When it comes to artisanal baked goods, Michel Suas’ San Francisco Baking Institute teaches you how to be a true breadwinner.
Imagine starting off your morning listening to the crunch of a boule’s crust as you cut into it; the consuming smell of baking sour-dough sour-dough slowly filling the room; watching croissants rise in the oven; and of course, tasting the sweet baguette still warm from the oven, a satisfying end to today’s class. This is the life of the artisan bakers at San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI), and there’s nothing quite like it.
Yes, welcome to the world of artisanal bread making, where the term “artisian” carries heavy weight. The aforementioned title rightfully belongs to the calloused hands of a person who’s spent years of practice and dedication to perfect their craft. In recent years, it’s become somewhat of a trend; a term to throw around that pops up on restaurant menus for any item that could use an accompanying fluff word. But this—the method and crafts-manship behind SFBI – is the real deal.
What began in 1996 as a way for aspiring bakers to learn the authentic craft of bread and pastry has grown into an internationally respected institution. Founder of SFBI, Michel Suas, started the institute after realizing aspiring bakers had no choice but to go to Europe if they wanted to learn the authentic way to make bread and pastry. The French baker, known as the “Breadmakers’ Guru” by peers in the industry, created the school after years of working with bread across professional kitchens in France. Aside from owning SFBI, Suas also owns the beloved San Francisco neighborhood bakery Thorough Bread & Pastry and consults on all things bread for award winning bakeries like La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles and Tartine and The Acme Bread Company in the Bay Area. He also co-owns James Beard Award-nominated bakery b. patisserie with chef Belinda Leong. (You may recognize b. patisserie as the San Francisco-born patisserie dishing out those kouign amanns at the newly revamped International Market Place.)
The institute resurrects what it means to be an artisan, and brings students along to learn the process. Students, both professional and amateur bakers, relish the opportunity to be in Suas’ baking school and shadow the select group of leaders who teach the classes. In any given workshop, you might see students who range from established bakers to those who bake as a hobby learning (or re-learning) the art of bread together. “It’s really intense and we use professional equipment so that way it’s made for people in the industry,” Suas says. “At the same time, we have the amateur at-home baker on vacation come and take a class.”
There’s a course for almost every specialty of bread, from sourdough to German bread, macaroons, croissants and Italian breads. Classes range from intense one-week or two-week courses to oneday or weekend classes as well. Five day workshops, like the introductory Artisan I: Systematic Approach to Bread, teaches students the fundamentals of mixing, fermenting, shaping and breaking bread, before advancing to the more complex Artisan II: Baking Sourdough, Levain, and Wild Yeast, where students learn the art of the tangy San Francisco trademark sourdough. There’s also Viennoiserie I: Croissants, Danish and Brioche, a course where students learn to make those buttery, laminated dough delicacies.
Shortening the workshop to two days is Viennoiserie at Home, where you can finally learn techniques to replicate bakery-quality croissants and light, tender brioche in your home kitchen. One-day workshops like Sourdough at Home explores the flavors and textures of different ingredients and methods, as well as the basics of mixing, fermenting, shaping and baking sourdough. Every student makes at least 15 loaves of sourdough bread, and yes, you get to bring any leftover sourdough with you. Other one-day workshops include French Macaroons, Bagels and Pretzels, and Pizza and Italian Bread for the ciabatta, focaccia and pugliese lovers out there.
At-home and professional bakers stand across the table from one another and experiment with proper fermentation and baking to get that crisp, golden crust. “The home baker comes here and the main focus for us is to teach what to look for when you process the formula, so that way they learn the formula and understand how to handle it, and if they have trouble, they can troubleshoot,” Suas says. “That’s really how we gear the class, so people understand what they’re doing rather than just learn how to make the formula.”
In a workshop lined with industrial-grade ovens and large bread mixers, there’s a renaissance happening. SFBI is teaching the craft of bread and pastry, reaffirming what we all know to be true: bread is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Those who train at SFBI, be it for a day or 18 months, prove just that. “You have a great class, and people are coming from all over the world,” Suas says. “It’s amazing what bread can do.”
photography by Stephen Pope, Popesterphotography.com