Philly has frequently been heralded as one of America’s hot, upcoming dining hubs. And a great deal of that buzz has centered on the High Street Hospitality Group — behind the fine dining stalwart Fork, the grill-focused a.kitchen + bar, and the award-winning High Street on Market, an all-day ode to rustic (yet highly inventive) seasonal American fare. The credit, of course, goes to executive chef Eli Kulp, but also the eateries’ dedicated, shockingly talented baker, Alex Bois; a James Beard nominee, famous for the housemade kaiser rolls, black bialys, roasted potato breads and pumpkin carrot loaves, that either serve as a starting point for killer sandwiches, or are simply offered straight up, along with lashings of cultured butter.
And luckily enough for New York, Bois and team are preparing to push the envelope still further in the West Village, with a exciting local branch of High Street (on Hudson), set to debut in late fall. “I think that we’re going to come into it with a very similar approach and program, sourcing a lot of our flour from Castle Valley Mills, which is 20 miles north of Philly. But the grain and flour market that we’ve been slowly building in Philadelphia is already well established in New York. The Greenmarket Grains Project grants access to such fantastic products, and forges connections with a lot of exciting small farms upstate and in the Finger Lakes,” says Bois. “So as time passes and we have a better idea of what service is going to look like and how busy we’ll be, we’ll be able to take more advantage of those unique markets. The menu will begin to reflect NYC more and more, just as the original High Street’s menu is very reflective of Philly.”
We spoke to the creative baker about his thoughts on the gluten-free craze and the controversy over charging for breadbaskets, and how he ended up disproving that man can’t live by bread alone.
What made you decide to pursue baking as a career?
I was studying biochemistry and doing lab research for circadian rhythms when I was in school, and I wound up having some experiences that made me not want to stay in academia for the long run. I also felt like working in labs was lonely and unfulfilling, although I liked the research end of it. So I decided to switch to brewing beer, because that’s something I had enjoyed doing as a hobby for a while. I ended up living abroad in India after school for a year, and wound up contracting hepatitis E, which is more aggressive and faster than A. I came home to recover, had lost 40 pounds and was bright yellow. I was really feeble and couldn’t really eat anything but carbs. Since I couldn’t drink alcohol, let alone brew beer physically, I started baking. There’s a lot of crossover and similarities between the two, and I found out I liked the daily rhythm and was doing something more fulfilling and could connect to a broader community of people.
What influenced your eventual move to Philadelphia after working in New York at Sullivan Street Bakery?
Sullivan Street was fantastic, and I learned a lot; it was really my first baking job. But I still felt like I didn’t have a creative outlet; I was working and commuting too much to be able to pursue anything else. And although I really value having worked there, and Jim Lahey — as busy and crazy as he was — is still is an important mentor and guide for me, I ultimately left because I needed to find my own creative thing. It wasn’t clear right away what that would be in Philadelphia, but I ended up discovering a very interesting and welcoming food community.
How do you feel about coming back to NYC after all of these years?
Now that I have more of an identity and I know more clearly what I want to be doing, and High Street itself has such a strong narrative, I’m excited to come back to New York and be part of the dialogue there. It would have been harder for me to stick out on my own or make my name in NYC, so ultimately, it was a really good decision to leave when I did.
Can you talk about how the bread program at High Street on Market has helped shape the flourishing food scene in Philadelphia?
The infrastructure of the food scene was still developing when I got to Philly; there were only one or two operational mills in the state, and they weren’t doing high volume — they hadn’t found their market within the new generation of food people. So it was exciting being a part of that and shaping it; helping the millers flesh out their product line. In the beginning when I asked for something they would develop it for me, and then it would end up on their product line. And as we started to get a bit of attention that led to marketing influence on both the production and consumer side. So now there are a lot of bakeries doing interesting things.
We’ve been steadily redefining what New American cuisine is since the ‘80’s, but we’ve been behind the ball when it comes to bread baking. A lot of culinary schools are defined by a rigid, classical baking tradition, just like classical cooking was put on a pedestal for so many years. So what we’re trying to do is develop a style of New American bread baking, that’s influenced by and respects the major baking cultures of the world, but isn’t bound by those guidelines.
What’s your response to the current wheat and gluten-free craze?
I think it’s on the way out as a very prominent fad, especially since the researchers who put out the original findings on gluten sensitivity have been debunking their own theories, now that they’ve had a larger sample to work with. There are a lot of legitimate health issues related to things that gluten comes in, so people often conflate the two. We eat a lot of crappy, processed baked goods, and gluten is used as a thickener or binding agent in a lot of terrible foods, and I think that’s generally what people are reacting to.
There’s been a lot of argument about whether or not restaurants should do away with the free breadbasket. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s a complicated culinary trend. As a bread baker, I kind of bristle at the idea of making bread too cheffy, and have become increasingly obsessed with the simplicity and subtlety of the craft itself. On the other hand, a breadbasket full of bread made with squid ink and pickled ginger (like we have at High Street on Market) is great, because you can pique people’s interest in an area that’s been overlooked for a while. It makes them realize that bread is an artisan, handcrafted product every bit as serious as a dish on the menu. If you were just purchasing bulk rolls from a giant bakery with a massive distributorship it would be silly to charge extra, but if you’re devoting serious energy to baking your own bread, it makes sense to reflect the labor, time and care that went into it.
So it depends, but ultimately, I think starting the conversation is the most important part. Whenever you get people talking about bread, whether it’s the gluten free phenomena or any of that, it helps it work its way back to being a cultural staple — it becomes so much more than just a trend in a restaurant. If you go to Germany or France or Italy or Spain, for instance, bread is such a crucial part of every day life.
It’s said that “Man Can’t Live By Bread Alone,” although you were actually forced to for an extended period of time! If the situation were to re-present itself, what one type of bread would you choose to subsist on, and why?
I never really get tired of the breads that manage to draw out the interesting sweetness and natural character of the grain, like rustic table loaves made with whole wheat, rye or spelt. On the other hand, although it’s not nearly as healthy, who can say no to a perfect baguette?