(See previous article on chef David Kinch of Manresa.)
Not all labors of love get suitable recognition but as many happy tummies will attest, the Manresa Bread Project hasn’t been languishing in obscurity. While the restaurant’s recent celebrity is a factor in this, much of the acclaim is due to the passion of Manresa’s young baker, Avery Ruzicka.Baker Avery Ruzicka, left, works closely with Manresa’s pastry chef, Stephanie Prida, right.
When the project first began, she led the charge, baking up to 500 “pieces” at night, then throwing her tasty results into a vehicle and selling them on Sunday morning at the Campbell farmers market, where fans were already lined up before the market opened at 9 a.m..
“We’re not selling out in 15 minutes. We’re able to meet a lot of people, which is good,” she says. “Who better to answer the questions than the person who’s making it? It’s a long day but it’s fun.”
After smashing success at the Campbell market in 2013, Avery expanded her efforts, now running an additional booth at the popular South Palo Alto farmers market, also on Sunday morning. She says she’ll now be staffing that one, despite the long drive from her Santa Cruz home.
For the moment, Avery is using the existing Manresa kitchen but hope is swirling among the bread’s many fanatical followers that a brick-and-mortar bakery might happen in the future. Explains Manresa owner/chef David Kinch: “I think if we’re gonna go with a bakery, we need the perfect spot, the perfect location, to make it happen. We’re not in too terrible a rush because we’re having so much fun with the market right now.”
Kinch acknowledges his satisfaction with “the product,” which includes crusty loaves, cheesy focaccia flavors, little delicious epi wands, to-die-for brioche and other items.
It helps that Avery is a self-confessed night owl who isn’t daunted by her schedule of working as the restaurant’s baker and as a prep cook, then making a segue into baker extraordinaire for the Sunday markets. “The reason that all of us do what we do is because we love the job that we’re doing — creating food, creating bread. We’re passionate about sharing it with other people,” she enthuses.
Given the raves over the bread served in the Michelin two-star restaurant, the markets (and possible bakery) weren’t such a wild project idea. The booths sell some items like the levain and brioche that are offered in the restaurant and adds other breads “that you don’t see around that much,” according to Avery.
Some examples are a dense, alluring buckwheat cherry and her personal favorite, the flavorful pumpernickel that features pre-soaked pumpkin, flax and sunflower seeds in a coarse rye based on the restaurant’s own sourdough starter. It lasts and lasts.
“Almost all our breads are made with sourdough culture, not commercial yeast, so you feel good when you eat them,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s the new California girl in me but it’s not like eating store-bought bread that makes you feel heavy.”
This newly minted Bay Area resident had completed a double major in political science and international studies at Chapel Hill in her native North Carolina when “the pull of the kitchen got me,” she explains.
After studying bread baking at the French Culinary Institute in New York, she did internships at renowned PerSe and Bouchon Bakery, two of Thomas Keller’s New York outposts. She met Kinch at some New York food events and their synchronicity drew her to Los Gatos, where she eventually pursued her first love: baking bread. “Why I love bread is that you’re always learning. You have to be really engaged with it. It is alive so you have to figure out how to cultivate it and help it help you make what you want to make.”
While she already gets to work with first-class ingredients like “herbs and things” from the restaurant’s Love Apple Farms, Avery has visions of making her product even better. “We’re not milling our own flour yet. That’s something we’re researching for the future. That could also be a dream for the future. It makes a lot of sense for us,” she says.
For now, she’s content to sell her amazing chocolate brioche and other luscious offerings directly to an enthusiastic public every Sunday morning. Just don’t get there too late or everything will be sold out.