Josey Baker, Bread Winner

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Josey Baker has peddled and pedaled his bread all over San Francisco, stacks of fresh loaves jostling in a wooden cart behind his bike as he pushes up the hills. Maybe there’s some magic in his given last name: Just two years after putting his first loaf ever in the oven, the indie baker boy has opened a bakery called The Mill in collaboration with Four Barrel Coffee, penned a cookbook, and is operating the city’s one and only flour mill. It’s like he saw the city’s access to exceptional bread, and raised us the availability of freshly milled whole grains.

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In early 2010, about six months after a friend gave him some yeast and a scribbled recipe, Josey, 30, left his job as a science curriculum designer at Cal to make bread full time. He scrutinized online baking forums and went from not knowing anything about bread to acquiring bread groupies. (And you can’t blame them. Josey’s bread feels alive in your mouth – it has depth, body, a fat ass.) Perhaps that’s why his loaves double as real-life art sculptures called “Quit your day job and pursue your passion.”

Obeying his own “Make it better, make more of it” motto, Josey found himself making too much to eat, freeze, or give away, so he started selling it – delivering it on bike to subscribers and to Mission Pie, where he sometimes baked, and to Amnesia, where he used to bartend. For the last three Thanksgivings, Josey's been baking and selling his bread for the holiday table. Two years ago, he sold 60 loaves out of his house to strangers passing by. A year ago, he sold more than 200 loaves from Mission Pie. He remembers that day as a tragedy – the loaves were small and dense. “The bread was by far not my best. It was so disheartening. It fucks me up when I don’t make good bread.” Word of bad bread must not have traveled far, because for this past Thanksgiving, he sold 500 loaves in three days.

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Whole wheat grain makes for sloppy, wet dough. It’s moody. It has a shorter shelf life than white flour. Loaves can easily taste and feel reminiscent of cardboard. For these reasons, it’s hard to find flavorful, cake-like whole wheat bread made by human hands. When Josey was first starting out, he looked to the masters.

“I found people who were better at it than me,” Josey explained. “Chad’s [Chad Robertson of Tartine] bread really set the gold standard for me. It's got so much character. Each loaf is an object of textural extremes – you could crack a tooth on the crust, and then fall asleep inside.” And Josey said Dave Muller’s bread at Outerlands made it okay to make "artisan bread" in pans, which he now uses to inspire the shape of his sandwich loaves.

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But Josey’s main grain mentor is Dave Miller, the one-man show responsible for bread fiends elbowing one another at Chico’s farmers' market, where he sells out of his whole grain sourdough loaves every weekend. Josey visited the “bread wizard” every week for months. He even got the same oven as Dave, and imported the same Austrian mill that Dave uses.

This mill makes very fine flour with minimal heating, which means fewer nutrients are lost. Bread guru Dave described the machine’s process to me like this:“It's where the spirit of the wheat berries give themselves up to the baker's idea of a loaf of bread.” That’s deep. To us, it means up to 150 pounds of flour are ground per hour, as well as corn meal, cracked grains, and whole wheat mixes for hot cereals and pastries.

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As word of mouth spread the good bread gospel, a couple local blogs featured Josey and blew up his spot. Soon after, he had 100 subscribers. One of them was a friend named Tal, who happened to be a Four Barrel roaster. Owner Jeremy Tooker stole many bites of Tal’s loaves, noted the new bread talent, and a year and a half later, the business partners opened The Mill on Feb. 13, 2013. It's located in Divisadero Corridor, and has a similar architectural aesthetic to Four Barrel on Valencia. But instead of a big coffee roaster, a bakery is in the back of the shop. Josey's mill sits behind a long communal table and the Four Barrel outpost. It is a sexy piece of equipment – all finished pine wood, and rustic in the sense that it’s lo-fi. Whole grain (Josey gets high-quality wheat grain blends from Central Milling, a family business in Petaluma) is funneled into the mill from the top and crushed into powder between two big rotating flat stones, and the flour comes out a chute from the bottom.

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There are no walls between the people making what’s being eaten and the people eating. Everything is wide open, and that’s the point. Jeremy told me his goal is to make his cafés neighborhood digs first, then a destination stop. He’s all about the face-to-face interaction. The Mill is also sans interwebs, just like the flagship Valencia Four Barrel. “I am in love with boisterous and bustling cafés, and an over-abundance of computers inherently stifles that. Our regular customers find it to be a welcome respite from e-connectivity. Sounds cheesy but it actually works really well.” The Valencia location will supply The Mill with fresh coffee beans every day.

Jeremy thinks open spaces are better working environments for employees, and transparency piques customer interest in what they’re consuming. For Josey, the exposure of the baking process rejects the idea of the solitary baker sweating all night, alone. “I’m a very social person, so to be able to do the work that I love in a space where I can engage with customers is a dream come true.”

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Josey bakes every single loaf sold at The Mill. That’s about 200 loaves a day, plus all the pastries (like fresh-milled cornbread) and hot cereals (like oven-baked oatmeal). He’s aiming for four to six daily breads (seed feast, country, whole wheat sesame poppy, whole wheat “wonderbread,” and that authoritarian dark mountain rye), and then two breads that change each week (the indulgent black pepper Parmesan, which is decidedly not whole grain but filled with cheese chunks, whole wheat walnut, Kamut, and spelt). “And my latest idea is to have hot baguettes and a daily flatbread everyday at 4 p.m. Ye-yeahhhhh!!!,” Josey texted me recently.

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Josey also offers thick slabs of bread, or what he calls “toast.” They can be spread with almond butter, honey, cinnamon sugar, or jam. And then there’s the daily special, which is topped with cured meat or fresh produce, but kept simple – one or two toppings, always open-faced – to let the bread speak. As for the spreads and toppers, he plans on making most of them himself. 

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When I met with Josey last November during construction (which was undershot by about six months) amid the tarps and boxes and clouds of dust at The Mill, he was taking a breather from his bike deliveries and pondering the food revolution: How farm-to-table and locally sourced are expectations rather than exceptions now, and how he keeps asking himself what his unique offering to the city is.

“You have the only flour mill in the city. Is it not enough that you’re making your own flour?” I asked him.

“It might be. I don’t know. I get bored so easily. I always have to be pushing, somewhere else, challenging myself. But I have to balance that with the other side, which is that I’m making stuff for people to eat. For instance, if I’m really bored of making my black pepper Parmesan bread, but my customers totally love it, I gotta keep making it. I want to find a way to keep everything in check.” Jubilant Josey suddenly stopped talking; he seemed spaced out. We sat quietly for a little while. Then, he came back, laughing. “Mostly, you just gotta make yummy shit, or else nobody cares!”

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Visit The Mill at 736 Divisadero from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. Josey’s loaves are also available by subscription via Good Eggs, and at Bi-Rite Market.

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Published on February 21, 2013, 2013

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