Dining Out

The Rise of La Farm

Lionel Vatinet was in the vanguard of artisanal bread when he opened his North Carolina bakery. Twenty years later, he’s baking heirloom Southern grains into French legacies

Lionel Vatinet clutches a gigantic sourdough loaf in one hand, briefly holding it above his shoulder. He’s technically cut it in half already, but the monumental proportion cannot be dwarfed. This is his bakery’s signature five-pound boule, and its namesake: La Farm bread.

Sitting at a table at La Farm Bakery’s third Cary, North Carolina, location, Vatinet explains why it’s important to anchor a loaf of bread on its side before cutting it. You want to slice through it vertically, to see the interior texture, not crush it. With a loose grip on a knife in his other hand, he gesticulates as if he’s playing the violin, the knife wielded elegantly like a bow. “You have to listen to the music,” he says, as if right on cue. He lowers his ear toward the loaf. The crust crackles under each pass of the knife, detonating into tiny crumbs. “It’s singing,” he says. “You’re singing. Because it’s crisp; it’s soft.”

He’s right. And with the first bite, the crumb is what Vatinet describes as both “dense” and “open.” It’s a soft chew, still warm from the oven. He takes a deep breath close to the bread. “We eat with our nose. Like a wine connoisseur, [you] swirl and smell it. There’s almost as much aroma in a loaf of bread as in a glass of wine. Your nose will tell you if it’s earthy; if it’s sour.”

This moment spent consuming with all of our senses is happening at La Farm cafe in a Whole Foods Market in Cary. Despite the market’s vibe, a cafe here would normally feel like something more…corporate? But Vatinet and Missy, his wife and business partner, and their crew have created a delightful enclave where it feels just fine, maybe even encouraged, to sit around carving a loaf of bread the size of half the table. Between the breakfast din of a whirring espresso machine and the aromas of bread and pastries coming from the oven, you could close your eyes and easily imagine sitting in a French bistro.

Vatinet is a master baker, a designation given to very few bakers around the world after a lifetime of hard work. At age 16, he joined the prestigious artisans guild Les Compagnons du Devoir in his native France. He explains he was more of a class clown than an ace student. His parents pushed him to try various trades, some lasting through the week, others just a couple shifts. Nothing stuck until Vatinet starting baking. It was the one thing that captured his attention as a self-proclaimed hyperactive teenager, honing his tactile focus and desire to create. Plus, he says, he had a lot to prove to his family.

Fast forward a few years and apprenticeships later, and Vatinet became a founding member of the San Francisco Baking Institute, which is a byproduct of his commitment through the guild to serve as a lifelong teacher of his craft. “If you could reach the table, I’d teach you,” says Vatinet. He jokingly announces that it was the first bread baking school in the country—until another one opened two weeks later. After he met Missy at a food conference (she worked in marketing; he served her a ciabatta that changed her life), the pair embarked on a journey that took them to North Carolina, closer to Missy’s family. It was on Cary’s ever-developing High House Road, sandwiched between a Ben and Jerry’s and a pizza joint, that the Vatinets launched La Farm Bakery.

They relied on word-of-mouth, giving the first few loaves of the morning away as samples to passersby outside of the store. Credit card fees proved too steep for their small business, so they only took cash. If a customer didn’t have any, they’d start a running tab. They were just worried about breaking even at first, and the production was small. But to the Vatinets, that means rolling out five to six different types of loaves plus cinnamon buns every day.

That was twenty years ago. Today, La Farm bakes off thousands of loaves a day to sell at their three bakeries, myriad farmers markets, and five Whole Foods in the Triangle. Sourdough slowly gurgles at the main bakery, 350 pounds at a time. More than two dozen bakers pass through each day and Vatinet himself wakes up at 1 am, ready to bake. After all of these years, he still values the magical mornings. “The world belongs to people who are up early,” he says.

Passion gets thrown around a lot as a descriptor for chefs. For Vatinet, it’s not an empty platitude. He named his 2013 book A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker (Little, Brown and Company), to demystify bread baking. In 2015 Vatinet was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for its Outstanding Baker award.

These days, part of La Farm’s model is to source the best possible wheat and grain. Through that process, the Vatinets encountered Carolina Ground, founded by baker turned miller Jennifer Lapidus. They all work together to source optimal grains for North Carolina’s varying climate and soil from farmers who, much like Vatinet, are devoted to their lifelong vocation and committed to educating consumers. “With Lionel, it’s all coming from his craft. La Farm is more than committed to the mill,” says Lapidus. “They’re not just purchasing flour, but they want the end-consumer to understand the varieties of grain.”

The partnership has led to two La Farm breads. The Vatinets often visit farmers with Lapidus. Missy calls them unsung heroes. She says La Farm sees it as a moral obligation to provide quality food to the public while supporting farmers. “Grain is the largest category we eat as humans,” she says. “We need to recalibrate our respect to nutrition. If we view farmers as public servants, that’s powerful.”

These efforts extend to seed breeders, scientists who test the characteristics of each grain to ensure the right seeds are planted under the right conditions. This affects both the process of baking and the taste of the bread. David Marshall, a professor and lead researcher of plant pathology at North Carolina State University, says his collaboration with millers and bakers helps him think about seeds beyond their growing practices, but more so about the flavor they help produce. Now he and La Farm stay in touch to measure the quality of the flour milled by Carolina Ground to determine the best product. “I will send [Vatinet] some flours and he’ll use his recipes to get a basic sour- dough going. He’ll tell me his reaction. I ask: ‘Did it mix well? How did it rise?’ Then he’ll go through the aroma and tasting. Now I taste it with him, and I get it.”

Being a former baker herself, Lapidus values the symbiotic relationship with the Vatinets, and how it helps customers connect the dots from field to loaf. In La Farm’s Whole Foods outpost, for example, the farmers supplying Carolina Ground are featured with photos and story profiles alongside the stacks of bread. The bakery also partners with Anson Mills, producers of heirloom rice. The Carolina Gold Rice loaf is an astonishing example of innovation. The organic, historic grain is cooked down into a rice porridge, giving the bread a dense, hearty center.

As for the grains, they are a rotation crop that’s tested and re-tested every year. When the Vatinets visit the farmers, the synergy throughout the process clicks. “It’s been inspiring for me because it really helps to legitimize the work we do to work with bakers on that level,” says Lapidus. “It’s really amazing to hand a farmer a loaf of bread from a baker like Lionel.”

For the Vatinets, bread is inherently communal. Lionel is back at the table, listening to his sourdough sing. He moves onto the multigrain loaf baked with local honey, its fluffy crumb packed with a light sweetness. He encourages another swirl, another sniff. The bread is slightly curved, shaped by hands and patience. “The food world can feel sterile,” Vatinet says. “Everything looks the same.” He points to his bread. “It’s going to be different, it’s going to be a living product that you say, ‘Okay, it’s what came today.’ As I say, ‘one loaf at a time.’”

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