TAVARNELLE, TUSCANY— My love of bakeries goes back as far as my episodic memory will allow. The earliest bakery recollection I can drum up comes from the Blue Ribbon Bakery in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In a kid’s eyes a bakery is a wonderland of shapes, sizes, colors, and all things sweet. In 1968 if you had given six-year-old Robert a choice between all the playthings he could snatch on the toy aisle at the Ben Franklin or all the sweets he could grab behind the counter at the Blue Ribbon Bakery, it would have been a tough choice, but the cookies and cupcakes would likely have won out (and that’s coming from a boy who loved toys).
My first memory of the Blue Ribbon was going in with my mom to pick up my Batman birthday cake. It wasn’t as elaborate and colorful as today’s kid’s cakes with computer-processed images and edible ink. It was nothing more than my favorite cake of all time— yellow cake with chocolate icing— with “Happy Birthday Robert!” written in yellow script. The perfect finishing touches were the Batman and Robin figures on top.
I was a huge Batman and Robin fan and never missed the Adam West-Burt Ward television show. The Batman birthday party was notable for several reasons, not the least of which was that it was the first birthday after my dad died and I think my mom went all out to try and make it special.
Maybe that’s why bakeries hold such a special place in my heart. It was the first step in a return to normalcy and a six-year-old’s realization that life will go on— and can be fun— after a tragedy.
Bakeries were mostly a repository for sweets and cakes during my teens and early twenties. But once I moved into restaurant ownership, they took on a new meaning and purpose. We used bakeries to supplement and supply on occasion. I’ve found that the relationship between restaurants and bakeries is a much healthier and less competitive than the relationship between most restaurants.
But, like restaurant people, bakery people are a different breed. Restaurant people are party-froward. Overall, they stay out late, live hard, enjoy life, and congregate with like types. Bakery people aren’t as party minded, mainly because their workday starts around the time restaurant people are getting their 2:00 a.m. second wind. Bakery people prefer quieter moments, a more structured working environment and less peaks and valleys during a shift.
Restaurant chefs often work by the seat of their pants using improvisation, touch, and feel. Baking is precise. It is chemistry. Both are creative.
My true love and appreciation for bakeries came from my early trips to Europe. By this time in my life, I had grown into a hardcore and devout breakfast fanatic. I woke up every morning in search of breakfast, but Europeans do breakfast much differently than we do, and those practices differ from country to country. What is universal across the continent is that bakeries that can be found in every city. In Europe bakeries became a sure thing for breakfast options.
There are three specific businesses that have molded and influenced my world view on bakeries.
1.) Bagnoli Pasticceria— I spend three months a year working overseas. A major portion of that time is working in the heart of Tuscany. In the small town of Tavarnelle there is a bakery that is one of my favorites on the planet. Bagnoli is everything I love in a bakery. It has a great morning vibe, wonderful people, and excellent pastries. I’m typing this column as I sit at my usual table by the window with my go-to pastry and hot tea.
2.) C’est la Vie Bakery— Sixteen years ago, a very talented French pastry chef moved to Hattiesburg and opened a bakery directly across the street from my office. His croissants were as good as any I had eaten in Paris. A group of regulars and I met most mornings and ate pastries while discussing world events and local gossip over expertly prepared baked goods.
3.) La Boulangerie Bakery— I also spend a healthy portion of the year in New Orleans. Almost every morning I am in the Crescent City I drive seven miles through rush hour traffic to eat a couple of croissants at the La Boulangerie on Magazine Street in Uptown.
Unfortunately, my French friend died of cancer and his bakery across from my office closed. Hattiesburg lost its only true French-inspired bakery. Six years ago, the bakery bug bit me hard and I resigned myself that Midtown Hattiesburg would have another full-service French-inspired bakery.
I am not a baker. Not by a long shot. I can make a pretty good Italian Cream Cake, but a bakery that sells only one item is born to fail. There were only two people on the planet that I was interested in working with to open a bakery. The problem was that Martha Foose and Donald Bender lived 200 miles away in Greenwood and both got out of the bakery game.
That didn’t stop me from launching a six-year campaign of pitching, pleading, and begging. After five years I either finally begged the correct way, or Foose and Bender grew tired of the constant beseeching. Either way, the brilliantly artistic, uber-talented, and dynamic duo moved to Hattiesburg several months ago and we are a matter of weeks away from opening the bakery of our dreams.
The married couple has a long and storied history in the bakery biz with an impressive list of awards, recognition, cookbooks, skills, and knowledge. The only thing I bring to the table is a healthy appetite and a unique love and appreciation for what bakeries have meant to me through the years.
The Batman and Robin figures from my sixth birthday cake hung around my mom’s house in a junk drawer for years. But after a few moves and a couple of house sales they got lost to that entity that secretly steals little pieces of your past that seemed so important at one point, then inconsequential, before realizing they were some of the things that mattered more than you ever expected at a time when they were truly needed.
It’s my hope that this new bakery we are about to open will also bring joy to a kid in need of a smile. Afterall, how often do we have an opportunity to be in a business that brings joy? I believe bakeries have that potential. What an honor it must be to be a component in weddings, anniversaries, celebrations, and— most of all— little kids’ birthdays. Life does go on. I can hardly wait.
This week’s recipe: Italian Cream Cake