Tartine's Chad Robertson Plans to Take Over the World

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With his trademark dough, Chad Robertson has not only made a living, but the king of the Tartine empire has become a messiah on the international culinary scene. Turns out the baker of the world’s best and most imitated bread is just getting started.

Chad Robertson makes it look easy. I catch up with him one morning at Bar Tartine, where he’s baking some of the 240 daily loaves, a portion of which will be distributed to his fans via e-commerce grocer Good Eggs. Working with Tartine’s soft bread dough is like trying to stuff a jellyfish into a string net. But Robertson is barely concentrating as he flips the formed loaves from their cloth-lined bannetons onto the racks that deliver them into the oven. It’s muscle memory at its finest. Forty-five minutes later, Robertson pulls the mahogany hunks from the oven with a gloved hand, setting them on the table with a thud.

While we wait, he hands over his iPhone to me, indicating I should scroll through the images. It’s a lookbook for the new space, The Manufactory, which he and wife-business partner Elisabeth Prueitt (the duo behind Tartine Bakery and Bar Tartine) are opening later this spring in the Heath Ceramics building in the Mission. Put together by Commune, a Los Angeles–based design firm, it is loaded with inviting images of artisanal inspiration—featuring handcrafted materials like oiled Douglas fir, unglazed subway tiles by Heath, Calcutta marble, and copper—from sources as varied as Alpine lodges, Danish cafes, and Japanese teahouses. You don’t want to eat there so much as live there, and maybe that’s the point.

Robertson and his team bake 240 loaves of Tartine’s signature country bread each day. That number will at least double at The Manufactory.

At 5,000 square feet, The Manufactory is more than double the size of Tartine Bakery and, aside from Bar Tartine, the restaurant they opened in 2006, marks Tartine’s first expansion since the bakery began in 2002. Over the years, Robertson and Prueitt have deflected dozens of offers to replicate the bakery—throughout the Bay Area, in London, New York, and LA, even Paris. But they’ve finally decided to grow beyond the confines of Guerrero and 18th Streets. And this time, they’re going big.

The successes of Robertson and Prueitt are more than a decade in the making. For the second coming, The Manufactory, slated to open in May, will be an all-day cafe, bakery, R&D kitchen, and evening restaurant. It will also be a dream come true for the pair, who are using this opportunity to create a bespoke space enriched by their myriad connections throughout the worlds of food, fashion, and design.

Mirroring the Heath factory, the cafe will be separated from the production kitchen by a glass wall, allowing visitors to see the bread process from start to finish. Flour will be processed in a mill Robertson is importing from Germany; the massive custom oven is also German, made by Heuft, a company that has been in the business since 1840. Describing it, Robertson’s like a kid on Christmas morning, his green eyes widening. “There is not another one like it in the world,” he says, clearly pleased by the custom creation. “The technology is completely insane.”

Robertson loads racks of bread into the 15,000-pound oven at Bar Tartine, where he bakes most mornings. A wood-burning oven at The Manufactory will allow for pizza-making.

New World, meet Old World: The Heuft will be joined by a wood-burning oven, harkening back to Robertson’s early days baking in Point Reyes. “It’ll be interesting to see if we can get the same results in two totally different ways,” he muses. The wood oven will also allow Robertson and his team to make pizza. “It will be a really long fermented dough, like we do for our bread, using fresh milled flour—and not just white flour, either. It will be sexy and delicious pizza,” he promises. The Manufactory kitchen will also serve as laboratory, idea incubator, and specialty venue for collaborative dinners with acclaimed international chefs such as Sweden’s Magnus Nilsson (Fäviken).

Robertson continues to spill the details about what will make The Manufactory tick: Prueitt has been churning trial batches of ice cream, which will debut at the new spot, along with preserves and pickles. Instead of the pastries that have made Tartine famous, The Manufactory will experiment with savory breakfasts and other bread-based comestibles, and the additional space will also allow Robertson and his team to double their bread production to at least 500 loaves a day. To oversee the food, which will include bountiful 
salads, rich meat broths, and daily helpings of heirloom beans, Robertson has hired Sam Goinsalvos, formerly of New York’s Il Buco Alimentari and The Ordinary in Charleston, S.C. The natural wine program will be helmed by longtime Tartine employee Vinny Eng.

Once The Manufactory is up and running, the original Tartine Bakery, a rabbit warren of rooms all at capacity, will eventually close for an extensive renovation. “The neighborhood has changed—we’ve changed—so radically since we opened 13 years ago,” says Robertson. “My team and I have been working hard for a long time in a hard place to work. I want to give them a nice space and all the tools they need.” Tartine 2.0 will include the addition of a small savory kitchen, a chocolate room, and improved cafe space, which will continue to serve food and wine in the evenings.

Robertson slashes the tops of the loaves with a razor blade prior to baking. His prized techniques have spread internationally like culinary gospel.

Though he’s 43, Robertson—with his scruffy beard, laid-back demeanor, boundless enthusiasm, and a well-documented surfing habit—still has a 20-something vibe about him, a devil-may-care outlook that belies his laser focus on making the best bread in the world. Raised in West Texas, young Chad Robertson was headed toward a stint as a collegiate tennis player, which may, in part, explain why he frequently caps his NorCal uniform (slim jeans, a crisp button down shirt, and espadrilles) with a visor. He had been playing eight hours a day when he was sidelined with a dislocated kneecap. “I discovered all the things I’d been missing out on,” he recalls.

He wanted to become an architect, but when he was waitlisted at Rice University, he decided his priority was leaving Texas. He reasoned that, “If I learned how to cook, I’d always be able to find a job somewhere. It was a totally naïve idea,” he admits, “but it ended up being true.” Eager for an exit from the Lone Star state, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, which is where he met his wife (“Our last names were in alphabetical order,” he says with a shrug, as though this fact alone explains their 20-year marriage).

Robertson has some NorCal elitist tendencies, but manages to avoid coming across as an asshole. He’s a proselytizing drinker of expensive glass bottles of green juice and lets slip that, for a recent birthday gift, his wife gave him a reading with “astrobarry,” a Duke- and NYU-educated astrologist who created an elaborate chart for Robertson based on the date, time, and location of his birth. It was so wild that astrobarry urged him to return in a few years so he could “see what happens.” Sensing my skepticism, he meets my gaze with a laugh. “I know,” he says, “but this guy is amazing.”

He’s dabbled in fashion since his days as a kid model, and you’ll often find him baking in a Dries Van Noten or Thom Browne shirt. But, he has the well-
calibrated cool of someone in possession of status and influence, choosing, for example, to wear a pair of vintage Nike waffle racers to last year’s see-and-be-seen James Beard Awards

The rise of an empire: Tartine’s signature bread has a mahogany crust and large air bubbles throughout its pudding-like interior, the result of the dough’s long fermentation.

These aesthete tendencies are balanced by some unexpected loves, including Disneyland. On a recent trip, ostensibly intended to entertain the couple’s 7-year-old daughter, Archer, he fell hard for the theme park. His favorite ride? “Tower of Terror! Not so good for 7-year-olds, as it turns out.”

Contributing to Robertson’s youthful countenance is his tireless pursuit of new ideas and techniques. His latest tome, Tartine Book 3 (which, full disclosure, I helped edit) picked up where Tartine Bread left off. The book is a chronicle of his successful experiments of late—baking with fermented grains, making dough with cooked grain porridge, rolling dough paper-thin to make translucent crackers. Danny Bowien, the chef-owner of Mission Chinese Food and NYC’s Mission Cantina, and an old friend of Robertson’s, describes him as “the Jiro of bread,” referencing the Tokyo sushi master who was the subject of an acclaimed 2011 documentary. “He has been unwavering in his dedication to his craft. But unlike Jiro, he’s not afraid to experiment. He’s constantly evolving and always seems to have his finger on the pulse.”

If all goes according to plan, in addition to The Manufactory, Robertson and Prueitt will be opening their first satellite bakery in Tokyo’s Daikanyama neighborhood, which he likens to New York’s High Line, in late summer or early fall. Already, Japanese bakers have been training in San Francisco, and Robertson plans to have longtime Tartine baker Lori Oyamada run the show when it comes time to open; the plan is to always have a member of the SF Tartine family on the ground in Tokyo. Plans are also in the works for a bakery in London, though it’s likely still two years out, and Robertson continues to toy with the idea of opening a bread-only bakery in New York, a slip of a space that would be helmed by one solo baker, selling only what he or she could produce in a day.

The sudden explosion of the Tartine empire owes much to Robertson’s team, a collection of bakers that he claims is the strongest he’s ever employed. “My staff literally get tears in their eyes talking about potential projects,” he says. “They want more to do.” When Robertson is in town, he often bakes the bread himself. But there are many days when he’s either traveling or too busy to produce the day’s loaves. Few can tell the difference between the bread he produces and the bread produced by his staff. “That’s the point, right?” says Robertson, “Every one of my bakers is as good or better than I am.”

That may be true, but Robertson’s style of bread is as distinctive as a fingerprint. Sample a slice from the bread basket at Michelin-starred Relae, Christian Puglisi’s Copenhagen restaurant, and you’d discover it tastes much like Tartine bread. No coincidence—Robertson and Puglisi are pals, and they readily exchange ideas. Love the thick slices of toast at Outerlands? Their bread program was a joint operation with Tartine. He’s working with Danny Bowien now to create a pizza dough that the gonzo NYC transplant will use at his forthcoming NYC restaurant, with toppings such as mapo tofu. “To be honest, it’s all about my personal relationships,” explains Robertson of the collaborations, citing a transparency that seems surprising given what we think we know about the cutthroat restaurant world. “I share information, and information is shared with me. People don’t shut me out because I don’t take credit for other people’s shit.” Robertson’s roster of friend-chefs includes some of the finest cooks and bakers in the world—Nillsson, Estela’s Ignacio Mattos, Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, René Redzepi, David Chang. “There is mutual respect. We don’t copy one another so much as we are inspired by one another. There are no secrets. It’s just bread.”

Later, when talking to Danny Bowien, I mention the “it’s just bread” comment. “Yeah, it’s like Michael Jordan saying ‘it’s just basketball,’” laughs Bowien. “Easy to say when you’re the best in the world.”

Fashion Stylist: Kat Yeh; Grooming: Yvette Swallow (Aubri Balk Inc.); Hair: Andrew Todd (DiPietro Todd Salon); Denim shirt: Unionmade

This article was published in 7x7's February 2015 issue. Click here to subscribe.