Friday, May 10, 2013

The Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop -- artisan baking in an Anchorage tradition

Anchorage has a tradition of warm-hearted artisan bakeries, from the Bread Factory of the 1970s to today's Fire Island Bakeshop. Andy Davi and his friend Kathy had spent a year cooking at the old Bridge restaurant that was located in the Quonset Hut across from the Sears Mall, and were ready for something more. With visions of baking the tastiest and healthiest bread in Anchorage, they opened The Bread Factory at 835 I Streetin the fall of 1971. Dense loaves of Tassajara bread arrived at the front counter from the kitchen, along with hearty sandwiches layered with avocado and sprouts, fragrant vegetable soups to be sopped up with chunks of whole wheat rolls, and huge rich cookies for desserts. Anchorageites loved the wooden wire spool tables, the mismatched thrift shop chairs, the Indian-print bedspread decor, and the steamy warm air on a winter morning.Nothing was done by halves – Andy’s thick black curls and ringing laughter, and Kathy’s answering voice brightened both our home and the restaurant.

A decade later, Anchorage oil wealth scattered office buildings everywhere, replacing The Bread Factory and the handful of other small businesses with glass and concrete blocks. Andy went back to Monterey and his family of Italian fishermen, and Kathy moved on, as did we all. But a few years ago, a new bread shop opened not far from the old Bread Factory, and though its offerings are rooted in a different set of traditions, it has the steamy windows on a winter morning, and the bright welcomes from its owners.

 Jerry Lewanski and Janis Fleischman created the Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop at 1343 G Street in 2009. Retired from directing the Alaska State Parks (Jerry) and from service as a principal at a local high school (Janis), they have the clear eyes and grounded vigor of people who love to hike the Pacific Coast Trail and take their vacations in bracing wilderness. Why then are they baking some of Anchorage's most creative breads?

                                         A spring afternoon at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop.

    “I’ve been cooking all my life,” Jerry said as he showed me through the bakery. He handed me “The Taste of Bread” from his library.”The French professor Raymond Calvel brought back the traditions of his country's breads -- to Japan, all over the world -- he showed the science and art of it. If you want to know how to make bread right, this is where to start."

"The Taste of Bread" guided him in the days when he was figuring out how to turn out the perfect French loaves from the hand-built brick oven in his backyard. After retiring, Jerry headed to the San Francisco Baking Institute to master the skills needed for baking on a larger scale. Inspired by European shops, Jerry and Janis started Fire Island to bring "the best ingredients, the best tastes, and the highest standards of bread making" to Anchorage."

                                         Seeded loaf.

      "Any baker will give you a recipe,” he said. “It’s the ingredients that you use, and the work and artistry that you put into it that makes the difference. We can spend a year or more refining our recipes before offering something new. It takes that long to get it the way we want it to taste.”

                                          Fire Island Oven.

Baking is fraught with uncertainty. Even the finest wheat flour varies in its rising and taste depending on the weather, the humidity in the air, where it was grown, how it was stored, and dozens of other factors, most of them not under the control of the baker. Yet Fire Island turns out the same delicious breads, day after day, season after season. Jerry pulled several scales off a shelf next to the tables where the assistant bakers work. “Everything gets weighed, sometimes to the hundredth of a gram,” he said. “You have to start there, and then comes the art of knowing how the dough should feel when it’s ready to bake. Do you need to add a bit more water? More flour? Those things come from experience, and constant attention to details.”

                                          Mixer in work area at Fire Island.

We talked flour – the basic ingredient in everything except the coffee in the Bakeshop. Jerry said that all of the wheat flour is organic, and comes from Central Milling in Utah. Two of the Giusto brothers from the San Francisco baking family started the company in 1867, and still take great pride in their wheat and its preparation. Fresh-ground flour doesn’t absorb water well, or develop the desired texture when kneaded and baked. Central Milling inspects each batch of flour, and ages it for two weeks until it's ready for the water, yeast and fire. Jerry and Janis experiment with other grains as well -- rye and oats appear regularly, and they've tried many of the ancient wheats – kamut, emmer, einkorn, and spelt.

                                          Classic French baguettes.

Jerry described the natural yeasts that they use, a topic of great controversy among bakers. “Really, a pedigreed sourdough starter is not necessary,” he said. “Yeast is everywhere – in the air, on the flour itself. I use yeast from grapes, along with starters that I grow myself.” He keeps the starters healthy by feeding them regularly and watching their temperature and environment. Most of the breads are supplemented with a small dose of commercial yeast, needed to replicate the taste and texture of classic French bread, as recommended by Professor Calvel.

 And what about croissants? I wondered, having attempted them myself on occasion. “We roll them and turn them all by hand,” he said, showing me the recipe. It includes egg, a tiny bit of sugar, whole-wheat and white flour, yeast, salt, and of course, butter. “We use organic salted butter, and Plugra unsalted butter. Only the best. There’s never any GMO product – we quit using corn for the most part because it’s so hard to get non-GMO corn any more.”

                                          Challah breads and rolls are on the menu every Friday.

It’s not all about challah, or rustic rye, or a dozen other breads that vary by the day and the season. Fire Island customers order from a menu that runs the gamut from elegant fruit tarts to chocolate chip cookies, to muffins and cupcakes. Jerry said that they are always trying new things. He didn’t think there was such a thing as an edible scone, but Janis made them not only edible but delectable. Now the scones are favorites, and people arrive early  to be sure of getting a savory spinach scone with Asagio cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

                                          Apple, cheddar, black pepper scone.

As he walked through the small front work area, showing off the 6,000 pound Italian oven with five stone baking surfaces, and the mixer that swirls 80 pounds of dough at a time, I thought about standing on the other side of the Fire Island counter watching six or eight bakers bustle in that same space. Without ever brushing elbows, they pull croissant trays from the oven, shape baguettes, top foccacias with browned portobello mushrooms and slices of Dubliner cheese, and ask each customer in the crowded line for their orders.Their grace and good cheer shows the awareness of themselves in space possessed by expert dancers and athletes, and the professionalism that marks every aspect of the business.

When  I left, Jerry was joining Janis and their daughter in a small sunny office at the front of the shop to design the summer menu. The large black dog, Mac, lay by the front door keeping an eye on passers-by. Next time I go in, it will be as one of a steady stream of fans who travel from all over Anchorage to get their fix of a kale and Gruyere croissant, or a classic French baguette. The Bread Factory is a distant memory, but its spirit of the kinship of bread is alive again at the Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop.

Toys for the kids -- everyone's welcome.

To get there: Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop is located at the corner of 14th and G Streets near downtown Anchorage. Hours are 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. They serve croissants, muffins, and breakfast pastries, breads, foccacias, sandwiches, cookies, tarts, pies and cupcakes; coffee is available too. Call (907) 569-0001 for information about what breads are on the menu for the day. Their website is

1343 G St  Anchorage, AK 99501
(907) 569-0001

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