Talking Bread and Baking with Josey Baker of The Mill, San Francisco
"Because I eat so much bread—and I always have—I'm interested in making the most nutritious bread that I can. The most nutritious and the most delicious bread that I can."
A scroll through Josey Baker's picture-studded blog might make you think he's a fun-loving, free-spirited guy with equal passions for baking bread and taking silly pictures with his friends. And, well, that's pretty accurate. Josey is founder and head baker at The Mill, one of San Francisco's newest bakeries. But many San Franciscans have long been familiar with Josey's baking; though The Mill just opened its doors in February, Josey Baker Bread has been a local mainstay for a while.
Josey started baking about three years ago, and at first it was just a casual hobby. He baked a few loaves at home, then a few more, and soon he was constantly experimenting with new techniques and textures. The loaves began to take over his kitchen, so he called upon a few friends to help take them off his hands. Soon, friends started to spread the word and strangers would come knocking, asking to buy loaves of bread. And so Josey Baker Bread was born.
After a big Thanksgiving order in 2010 challenged the capacity of Josey's home oven, he began looking for commercial kitchens to host his growing business. He baked out of spots like Mission Pie, selling his bread over their counter. His growing exposure and larger capacity meant he was soon selling to Bi-Rite Market and Rainbow Grocery, sharing shelf space with big-name bakeries and gaining a wider following.
Nowadays, Josey works at The Mill full-time and is managing a staff of eager baking enthusiasts. He just started to mill his own flour, a process that clearly amplifies the connection he feels to his end product. I chatted with Josey about how he came to love baking bread, what inspired his current loaves, and where The Mill is headed.
So what was life like before The Mill? I had been working at UC Berkeley for five years. I started selling bread just six months after I started baking it, three years ago. I just fell in love immediately and was just baking all the time—so selling it was actually a way to deal with all the excess bread that I was baking. When I quit my job in 2011, I was baking out of Mission Pie. And for a year and a half, I'd bake bread and sell it out of there and out of Bi-Rite Market. And I had a bread subscription, I still have a bread subscription. But it was so different then. It was just me.
How did you learn your technique? I learned mostly through trial and error, and books, and talking to people. It was amazing—I was amazed at how generous people were with what they knew. I'm most interested in baking sourdough whole-grain breads, even though I started out making French-style sourdough. I was definitely attracted to sourdough rather than commercial yeast, mostly because it tasted better in breads than I'd had and made. And so that's definitely still true. But now because I eat so much bread—and I always have—I'm interested in making the most nutritious bread that I can. The most nutritious and the most delicious bread that I can.
What makes bread nutritious? Using whole grains is a good first step, and making sourdough instead of commercial yeast helps out with the nutritional aspects. And being able to use flour that's very freshly milled helps out a lot. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence that fresh-milled sourdough whole grain breads are easier to digest. Everybody who bakes bread like that says that it's better for a million reasons. I'm still hungry for a more nuanced picture about what's actually going on scientifically.
Tell me about the Mill. How did that idea come about? That was really inspired by Dave Miller out in Chico. He's really a one-man show—he mills all his flour himself and makes the bread himself and sells it at farmers markets. I started to get interested in milling when we were early in the process of building the bakery. And I was totally awestruck by this man and the bread he was making and the way he was making it. And I think I was really looking for a mentor because I'd never been to school for it, I'd never worked in a bakery—I didn't have that training, that upbringing, that model. So Dave was generous enough to let me come out to his bakery once a week last summer. I'd drive out there, mill my flour, make it into bread, and then bring it back to San Francisco. So, now I'm learning how to use the mill. The plan is eventually to start sourcing from farmers around here who are growing grains for bread.
What's your favorite loaf in the shop? Right now I think it's probably the dark rye, especially because we just started milling all that flour. I'm also really happy with our whole wheat, which is really coming into its own. Just the other day was the first day that I made a loaf with the fresh milled whole wheat, and it was like, I was...it was amazing. I couldn't believe that I made it.
So what's in store for The Mill? We'll probably eke production upwards, but not too much more. I didn't design the space to be able to make much more bread than we're making, and that's fine. I really like the idea of staying as close to a neighborhood bakery as we can. I find that there's an underlying assumption that success means growth, but I'm interested in lateral growth: what new things can we discover and how far can we push the quality of what we're making? But time will tell.
About the Author: Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her other work can be found at her website.