Flour Power

Kamel Saci might be facing off against a fellow judo fighter in a championship match today, if a knee injury and a subsequent, much more happy, accident hadn’t intercepted his Olympic-bound path. Instead, at NoHo’s adored Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, the former French champ turned boulanger is knocking out an awesome assemblage of bespoke breads that go head to head with the city’s best.

At Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, a former judo champ bakes winning bread.

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Kamel Saci might be facing off against a fellow judo fighter in a championship match today, if a knee injury and a subsequent, much more happy, accident hadn’t intercepted his Olympic-bound path.

Instead, at NoHo’s adored Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, the former French champ turned boulanger is knocking out an awesome assemblage of bespoke breads that go head to head with the city’s best.

Saci’s story is nothing if not unique. In 1999, on rehab leave from his sport and in need of short-term work, he was sent by a temp agency to a bakery in his native Bordeaux for a 4 a.m. Saturday shift. The job was to move and clean equipment—or so Saci thought. When he arrived, confusion ensued: The bakery was expecting an assistant baker. With the temp agency on weekend holiday and no second solution in sight, Saci stepped up to the bread bench and followed instructions as best he could. It was a chaotic crash course in traditional French bread making, yet within two days the athlete was hooked and, soon after, offered a job.

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Saci (pronounced Sah-see) went on to hone his craft in Paris, where he attended baking school and worked under the watchful eye of master baker Eric Kayser (who recently fired up ovens on the Upper East Side, the first stateside location of Maison Kayser, his esteemed bakery/café), before heading to Aubaine in London, where he was part of a team that developed signature loaves for chefs Joel Robochon and Pierre Gagnaire.

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He was then courted to Barcelona, where he helped design and open two bakeries, each of which became an instant success.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, restaurateur Donna Lennard was considering her next move.

Since 1994 she had accumulated manifold accolades for Il Buco—the hit Mediterranean eatery where Italian and Spanish ingredients sparkle in astonishingly simple yet extraordinarily delicious small plates, pastas and main course dishes—yet she had little desire to simply replicate the Bond Street spot. Expanding in a satisfying way meant creating a second restaurant that, in addition to serving swoon-worthy sustenance, also housed a grocery (or, in Italian, an alimentari), bakery (panetteria) and salumeria, where select specialty foods, including homemade gelato, handcrafted breads and house-cured salumi would be sold.

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The new place, Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, would be open from morning till night, serving everything from coffees, pastries, sandwiches and scoops to dishes like spaghetti al nero with house-cured salt cod, fennel, Meyer lemon and bread crumbs; and slow roasted short ribs with Castelvetrano olives, celery, walnuts and horseradish. At every turn, great bread would have an opportunity to shine.

Lennard’s all-star team, including salumi-maker Christopher Lee (Chez Panisse) and chef Justin Smillie (Jean Georges, Mercer Kitchen, Gramercy Tavern and Barbuto), who would run the wine bar and restaurant (the Vineria), was almost complete. The only missing piece was a brilliant bread baker.

At the suggestion of an in-the-know friend, Lennard flew Saci to New York, and she and her core team of provision-procurers spent several days with the baker during which he explained his meticulous method of using wild yeasts, high-hydration doughs and long fermentation to fashion spectacular breads while the irresistible aroma of said fresh-baking beauties filled the room. Tearing off her first hunk of a hearty, dark-crusted sample, Lennard knew she had found her man.

“We shared the same vision and philosophy of food,” she explains, “that you honor the product and give it all its value, work with the best whole grains and a slow process. It’s not the cheap way but it’s the best way.”

Each and every bread would be made by hand, using 100 percent organic flours to produce loaves with deep, rich flavor, a dark, substantial crust and a light tender crumb. For his slow-rising doughs, Saci needed a dedicated fermentation room, so an area originally destined for wine storage was reallocated to become a modest extension of a small prep area that Lennard and Saci would properly outfit for baking.

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Today, Saci, with the help of two assistants, turns out an impressive 2,500 to 3,000 artisanal loaves per week from said small space, and the bevy is divided as such: Some is sent just a few blocks away for bread service at the original Il Buco, but the Alimentari (as Il Buco insiders call the new restaurant) takes the lion’s share, where some goes to panetteria shelves to be sold by the loaf; some is used to make fresh (not pressed) panini (the true meaning of the word panini denotes, simply, sandwich, and these rival even the best pressed sorts around town); and some goes to the Alimentari kitchen, where it shows up in all sorts of ways on breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.

Saci may be French, but don’t expect une expérience boulangerie when you visit Lennard’s Great Jones Street space. Here, he practices his craft with a serious selection of prime Italian provisions to produce a thoughtfully curated collection of rustic breads and pastries (Saci recently took on the latter, and to what great fortune for Lennard’s clientele). Foodstuffs like prosciutto, pistachios, rosemary and even Umbrian lentils, make their way into loaves, rolls and breadsticks, and olive oil is no stranger to Saci’s cakes.

But Saci doesn’t let the boundaries of the boot limit his play. Dough for his prosciutto roll is curled around the sweet salt-kissed salumi, along with Parmigiano-Reggiano and Sicilian olive oil, then cut crosswise to reveal the classic snail shape normally reserved for sweet breads like pain raisin and cinnamon roll.

His ethereal ciabatta is nothing like the unappealingly spongy and plain-tasting sorts that have become the ubiquitous choice for “gourmet” sandwiches. Saci’s version supports a surprisingly steep hydration percentage of 88 percent—meaning a prodigious 880 grams of water per kilo of flour—creating a batter-like dough that is challenging to handle (a more common percentage is 55 to 60 percent). The noteworthy moistness of this delicate dough plays a significant role in creating the rich-colored crackling crust, shiny honeycomb crumb and slightly charred flavor of the finished loaf.

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A trip to the Alimentari gives you access not only to great breads, but also to loaves rarely if ever offered in New York or, in some cases, anywhere else. Even well-traveled Gothamites might find themselves in a budding new romance with filone, for example, a classically large and dramatically dark-crusted loaf. Saci’s is a stunner, flecked with and rolled in soaked toasted wheat bran. Or how about his espresso bread, crafted with white and whole-wheat flours, a pre-ferment called poolish and a combination of brewed and ground La Colombe coffee beans?

“It’s really good lightly toasted,” he tells me, “and topped with our housemade fresh ricotta, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a nice pinch of sea salt.”

Purists can choose from a hearty cracked wheat bread, three types of baguette (plain, or dressed up with olives or Parmigiano), focaccia and pizza bianca by the pound, and more. For the holidays, Saci offers his Amaretto-soaked candied ginger- and fruit-studded panettone and perfectly bittersweet chocolate honey bread.

On a recent Thursday morning, Saci invited me into his basement bakeshop to learn a little something about the wheat-to-loaf process. I arrived promptly at 5 a.m. Saci—now 34, and a brawny, handsome guy with dark olive skin and thick bear-paw hands—had been at the baker’s table for a couple of hours already and was dressed in flour-friendly attire: a heavy cotton chef’s jacket, checked pants and white Converse sneakers. He greeted me with a double espresso, a starched white apron and his signature ear-to-ear smile.

Tucked into the short part of the restaurant’s L-shaped prep kitchen, Saci moved between mixer, bread bench, fermentation room and a snazzy four-deck MIWE-brand bread oven (“Engineered by Germans,” I’m told; “the Ferrari of bread ovens.”) with a fluidity remarkable in a space hardly larger than 150 square feet. As he hand-cut and -shaped and, with an extraordinarily gentle touch, “de-gassed” a batch of baguettes, before cradling them between the folds of a couche—a traditional linen cloth that guides the final rise (“The cloths are never washed,” he tells me, explaining that flour and yeast trapped in the weave also lend support services during the finishing proof)—he explains how every step of his patient process helps develop flavor, nutrients, crust and keeping quality.

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“A lot of bakers use commercial yeast and add sugar to speed the process—you don’t want to do this because then you rush the process, and when you rush, it’s not the same. That’s not my way.”

Over the din of the click-clacking mixer and blasts of forced oven steam, Saci hand-shapes baguettes, scored walnut-raisin loaves and folds a mixture of cracked pepper and finely chopped fresh parsley, rosemary and thyme into a triple-flour grissini dough. In all of this handling, never once do I see him “punch down” or even knead the dough; instead, often using barely more than the tips of his fingers, he quickly folds and turns.

“If you touch it too much—overmix, overshape—the dough becomes stressed; this will never give you a good result. But this is not what they teach you in school,” he tells me. “You have to experiment and see what happens. When bread became my baby, I started experimenting.”

Taking a batch of filone out of the oven, Saci’s joyful smile widens.

“Listen,” he says, drawing me close to a set of slatted racks where he’s just stacked the breads to cool. “These are going to sing a lot.”

The preternatural chorus of crackling crusts is a birdcall that only bakers and the few lucky enough to be invited to their magical otherworlds know. It’s the sound of hot crusts slightly contracting when they emerge from a very hot oven and hit the cooler kitchen air, and it’s especially ebullient with this lot—the larger and hotter the loaves, the more active their song.

What goes into artisanal bread may seem simple—flour, water, salt and yeast. But for Saci, each ingredient is considered to the nines: his flours are unbleached and organic; his salt—fiore di sale—is sourced from Sicily; naturally occurring lactobacilli and wild yeasts are harnessed from the air and from flour or, for some of his doughs, from fermented organic fruit; and his water is purified (to remove chlorine and other unwanted particles) and adjusted as needed between 8 and 10 degrees Celsius to fit a complex equation calculated to control dough temperature.

“The first thing I do every morning is to check the weather. Yesterday was sunny and dry, and today it’s humid and rainy. Flour reacts to the air moisture content and temperature,” Saci explains, “so I don’t use the same exact ratios every day. Everything with bread is a balance.”

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Around 7:30 a.m., Kamel’s assistant, Abou, hoists a rough-hewn wooden box piled high with the morning’s first loaves onto his shoulder, and we follow him upstairs, where the Alimentari’s caffetteria is humming with breakfast buzz. The espresso machine is in full-on “whirl, thump, thump” mode and Saci hands me a macchiato and one of his sugar-dusted bombolone.

We watch for a few minutes as a collection of customers (fashionistas, hipsters and cas-chic suits alike) line up for his breakfast treats, which are set on stylish wire-domed pastry stands characteristic of the understated elegance Lennard is expert at creating. There are beautiful brioches (one made with toasted pistachio and dried apricots, another a dark chocolate and cherry temptation and a third studded with white chocolate); a fresh fruit crostada; a rich fruit-and-nut focaccia and loaf cakes to choose from.

In his glowing three-star review of the restaurant, New York Times critic Pete Wells included a tribute to Saci’s work, writing, “His bread is not something you munch absent-mindedly while waiting for the first course. It is the first course.”

Thinking outside the basket, chef Smillie showcases the breads throughout his sumptuous menus.

“Sandwiches were the jumping-off point,” Smillie tells me, describing how he and Saci act as co-conspirators in the expert matchmaking of loaves and fillings. “The deliciously fatty short rib sandwich, for example, needs a sweet chewy crumb to play off the bitterness of Gorgonzola, and the right amount of sponge to collect the meat’s ample juices, so we used Saci’s whole-wheat baguette. The bread helps make it a fantastic sandwich.”

When a panini piled high with meltingly tender anchovy- and chili-braised kale and oozy stracchino cheese arrives on a parchment-lined wooden board, I’m a bit intimidated. The sandwich, accompanied by a gorgeous plate of housemade baby carrot and pearl onion pickles, stands about five inches tall. But Saci’s feather-light ciabatta gives in effortlessly to my first bite and now I see why the baker describes his breads as light and not appetite killing.

“How many times have you seen people taking apart a sandwich and not eating the bread?” Saci asks. “It’s because the bread is too heavy. Bread should be part of the experience, part of the pleasure.”

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As with every other ingredient on his menu, chef Smillie honors “the whole animal” when it comes to Saci’s breads. “It’s the ingredient that keeps on giving,” says the chef, who puts even the crumbs to carefully considered use. “A rich meat ragu plays best with earthy filone crumbs,” he explains, “but when I’m breading a croquette or a cutlet, I choose a lighter flavor, using crumbs from ciabatta, baguette or brioche.”

Saci’s flatbreads, which include carta di musica (a crisp salt- and rosemary-flecked cracker-type bread, named because it’s so thin that you could read a sheet of music through it) show up in Smillie’s dazzling crudi and carpaccios.

“I’m lucky to work with someone who produces one of the best ingredients in the Italian canon,” he says, adding, “This is the first time I’ve had the chance to work with handcrafted bread made just steps away from my kitchen.”

Tacked above a chalkboard menu that lists the dozen plus breads on offer at the Alimentari, there is a second, much smaller board that reads, New York City’s Best Bread. But, Saci is far from boastful. To him, making “the best bread” means offering beautiful, wholesome, well-considered and deeply cared for food, and doing so is a point of pride.

“Where I come from in France, bread is very important,” he says, finding it senseless when great restaurants serve less-than-great bread. “Bread is as noble as wine and cheese. That’s the perfect meal for me—bread, wine and cheese—three kinds of perfect and beautiful fermentation.”

Saci hasn’t given up sport, practicing a rigorous four-hour jujitsu and cardio workout five to six days a week after work. The parallel is clear as he describes aspects of his two careers.

“They are both about discipline and respect,” he says. “You have to commit to a well-structured lifestyle and take very good care of yourself. If you don’t respect yourself, your product, your process and the people you work with and bake for—or, in judo, train with and fight against—you will not have a good result. It’s not easy to wake up at 2:30 in the morning five nights a week. You have to be intensely focused and dedicated. I’m not making bread just to make bread. I’m looking to understand what is happening, what is possible. To test the limits.”

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Mindy Fox, the food editor for La Cucina Italiana magazine and author of Salads: Beyond the Bowl, makes weekly pilgrimages from her Washington Heights home to Il Buco Alimentari for Kamel Saci’s loaves

See Kamel Saci’s baking process in three 15 second films from our instagram feed!

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Food editor of La Cucina Italiana magazine, Mindy Fox writes articles and cookbooks from her home in Washington Heights. A fervent fan of the foods of the Mediterranean and Middle East, Fox first met mastiha at the Worlds of Flavor conference at the CIA in Napa Valley, and she’s been smitten ever since.