In a City of Outsourced Baking, One Man Still Fills the Breadbasket

When I moved to Manhattan in 1981, rumor had it that all restaurant bread was abysmal because the mob controlled its distribution. Everywhere you ate, even the best places, the stuff was white and cottony, the kind of “Italian” loaves you still find in supermarkets.

These days you would need a syndicate just to find gummable bread in restaurants above diner/chain level, thanks to the artisanal revolution led by Amy’s Bread, Tom Cat, Ecce Panis and other brave new bakeries. Amy’s alone now supplies more than 200 restaurants. But just-baked bread remains almost as rare as sourdough once was, even in an age when house-cured salumi is becoming as ubiquitous as heirloom carrots and locally foraged mushrooms.

Spend the better part of a day with Mark Fiorentino and it’s easy to understand why.

In a flour-coated corner of the basement prep kitchen at Restaurant Daniel, he, an assistant and two helpers go through 400 pounds of dough a day, turning out 200 loaves and almost 1,200 rolls, in batches big and small, to fill Boulud’s breadbaskets citywide. To do it they need space for mixing, for proofing, for weighing and shaping, for storing flours (yes, plural) and ingredients from seeds to herbs; they need dedicated ovens to produce perfect crusts, and then they need more space for cooling breads. And someone has to pay for it all.

That someone, Daniel Boulud, believes “bad bread is an insult but good bread cannot be taken for granted.” He hired Fiorentino 10 years ago when the restaurant opened in its current space on East 65th Street and over time has let him take over first the general manager’s office and then the public relations director’s domain to make enough room to put bread on the tables of Café Boulud, then DB Bistro Moderne and Bar Boulud as well as events catered by his Feasts & Fetes sideline.

Even so, Fiorentino works through 200 pounds of flour a day in a space not much bigger than a taco truck. “We’re almost like a big bakery scaled down,” he explains. “We do a lot of different products in small production.” That means brioche to be toasted for the foie gras served upstairs in the ornate dining room, olive-rosemary rolls and roasted-garlic focaccia for the bread baskets there and whole-grain loaves to complement the Lyonnaise richness at Bar Boulud, even hamburger buns for the Paris Hilton of burgers, the foie gras assemblage at DB.

And virtually all those breads are baked from Boulud’s blueprints. “He literally draws on a piece of paper, then I have to go make it,” says Fiorentino, in explaining how the olive-rosemary rolls, for instance, came into being. A loaf might have to fit into a certain drawer for storage and a certain basket for service. (But the boss is not always right. Fiorentino says he was able to persuade the über-French Boulud that a “too American” pretzel would be appropriate for one restaurant.)

Fiorentino works steps away from pastry chefs fussing with their tarts and madeleines and in the same room as prep cooks breaking down hunks of beef, filleting fish and julienning vegetables. But his rhythm is different from theirs, and especially from the kitchen upstairs, and his job is finished when the bread is. “To be honest, I could never see myself on a line,” he admits.

The Yonkers native found his way onto the bread line through his pastry position at the late Sign of the Dove after attending the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. In delivering desserts to the restaurant’s retail bakery, Ecce Panis, he saw the allure of an altogether different type of baking. But he and the chain parted ways after the company “got a lot bigger—they went to Carlstadt, NJ, and got involved in parbaking, which is great for someone living in Idaho but not in New York, where we’re used to fresh-baked bread.”

Fiorentino, now 43, says he was hired by Boulud after sending résumés to every all-caps name in the Zagat Survey. “I knew Daniel from the All-Clad ads,” he said, but otherwise claims he was relatively clueless about the top of the city’s food chain. No wonder Boulud brushed him off, not least because he had never trained in France, and only reconsidered when he sent “a carefully phrased letter.”

Now Fiorentino starts his dough day around 7 a.m.—after riding Metro North in from White Plains, where he lives with his ballet instructor wife, Regina Vanzo. First order of business is baking the breads that have been slowly rising overnight in controlled-temperature cases; measuring, mixing and kneading the next day’s dough will keep him occupied until around 4 p.m. His workweek is six days; every day but Monday he gets help from his No. 2, Elifelete Cordeiro, who takes the Sunday shift solo, and two assistants, one of whom has just been promoted from dishwasher. (Boulud says one of Fiorentino’s strengths is finding talent virtually at his elbow.)

They work from recipes, after a fashion: cheat sheets stored in a flour-dusted three-ring binder with percentages of flour/leavening/salt/liquid in place of cup and tablespoon measures. Production doesn’t vary much from day to day except for the quantities; overall he’s been making the same breads for more than nine years. Rather than innovation, his challenge is consistency: “What we served last week has to be the same as what we serve next week.”

Maybe that’s why he admits his diet on the job is primarily warm bread and butter. It’s a form of quality control.

“We’re in our own little world,” says Fiorentino, who has not sat in the dining room in five years. “If you ask me what’s on the menu upstairs, I have no idea.” It goes with bread, though.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell