Rustica's Steve Horton: Chef Chat, part 1

Pinching and punching: for Rustica baker Steve Horton, it's all in a day's work.

Pinching and punching: for Rustica baker Steve Horton, it's all in a day's work.

This week's chef chat is better labeled baker banter, as owner Steve Horton of Minneapolis's Rustica Bakery explains that professional baking is all about consistency. Producing the same high-quality loaves day after day might be boring for the baker, but Rustica's popularity has risen like a well-leavened loaf because of it: after years of local awards and swooning reviews (summary: the crust! the crumb! the best baguettes!), Rustica was named one of the country's 10 best bakeries in Bon Appetit's January issue. After the jump, more from Horton on the attention from Bon Appetit and the process that earned the bakery its accolades.


Do you know how you caught Bon Appetit's attention? I don't. Rick Nelson from the Star Tribune has written a few things about us over the years, and occasionally he'll do something on a national scale, like for Food & Wine. It could have been him, but I don't know. No one contacted us until they were fact-checking. [Hot Dish note: We asked Nelson whether he was Rustica's secret admirer. He said it wasn't him.]

Bon Appetit gave kudos to your Pugliese, egg bread, pain de mie, rustic, and levain loaves. Are those the bakery's stand-out loaves, in your opinion? That's fine. We prefer some of our everyday breads, too--the miche and the multigrain. We're happy they mentioned us at all.

When did you start baking? About 15 years ago. I started as a manager at Breadsmith in town. All the Breadsmiths are owned by the same guy locally,and he needed a retail manager. I became more curious about bread and the processes involved. When I was at Breadsmith, there's only a small segment of breadmaking that they focus on. I was interested in some other things, naturally leavened breads and pre-ferments, things that are a little more methodical and regimented. I started taking courses at the now defunct National Baking Center that was downtown here. Our head baker, Tammy [Hoyt-Simonds], was an intern there and also took courses.

From there I had various jobs. I got more and more interested in the process and finding things we really liked in terms of process and execution and producing it in a consistent way every day.

How is it not boring to produce the same breads day after day? It can be. It can be extremely tedious. For example, every Monday is about the same as every other Monday. But Monday is different than Tuesday, and Tuesday is different than Wednesday. That mixes it up a little bit. But in order to be consistent and to do something by hand and to do it well, you really need to have that regimented repetition. At the point we're at, having made so many thousands of loaves by hand, it's just part of the process. I think the people who do it every day don't think of it as tedious. It's just what you do. The focus is on the moment and the task at hand, that specific loaf that you're shaping, with the goal in mind to be as consistent as you can. Every single one of us is different, but we try to get the crust and the crumb [the interior of the loaf] to be the same for every product.

One of the things we try to highlight every day is that being a professional baker is about consistency. The customer doesn't care if we think it's tedious or if we're tired. They want to get a product that is the same as the one before. That's just kind of how you have to think about it.

What are the qualities you require in kitchen staff? Reliability, believe it or not, is huge at 2, 3, 4 a.m. Everybody has a different shift, depending on what their job is that day. The ability to take the details of the job and execute them [is important]. We all try to communicate well, so that's important. The key is to understand the process and understand the need for consistency and how to achieve that. Not everyone knows the science and all that, but for their specific role for the specific day, they know how to execute it.

We have pretty specific systems--where things go, where we do them, how we do them, how long things sit, how many baguettes go on a board. For everything there's a system. You don't have to think about the really mundane things, like which rack I'm going to use for this. You always do things the same way. It makes things more efficient, too.

People that want to get up and do it. If you don't want to do it, you're not going to get up and do it. It's always challenging to find people who want to do that.

So you don't mind starting work in the middle of the night? Well, I do mind. I just don't think about it. For example, I go in about 1 a.m. normally. I'm usually the first one there. Weekends I go in at midnight. I think of it as morning. I just get up and do it. I don't think, "I'm only going to get five hours of sleep; I'm only going to get three hours of sleep." You break your day into pieces. That first hour is a little tough for me, but I'm usually alone, and it's one of the most peaceful times of day.

Our chat with Steve Horton continues tomorrow.