Behind the Scenes: Colorado bread defines altitude adjustment
Ryan Summerlin March 9, 2014
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first installment.
In my previous column, we traveled together to Piemonte and New Orleans, exploring bread culture at two of my favorite restaurants. Now it’s time to return to Colorado for crusty delights that await us. The first stop is in Denver, where we’ll meet chef Frank Bonanno, one of Colorado’s most successful and loved culinary entrepreneurs.
Mile High Bread
New Jersey born Bonanno rebuts as “bunk” the notion that altitude renders Colorado bread inferior to baked East Coast flour concoctions. I couldn’t agree with him more. Just dine at any one of Bonanno Concepts’ 10 Denver restaurants and you’ll find delectable, artisanal bread, most baked in-house, some from The Grateful Bread, located in Golden.
Bonanno believes “bread is a kind of representative of the character of a restaurant — rich, salty, buttery” and that flavor profiles that emanate from bread are indications of “a chef’s particular flair.”
Bonanno’s flair is immediately evident with the first bite of an Osteria Marco or Bonanno Brother’s Pizzeria pizza. There’s nothing complicated or artificial about Bonanno’s pizza dough. The flavorful, crispy crust that results from a simple amalgamation of flour, fresh yeast, salt, sugar and olive oil made one day in advance needs no embellishment, though you’d miss some awesome toppings.
For Bonanno, the smell of fresh baked bread is “the smell of goodness and comfort,” a great olfactory experience he loves when walking into a place where bread is baking. As I write this, the intoxicating aroma of baking grissini and focaccia at Bonanno’s Luca d’Italia arises from my memories of the wonderful experience I had behind the scenes there.
I could go on and on about the heavenly baked goods at all of Bonanno’s establishments, but it’s time to head up the hill to find out what’s baking in the high country.
Critics of Colorado’s high altitude baked bread would be hard pressed to find fault with the mouthwatering products made at The 10th on Vail Mountain, 10,250 feet above sea level. All of the restaurant’s bread demands, except gluten-free, are met by executive chef Vishwatej Nath’s team of eight pastry chefs, cooks and bakers that work throughout the day and well into the night baking an assortment of breads and pastries.
An array of herbed, bacon and cheese, onion and multi-grain breads, to name a few, are made fresh daily along with hoagies and brioche burger buns. Nath’s baking team even creates pizza dough for their pizzas, a big hit during ski season.
Making bread on a ski mountain comes with the obvious challenge of altitude, although Nath, like other Vail Valley chefs I interviewed, discounts the adverse impact of altitude on their breads. In running a fully functional, high-end mountain restaurant, Nath has to contend with additional logistical challenges.
Take, for example, the 300 to 500 pounds of flour The 10th requires each week. It’s not like a food purveyor can drive up to the restaurant’s loading dock to make the two or three deliveries Nath requires. Planning is crucial.
Once ordered and delivered to Vail Resort’s food and beverage warehouse under Arrabelle in Lionshead, goods are sorted and placed in food bins for the long journey to Mid-Vail. From Lionshead, bins are loaded on the Eagle Bahn gondola then transferred to a snowcat at Eagle’s Nest for the final leg of the journey. On average, three to five days lapse between order and delivery.
No doubt, it would be far easier to order bread from another source, but Nath’s quest for culinary perfection trumps logistical demands.
Bill Greenwood, executive chef of Beano’s Cabin, would have felt right at home on Gilligan’s Island. In summer, he scours Beaver Creek’s forests for herbs and mushrooms while tending a bountiful vegetable garden that seems to defy nature in the short growing season. Many winter mornings, Greenwood heads to the top of Larkspur Bowl to search for tender spruce boughs for his exotic spruce ice cream. Given his self-reliance, it’s no surprise that every piece of bread — except gluten free — served in Beano’s comes from its kitchen.
Greenwood lights up whenever asked about anything culinary. Talking apple pies with him is especially fun.
As the son of a highly successful chef and restaurateur — Bill Greenwood, of Greenwood’s on Green Street in Roswell, Georgia — the younger chef Greenwood’s culinary education started early. At the tender age of nine, instead of afterschool play outside, Greenwood headed to his father’s restaurant to bake fresh-daily homemade apple pies, the same kind he now lovingly makes at Beano’s.
Despite being new to baking, Greenwood’s baker Camden Higginson creates wildly popular breads such as gougeres, corn muffins, banana bread and potato hamburger buns. Of course, Greenwood’s flaky pie dough is also an in-house creation.
Although Greenwood faces similar logistical challenges running an on-mountain high-end restaurant as chef Nath, Mother Nature creates more daunting ones. Dough is persnickety and changes in barometric pressure, moisture, temperature and static electricity can affect its character. Although wet batters have an exact recipe, making breads such as pain au levain from a starter named Henrietta is more amorphous and requires skills acquired with time and experience.
Nighttime Baking at Zino
Chef-restaurateur Nick Haley of Zino Ristorante in Edwards is a talented and incredibly passionate young chef. Something as simple as flour can launch Haley into an oratory on the characteristics of each kind he uses for his pizza dough, pasta and over 200 loaves of different breads Pastry Chef Molly Harrison bakes each night. Customers of Sweet Basil, Mountain Standard, Eat! Drink! and Ripe may be surprised to learn the delicious, crusty breads in their baskets were born on baking stones in Zino’s bread ovens.
Haley uses a total of 200 pounds of three different flours per day for his baking needs. Giusto’s in San Francisco is considered one of the best flour producers in America. Haley uses their “Keith’s Best” unbleached white flour for Zino’s ciabatta, potato rosemary and sundried tomato breads, to name but a few of Harrison’s farinaceous creations.
The 50 to 75 pizzas baked in Zino’s Palisade peach wood fired oven each night are made from Antimo Caputo Neapolitan 00 pizza flour. The dough is fermented overnight and hand spun to order, creating excellent stages for Haley’s star toppings, most made in-house. For his array of pastas, Haley uses Giusto’s durum for egg pasta and semolina for extruded varieties.
The mess and constant dusting of flour that greets them each morning is a “pain” for Haley, but he believes it’s important to serve the best bread possible. Somehow, I don’t think his luscious house made burrata would be so enjoyable if served alongside mass-produced industrial bread. Echoing other chefs, Haley believes that because bread is often the first thing diners eat its quality portends the meal ahead.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our all-too-brief journey into restaurant kitchens from Piemonte to New Orleans and Colorado. In no way did I attempt a complete education on artisanal bread, only to tickle your taste buds and let you enjoy the emotions homemade bread evokes. From my research, I happily discovered that the love modern chefs have for making this pre-historic food they inherited from those first Neolithic “bakers” will help keep artisanal bread traditions alive.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are www.suziknowsbest.com and www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.