It has been called the best bakery in the United States, and if you pass by the corner of 18th and Guerrero in San Francisco, you’ll likely see a line out the door — specially around 5 PM when their famous Tartine Country bread comes out of the oven. Recently, I was fortunate enough to get a personal behind the scenes tour of Tartine Bakery, thanks to my friend and local baker Nathan Yanko, who showed me what makes this place so special.
First of all, the storefront is relatively small, which is definitely part of its neighborhood charm. From pastries and cookies, to loafs and croque monsieurs, Tartine’s menu has something for everyone — breakfast, lunch, and even a monthly pop-up dinner known as Tartine Afterhours. But the real magic is happening in the back, where it’s bustling with activity all day long.
The first shift of the day begins at 4:15 AM when the pastry chefs begin to work on that croissant you are going to enjoy with your coffee or on my all time favorite scone. The second shift, starting at Noon, is all about the bread. But the bread that you pick up at 5 PM was actually started last night.
Nathan showed me all stations, supplies, and steps needed to make their loafs. It begins, naturally, with the starter. Then he shapes the dough, and lets it rest overnight, to let the flavors sink in. The next day, they bake 200 loafs. For someone like me, who has only baked 2 loafs of bread, ever, 200 seems like a lot, but it’s relatively small compared to large bakeries, he shared.
During the tour, I confessed that I like to have bread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — so when I asked Nathan how he liked his bread, I was delighted at his response — “with lots of butter!” He also suggested that I try making French toast with the Country loaf, searing it on the stove top and finishing it in the oven.
Through the stories he shared, about his start at the Culinary Institute of America, and his move to California, to the 7 years he has been baking at Tartine, I could clearly see that he is truly passionate about the art of baking bread, but also modest. He told me that there are days when the bread is not perfect, but the recognition and praise they receive make the bad days still OK.
A few days after the tour, I came back to pick up a loaf of the Country bread to bring it home for dinner. Still warm, I sliced it, spread some butter on it, and smiled knowing that this bread was indeed special — hand made, in The Mission, one of only 200 today, from a small bakery that is truly one of a kind thanks to bakers like Nathan. Now, to count down the hours until breakfast so that I can try that French toast…