Ken’s Artisan Bakery

Finalist James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards

By Jim Dixon - Originally published in Willamette Week January 2003

Ken’s Artisan Bakery still produces some of the best bread in Portland.

At four am the normally bustling Northwest neighborhood sleeps quietly. I wish I was, too. But I need to see a guy about some bread.

A pool of light spills onto the sidewalk, and behind the steamy windows I see him moving purposely between the massive oven and oversize mixer, measuring flour, checking temperatures, and shaping loaves.

When I asked Ken Forkish about dropping by to watch him work, he warned me that during the morning bake he can’t answer too many questions because he needs to stay focused. There are shortcuts he could take to streamline production, but Ken Forkish won’t compromise. “The bread,” he says,” wouldn’t be as good.”

Quite a few of Portland’s best chefs think the bread from Ken’s Artisan Bakery is more than just good. Greg Higgins particularly likes Ken’s levain breads, the naturally-leavened rustic loaves. “They’ve got just enough tang and a complexity of flavors,” he says, “and nobody else in town makes anything like them.”

“Our customers,” says Vitaly Paley, “tell us it’s the best bread they’ve ever tasted.”

“I’ve eaten bread all around the world,” says Bluehour chef Kenny Giambalvo, “and his is up there with the best.”

Good bread is something we’ve come to take for granted. Almost every grocery store in town offers a selection of rustic loaves, and several bake their own in-house breads on the spot. The increased demand for traditional bread has even industrial bakeries cranking out misshapen loaves in an attempt to pass for “artisanal.”

With so much good bread around, what makes Ken’s special?

He uses more expensive organic flours and even pricier French sea salt. His bakery is equipped with the same 9-ton, steam-injecting Italian oven that Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame is putting in his new Napa bakery, a French mixer that costs more than most small cars, and a sort of cooler on steroids called a retarder that slows the fermentation process.

But the best ingredients and equipment only go so far. The real secret to Ken’s bread is Ken himself. He’s a total bread freak. Who else would say, “I treat bread as fermentation craft.”

“I’m not shy about saying that our goal is to make the best damn bread out there,” he says. And if that doesn’t seem quite strong enough, he adds that his mission is “to try to get it perfect every time.” He’s always been a perfectionist, he says, and he won’t make trade-offs that might reduce the labor-intensive, time-consuming process of transforming flour, water, and salt into bread that’s “on par with the best artisan bakers in the world.”

He wasn’t always this way. Even though he has a liberal arts degree, Forkish found himself working on computer network design in the early 1980s, just before the high-tech explosion that brought us the internet. “I had some stock options,” he says, “I could’ve retired.” But he’d always enjoyed good food and wine. Inspired by an article about French baker Lionel Poilane, he traded bytes for bread in the mid-1990s. (Poilane, largely responsible for the rebirth of traditional bread in France, died in a helicopter crash last year.)

He sought out the world’s best bakers, took classes, baked loaf after loaf until he was satisfied that he was making good bread. On Thanksgiving, 2001, he opened Ken’s Artisan Bakery in a renovated carpet warehouse on NW 21st and Flanders. Forkish says his business “has as good a first year as I could’ve expected,” but concedes that retail bread sales at the bakery were a “disappointment.”

With a daily production of between 300-400 loaves, Forkish can’t compete on volume with Grand Central, the region’s powerhouse of traditional bread. With bakeries in Seattle and Portland, Grand Central bakes thousands of loaves every day, and even Forkish calls it “good bread.”

Ken’s approach to sales is simple: give bread. Vitaly Paley remembers setting a sample loaf on top of a cooler and forgetting about it for a couple of days. When he got around to slicing into it, he took a bite and thought, “why aren’t we serving this bread?” Forkish acknowledges that the smaller scale of Portland’s food scene also makes it easier for him to get to know the local chefs, and his list of restaurant customers includes some of the best eateries in town.

Even with the upfront expense of his top-of-the-line kitchen and the added cost of high-quality organic ingredients, he can sell a loaf of his levain-based country blonde bread for $3.50, only a few dimes more than Grand Central’s signature Como loaf. He’s expanded his retail reach to a few outlets (see sidebar), but would like to add more. “I’d love to see my bread for sale at New Seasons,” he says.

But to make sure that bread is the best it can be, Forkish is up not long after most of the rest of us have dozed off watching Conan. While he wheels a rack of unbaked bread out of the retarder, I’m fighting to stay awake to record his running commentary on what he’s doing and why.

The retarder, Forkish explains, stretches the cycle from mixing the dough to baking to nearly 24 hours for some of his breads. To make an exceptional loaf slow fermentation is critical, but he must bake the bread at the moment when it is completely proofed, when the stretchy gluten in the dough has reached its gas-holding limit. Bake too soon, and the bread expands too quickly. Too late, and it collapses.

The beating heart of the bakery is funky-looking, sour-smelling, living-and-breathing mixture of flour and water called the levain. Levain is French for leaven, and both come from the same Latin root, levare, to rise. Most Americans would call it sourdough, but Forkish avoids using the term. “In France,” he says, “if your bread tasted sour it would be considered a fermentation mistake.” His approach to the care and feeding of the levain is unique but demands close attention. It’s that “good bread” thing again.

For the last hour and half Forkish hasn’t stopped moving. His pastry chefs showed up at six am, and they all dance around the tight space in the rush to get ready for the first customers when the doors open at seven. The smells of orange zest, raisins soaked in Earl Grey tea, and smoky Niman Ranch ham distract me, but not Forkish. My questions have already slowed him down, and he’s running a few minutes late according to the schedule burned into his muscles and brain from so many mornings like this one.

The Marriage of Figaro blares from the speakers as Ken lifts a heavy plastic bin onto a flour-dusted table, pops off the lid, and inhales deeply the scent that fuels his obsession. The wheaty, clean freshness of raw flour is mingled with a sharp tang of alcohol and a slightly acidic bite from the levain. It’s a familiar smell reminiscent of a brewery or winery or your grandmother’s kitchen. He flips the wet dough out of the bin, divides it, and starts shaping loaves.

Across the room a timer chirps, and he scurries back to the oven. With the doors open, Ken shines a flashlight into the heat to check the color, then extracts the morning’s first bread. The crust is a caramel brown, not the tawny gold of most other rustic breads. “The contrast between crust and crumb,” says Ken, “is the difference between good bread and great bread.”

Slicing into a loaf, you feel the crust crackle, but it’s not tough or too chewy. The crumb is soft, moist, and riddled with the holes created by expanding fermentation gasses. It has that yeasty, nut-like wheat taste typical of good rustic bread, but there’s another, deeper level of complex flavor that’s hard to pin down. It makes you want to keep eating.

Photo credit goes to @kensartisan