Manresa Bread: Avery Ruzicka

What drove me to bread is the relationship you have with it. That’s why I really think it’s where I’ve ended up. It’s because with loaf, with each batch of bread, you’re kind of interacting.

Avery Ruzicka’s story reads like a movie: the young American girl from North Carolina, blonde hair, big glasses, slight lisp, heads to Europe to boarding school, stays with a family in Santander, Spain, and is exposed to food and travel. You can picture the scene: North Spain coastal dinner tables with laughing foreigners and the bright-eyed, curious Avery taking in each new experience. Once she returns home, the European lifestyle and food culture haunts her, calls her back in her junior year of college for a semester in France, which she then extends to a year, because, “I just wasn’t ready to go home yet.” And while there, her food appreciation morphs into a passion for the culinary arts. We return to the US for a short montage of being back at Chapel Hill college to finish a degree in poli sci, with a minor in creative writing. The scene overlaps with her throwing off her graduation cap to a plane touching down in JFK, because she is now in the Big Apple to attend the French Culinary Institute.

There she happens to meet Chef David Kinch in a short friendly conversation of the kind you’d expect from a top chef and a student. Avery continues her study and is drawn to taking a baking class, which happened to start as her other studies conclude. She finishes the class, not thinking she would rather be a baker than a chef, but the experience was great. Then another chance to meet David Kinch, and now as a certified chef. Avery expresses her desire to work in his kitchen, but he doesn’t have any openings and Avery has enough experience by this time and isn’t in a position to take a nonpaid internship. No hard feelings, such is life. Then by chance, she hears through a friend that Manresa is looking for “Front of House” help. Avery, not shy to advantage, sees the opportunity to be a part of Chef Kinch’s work and even though it isn’t a cooking position, she heads to the West Coast. Fade to black to a crossfade of the title slide, which reads “Summer 2011, Los Gatos, California.”

So that was it, you headed out?

I flew from North Carolina out here with my little bag. I didn’t have any, like, kitchen stuff or anything. I met with them and took the position. I was a food runner. That was fab. I had my mornings free and they were making bread, but they didn’t have anyone in particular doing that. I thought, “I’m not really cooking yet,” so I asked, “Can I help? Can I do this?”

You just started helping out where there was a need?

Yeah. They were making four breads. Chef Kendra [Baker], who now owns the Penny and Assembly, had been Executive Pastry Chef at Manresa a couple of years prior and that started them on the kick of actually making some of their own breads.

Then she was gone and I think it was like a game of telephone where she had some great recipes that had been passed down without anybody really having ownership of them.

I started asking questions about why things were happening and the way they were happening. And no one really knew. So David and Jessica [Chef Largey] gave me the opportunity to start slowly taking over all the breads, and then I started changing them.

That was six months of baking bread in the morning. It was just me coming in the morning and doing it because it was just there.

You were helping out in the morning and then you were still food running?

For six months. I had even given David a six-month commitment as a food runner. Then after that, I moved into the kitchen, continued the bread, and I did the amuse station for six months.

After another six months, Jessica asked me which I wanted, that was finally like a year later, and I was ready to say, “Bread is actually the thing I want to do.” I thought about watching somebody else make the bread every day and the idea that kind of broke my heart and I was like, “I think I have my answer.”

At that point were you already starting to experiment and develop some of your own…

Absolutely, yeah, pretty much immediately it was tweaking and then changing entirely. We introduced the baguette. We didn’t have a baguette recipe before. We got rid of one of the breads. I developed a brioche recipe, rather than the one that they were using. But I was definitely hesitant, because it was really exciting, but I was also a little bit…

You were a little shy or apprehensive to take too much of the reins?

Yeah, I have a big personality. Everyone has a big personality at Manresa though, so it was tempering that. David and I really got to know to each other, and you know, he put a lot of trust in me and we developed that [relationship].

And the nice thing about the bakery is it’s been a very organic thing. It wasn’t that I walked into Manresa and said, “Hey, let’s open a bakery.” It was—I walked in and said, “I want to be part of this place. I think what you’re doing is incredible.”

It wasn’t that you had the understudy kind of mentality, like, “I’m going to take over.”

[laughs] No. I didn’t want to take over…

They never had a bread maker position. Jessica really supported doing that, they created a position for me, which is a position that, you know, at that point, nobody had made any money off of bread—that’s a give-away at a restaurant. They saw how excited I was about it. So we slowly…you know, it was helpful, because it was something off of somebody else’s plate. Then it was exciting because we stopped doing cookies as a give-away, and I got to do brioche as a give-away. Until we got to the point where we were doing five breads for service, plus the give-away. We were doing the fruit and nuts bread for crackers, and then the crackers in-house. We’re doing all those things, I’m doing all those things. Then it’s, like, “That’s kind of the max on bread. I don’t know if we can shove more bread at people.”

Overdoing it. [laughs]

That’s when the opportunity for the farmers’ market came along. Again, it was totally by chance—a customer came in who was the organizer of one of the farmers’ market associations. They happened to have a space opening at the Campbell Farmers’ Market.

I think he mentioned to, probably, Esteban [Garibay, general manager], saying, “Hey, we have an opening. Would you guys want to sell your bread?” David and Esteban came to me and said, “There’s this opportunity, and let’s try it.”

Can you make a couple more loaves? [laughs]

So, one Saturday night, I figured out how I want to do it, and did it, dropped off the most bread at that point that I’d made. Not to sell, just to try—they try it, and they say, “OK, this is your product.”

Then they gave us the green light. I was, like, “OK. I’m going to organize myself, and do this,” and we just kind of pieced it together.

We were in Campbell to start, and then because it was still just me—I didn’t have anybody else helping with the bread—I would do all the bread for the restaurant, go home, sleep for a couple of hours, and then come back. I’d mix everything Friday night into Saturday morning, so then all the bread retarded during the day in the walk-in. And so, I’d do my normal shift on Saturday, starting really early…

So you’re part-owner now. This is such a great story, right? I mean, you came in and volunteered your time… So how did that come about? Talk about that, and the leadership of Manresa, to let you have that opportunity.

Well, again, this has happened in a very organic way. It was not, “We’re going to open a bakery.” It was, “We’re going to sell some bread.” Then, “Oh, wow. People want to buy bread.”

We were kind of between things. The farmers’ market was going well, I was pushing the envelope to bake more bread every week. Andrew [Burnham] and David had once had plans to open a restaurant together, previously, and that had not happened. Andrew had worked at the restaurant when I was there, and I knew Andrew had a background in finance. David’s book was coming out, and we were talking in very general terms about, “Hey, what if we had a brick and mortar place? What if we did this, this would be amazing.”

David had his hands full. There was the book release that fall. He was traveling all over the place. He was like, “Don’t worry. I’m going to find us a space.” I knew that that might happen one day, but he was, literally, about to leave for a book tour. And so I asked Andrew if he would want to come on board, if he could help us out. So Andrew got involved, and without Andrew doing all of the structural work for the business to happen, I wouldn’t be baking bread.

It was a long road, but I knew it was an amazing opportunity to be a partner in something and to be an owner. And I was very clear that that’s what I wanted because I want to give as much as…I have a lot to give, but I would like to give it to something that’s partially mine. And this is what I’ve decided to commit this part of my life to, so it’s like, “I’m not going to work harder for anybody than I’m going to work for myself,” so I should probably have some part of this.

Andrew wrote our business plan, Andrew put together the investors…Andrew did all of that. And then David was the one who allowed us to do this.

How has it been, going from being so much the doer to being more the coach, the owner, the manager, all that kind of stuff?

It’s been good. It’s been exciting. I’ve learned a lot about boundaries in terms of…keeping things simple.

It was one thing when it was just me. I could push myself to the brink or I could sleep for two hours or I could sleep in the back of the van or something like that. I never asked those things from any of my teams. But when you’re doing something by yourself and it’s you figuring out how to do things, you can work for 24 hours straight.

But that’s not scalable. Learning what is scalable—you know, that experience of doing it all by myself didn’t really teach me how to create the framework for the team. I had to do that from a different standpoint. And that’s something Andrew’s helped a lot with too. He’s really pushed to keep menus simple, and things like that.

Right now, it’s important that the systems are in place, and that we have a good system of checks and balances. I think I fought that at the beginning—I wanted everything all at once. And that was great, and if I hadn’t wanted that, we wouldn’t have a bakery either. But now, learning that… This is the first time in my adult life that it hasn’t been, “What’s next?” There are questions of “what’s next?,” but we have the bakery. The bakery is here. What’s next is the bakery continues to grow. We each get to grow as part of it and we get to grow apart from it. And so relaxing into that feeling of, “We’re here. It’s OK.”

Baking and breadmaking, what do you marvel at?

That it’s, again, so engaging. And the artistry for sure, you know we want to make this beautiful food that’s an expression, almost on an artistic level, but I’m also here because I want to learn. And this is, I feel, David Kinch. He is an incredibly curious and an intellectual chef. Who doesn’t want to have a job that, every day, is engaging them on both a sensory level and an intellectual level? For me, bread is that. I love it because it is so simple. It’s made of potentially four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast, natural yeast or all of those. That’s all it is… What drove me to bread is the relationship you have with it. That’s why I really think it’s where I’ve ended up. It’s because with loaf, with each batch of bread, you’re kind of interacting. You’re checking on it. You’re looking in on it. You’re touching it.

We make a handful of breads, we make them every single day, the same bread. And I still find it endlessly engaging.

As a baker and an artisan, if you took a loaf from a couple years ago and then compared it, would you be embarrassed?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

That’s interesting. But you’ve seen the growth.

Yeah, I would see the growth. I would be proud. Again, the reason I’m here, the reason I’m baking bread, the reason I have a bakery and want to be a part of a bakery is because I find it really intellectually stimulating.

This is four years of work. I was really lucky because in Manresa they let me take over this thing. Yeah, I dedicated my mornings and my time off—because I was so excited about it—but I remember all these mornings at Manresa…I got to be alone there. I came in. I was the first one in. I’d open the restaurant, and then I made bread. I did a little bread and then I cut it open and I looked at it, and I did it again the next day. I was having the best time ever.

What would be a good pairing for a couple of the Manresa bread staples that you have?

Two of our four staples are our Levain and our baguette.

For the baguette, something just as simple as a sandwich with butter and a really nice hard salami. Super simple. But those three things together are really amazing. You have those textures—the crispy crust of the baguette, then this really creamy, bouncy interior—and then tempered butter and the salami. That’s a pretty great pairing.

The Levain is great as part of a really simple dinner, something like a roast chicken dinner. We used to do something we called chicken bread at David’s house, where when you roast your chicken, you put slices of day-old bread underneath, and it absorbs all of the fats that are coming off of the chicken, and then you just toast it a little longer afterwards. You have this crisp on the outside, really moist on the inside, toast—almost like a chicken bread pudding.

What’s next for you and for experimentation with bread?

Yeah. Continuing to learn about the mill and milling flour because it’s an art craft in and of itself… We have a stone mill here. Everything is different with fresher flours. Flavors are different, hydration is different, fermentation is different… Playing around with different fermentation styles is something I want to work with… I’d like to be doing some stiffer starters, I’d love to incorporate a new bread that does a different style of fermentation. So, a different schedule. Perhaps, potentially a stiff starter, then bulk fermented overnight, then proofed out and baked the next day.

What would be the difference in flavor? Is it sweeter?

It depends. It could be more sour actually. There’s more lactic fermentation in liquid starters. The lactic acid is what gives the dough its creamier flavor, versus the acetic acid, which is what gives it the sharper flavors. And so, a stiffer starter can promote more of acetic acid. It may also be really helpful with the 100 percent whole wheat, fresh milled. Just because of the way that that ferments. When you’re milling your own flour, it’s got a lot of natural yeast on it, on the grain itself… Just learning about how to properly ferment these really fresh-milled flours is totally a new thing.

Interview and Photography by Daniel Garcia

Article originally appeared in Issue 7.5 Serve

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