue to be the El Dorado for which every American baker searches. When, after years in finance, Frenchman Patrick Ascaso decided it was time for a change, he couldn’t pass up a chance to throw his hat in the ring, in honor of the fresh banana-chocolate croissants he had every morning as a child from his neighborhood boulangerie. A longtime fan of Tartine, the city’s most famous bakery, he felt there was still room for growth, especially in the Bay-facing Marina district, a far cry from the foggy Mission.
From the reclaimed California redwood beams to the antique Parisian steel gates-turned-mirror accents, Le Marais Bakery is up-front about its dual influences. Ascaso knew he needed someone typically San Franciscan to balance him out, hiring firm Paxton Gate after seeing their work in Thomas McNaughton’s Flour + Water. “It was done in the most elegant way but also the most simplistic way,” he gushes to me over Stumptown cappuccinos and a marble tabletop covered in plates of everything from a rosemary kouign-amahn to a lemon tartelette. Details like vintage bundt-pan light fixtures and limestone floors indicate he got what he asked for when Le Marais opened in June of this year.
Each item on the menu – designed by Ascaso, Head Boulanger Justin Brown, and pastry chef Phil Ogiela – embodies Le Marais’s farm-to-table principles. The bakery operates with a “restaurant approach,” with the three of them going to the farmer’s market three times a week to pick out seasonal produce. “There’s no reason why you should produce a raspberry tart in November, but you can do pear,” Ascaso declares. “I didn’t want to make a lemon tart all year long; I want people to walk in and see what’s available that day.”
As Ascaso tells me about one day’s apricot walnut rye bread, the next’s pear and kale variety (the owner’s favorite recipe to date), I start to panic that I’m never going to be able to try everything delicious that comes out of this kitchen. The team has a twenty-two hour bake cycle, ensuring that each day’s offerings are fresh, based upon the availability of ingredients and on what Brown and Ascaso feel like serving that day. The goal is to “avoid being stagnant or static,” and, from the moistness of the pain de genes almond cake and the flakiness of the classic butter croissants, I don’t think that’s something they have to worry about.
For Head Boulanger Brown, it’s a baker’s dream, creating new recipes regularly: “We can really respond to a rotating numbers of ingredients because we’re operating on a smaller scale. We’re not locked in to a certain number of products or certain recipes.”
Brown brings his own skills to the figurative (and literal) table – after stretches working at Bien Cuit Bakery and Roberta’s, two of New York City’s top outposts for baked goods, he has contributed eight starters to Le Marais’ bread lineup, a culinary feat of its own. But working at Le Marais is different from anywhere he’s been before. For example, the “Marina Miche” Ascaso sent me home with – a seemingly basic sourdough bread – includes a combination of spelt, barley, and wheat starters and ferments for 42 hours, something that Brown says makes it distinctive in even the Bay Area amongst breads.
The Bay Area, he claims uncontroversially, “is one of the few places in the country that has cultivated and supported a real baking community.” Here, he can focus on his bread with the support of the artisanal baking movement, as well as Ascaso, without worrying about the bakery turning into a massive wholesale operation
“The fact that we’re making everything in house – in a very basic, fundamental sense – is unique. Customers can ask ‘Is it made here?’ and we can say ‘Yes!’”
The most surprising part of this venture for Brown has been the sense of “village baker” he’s gotten from seeing repeat customers around the neighborhood. “I never expected that or experienced it in New York, but here we’re so exposed and up front in the community, so you recognize customers on the street that you’ve seen in the bakery…which is really rewarding in an unexpected way.”
Similarly, Ascaso’s primary concern is service to his customers, a trait I note defies French stereotypes and perhaps indicates a San Francisco influence. During my visit, he bounced around the dining room, checking on the afternoon menu, taking orders firsthand, chatting with a return guest to ensure she was satisfied with her lunch, and bringing me plate after plate of sweet and savory treats. “I want to create a neighborhood bakery spot, where people can gather and feel welcome. I have regulars; people have been very happy that we are here. And I love that,” said Ascaso.
Watching Brown and his staff work in their walk-in-closet-sized kitchen, it’s clear every employee of Le Marais shares his and Ascaso’s passion. And their team will be expanding – at least, temporarily. One of the innovative steps Ascaso and Brown are taking to improve their venture is inviting guest bakers and pastry chefs to come bake at Le Marais for short periods, a novel idea in the baking world.
Beyond even his ability to learn from these guest chefs, Brown thinks it will be helpful to those whom Le Marais aims to please the most: the customers. “This will be most beneficial for the community and customer base who will be able to come in and get three or four loaves of bread from a baker visiting from France.”
They may not need a guest chef from the homeland, but what San Franciscan is going to say no to that kind of sharing? That’s the California spirit.
All photography by Madeleine Douglass.