If pastry chefs tend to get less widespread attention than savory chefs, artisan bread bakers receive even less. But why should they? After all, bread is one of humanity’s oldest foods (having been around since the dawn of agriculture), and was even famously referred to in the Bible as “the staff of life.” So if you stop to think about it, it’s a noble pursuit to devote your career to churning out the tastiest loaves imaginable, and Kamel Saci, the Head Bread Baker at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria in the East Village, makes some of the very best.
He’s certainly got an impressive resume to show for it, having worked under of the biggest names in the business, including the famed Eric Kayser in Paris. He’s also supplied baked goods to some of the top restaurateurs in the world, such as Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire in London, and opened his own, esteemed bakery in Barcelona, widely considered to be one of the finest in Spain. So it’s really no wonder that he’s helped establish New York’s own Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria as more than just another Italian eatery. One part restaurant and wine bar, one part bustling market, Saci devises a daily array of incredible baked goods for both, from rustic, yet inventive Pane and Pasticceria Baskets, to fresh bread for the Paninis and Crostini, and of course, impossibly fragrant, golden-crusted loaves to go, including classic Baguettes, chewy Ciabatta.
But there’s a lot more to Saci than his talent with flour and water. We also spoke with the brilliant baker about his surprising first career, his tasty new answer to the Cronut, and his thoughts on the pervasive gluten-free craze!
What made you decide to pursue baking as a career?
Baking is actually my second career. I used to be professional judo and jiu-jitsu fighter, and won the national title in France three times. After a knee injury and a surgery, I stopped training for six months and started to look for a part-time job. I found a position in a bakery, and fell in love!!! From that moment, I decided to become a bread baker because it makes me happy, and I love it.
You’ve worked at top bakeries in Paris, Spain and London. How did each of these European cities (each with their own proud culinary traditions) help shape you as a bread artisan?
I learned a lot traveling, working with different bakers and different chefs. Every country has their own way to eat or bake bread. So you learn a lot from where you live and from whom you bake for because everybody wants different types of bread. Also the weather in different cities makes a big difference – you have to use various methods when baking in Paris, as opposed to Miami, Barcelona or New York. So it’s constantly about learning, opening your mind and getting more experience.
Why did you eventually move to New York?
New projects and new challenges.
Tell us about the bread you make for Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria.
All of the breads we make are organic. We use exclusively natural products, like liquid Levain or Biga, and the breads all have between 24-48 hours fermentation time. It makes them more digestible and much healthier. I try to play with flavors, like Lentil Bread, Walnut and Raisin, Multigrain Ricotta, Whey Bread and Sourdough Buckwheat, for example. I also create the breakfast items on the menu, including a beautiful and tasty Bomboloni, an incredible White Chocolate Brioche, a Focaccia with six different kinds of dried fruits and nuts, and a brioche/croissant hybrid called Bacio, available in three different flavors from Friday to Sunday. We also have different breads all week long, with some classics available every day, like Ciabatta, Filone, Focaccia Fino, etc.
What are some new items on the menu that you’re particularly excited about?
The Bacio. I’m very proud of this new product. It’s a mix between a brioche and a croissant, available in three different flavors: Pistachio, Praline-Hazelnut and Orange-Chocolate. I think they’re the perfect way to start the day, along with a cappuccino or a latte!
What’s your response to the current wheat and gluten-free craze?
I think it’s good that people are more worried about what they are eating. But bread is one of the oldest and most natural food products you can eat. Unfortunately, over the years, some bakers have included additives and other chemical products along with the flour. This is what has made bread less healthy for our bodies. People have to understand the difference between a gluten intolerance and an allergy to gluten; a bread made properly will never hurt you if you just have a gluten intolerance. A lot of my customers have an intolerance to gluten, and they always tell me that they are totally fine eating my breads.
A lot of people are currently arguing about whether or not restaurants should do away with the free breadbasket. What are your thoughts on this?
I think bread is as noble as a good bottle of wine. If we pay for a wine, we should not have a problem paying for a basket of beautiful bread.
It’s said that “Man Can’t Live By Bread Alone.” But if you were forced to live on one type of bread for the rest of your life, what would it be, and why?
Ciabatta, because is rustic, simple and tasty. One of my favorites!