Interview With: Todd Solek of Farm To Hearth
It became apparent pretty soon after starting Chef of The Month that maybe that wasn't the best title for it. There are so many interesting people within the food scene of Connecticut that I wanted to highlight and the term "chef" simply doesn't cover them all. So from this point forward I'll not only be covering chefs, but also bakers, farmers, cheese mongers, brewers, and food artisans of all kinds. I hope you enjoy learning their stories.
This month the team and I traveled down to Haddam to visit Todd Solek, Owner and Baker of Farm To Hearth. Todd single handedly runs his wood fired bakery providing fresh bread and milled grains to some of Connecticut's finest restaurants. For his bakery hours, and to follow his baking journey, you can follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
How did you get into baking?
From a young age I didn't really watch cartoons, I watched cooking shows... I was really drawn to food! I watched the hell out of Jaques Pepin, Julia Child, Graham Kerr, Dean Fearing and I think every episode of Great Chefs of the World. My first job when I was 12 was at a local farm harvesting vegetables. I walked there everyday and walked home tired as fuck! I became very connected with where food came from and the work it took, I loved it. By fifteen I was working in local restaurants prepping and cooking food and continued to hold jobs in restaurants for fun while I was stationed in Washington D.C. with the military. I went after low level prep jobs in some of the areas best restaurants and worked my way up, being exposed to lots of ingredients, flavors, and techniques along the way.
Through my readings of every food related book I could get my hands on I came across the stoic images of old world bakers, the wood fired ovens and the bold, rustic loaves they were pulling from those ovens. Those images stuck with me! Then I noticed in these award winning restaurants I was working in, that were supposed to be the best, the bread being served was an afterthought. It was delivered on a big truck from some warehouse, arrived frozen or par baked and was put in a drawer and warmed by a heat lamp before being served to patrons. This angered and confused me. Why would a chef who was so concerned with the quality of the ingredients they sourced for their menus, who was so disciplined and precise about the techniques used to prepare and cook those ingredients neglect such a basic, and in my opinion, important part of a meal? I mean once the guest is greeted and their drink order is taken, the bread is the first impression! I mean, for fucks sake, when you have a guest in your home and offer them a beverage do you go scoop toilet water into a glass and serve it to them? That's when I began my journey into reading about baking, and the history of the techniques used by bakers. I wanted to learn, I wanted to bake really good bread.
How has your approach and method changed since the start?
My philosophy on bread and the techniques I practice have remained the same from my start. The difference is when I started I took inspiration and guidance from those doing things the way I wanted. Along the way I've developed my own style and use techniques that work for me that I've learned through lots of trial and error. I'm no longer trying to recreate what initially inspired me, I'm doing things my way and baking the bread I envision.
You bake in a wood oven, are there any reasons that cooking with wood is better?
Heat is heat. As a baker, it's personal preference. I just love the process and the intuitiveness that is required to create your own heat from a sustainable natural resource. Man became man when we learned to control fire and cook our food to make it more digestible for the body. It set us apart from other primates. I keep it old school! Much easier ways to create heat have been discovered, but to me none are more satisfying or romantic than the wood fire. I will never bake any other way.
How much did your bread change once you started milling your own grains, and what led to that decision?
It was a logical decision, the chefs I bake for know the difference. Fresh flour is such a complex flavor with intense aroma! A grain is the perfect seed and when ground into flour it needs to be treated like fresh produce. The flavor and nutritional components quickly dissipate once exposed to the air. My goal is to create the most flavorful and nutritionally sound loaf of bread I can. Milling the grain fresh is what I, the baker, owe the public whether they know it or not.
You only sell to a select number of restaurants in the state. How do you choose which chefs you work with and why do you keep this number so low?
I work with chefs who share my philosophy on food, we get each other and there is a mutual respect. They are looking to create an experience through food with the people that dine with them and I aim to craft bread that will enhance their commitment to that. Bread can be a meal in of itself, a component of a dish or a utensil of sorts along side a dish. The chefs I work with understand this and incorporate my bread throughout thier menus in very creative ways. I keep this number so low because I consider what I do craft, if you try to mass produce craft by cutting corners and taking the hand of craft out of the process you must compromise somewhere in the process. I'm not willing to compromise.
Do you have any opinions on the growing "gluten free diet" trend?
Two opinions. Unless you are truly celiac, a disease in which your body lacks the ability to digest the proteins in gluten, gluten is not harmful. Gluten is made up of proteins found in grains, our bodies need proteins to function. Problem is we now mass produce most bread using mostly highly processed flour in which all the nutrients of the grain held in the bran and germ have been stripped out to make shelf stable flour. This mass production method also skips the natural fermentation process using wild cultured bacteria, a vital step in making the nutrients in grain available for our bodies to digest and get the benefits from. We are eating "bread" that holds no nutritional value that our bodies cannot breakdown and digest, it's just unfermented sugar that is unhealthy and will be stored as fat. Secondly, our culture is not as active as it once was. The body uses calories as fuel for muscles that are active. If we take in more calories than our muscles use we store them as fat. Don't blame gluten, blame yourself for not being active enough when the combined total of the food you eat makes you fat.
It seems like the phrase "artisanal baking" is used as wildly as "farm to table" these days, what makes you a true artisan baker?
I'm not too crazy about the term "farm to table". Unless you're hunting and foraging for your food, our food at one time was grown or raised on a farm. We should be more concerned with the growing practices of that farm, what the animals were fed and how they were treated and slaughtered. We need more of a connection with our food... we are what we eat and our bodies perform as such. The term "artisan baking" is unfavorable to me as well when it comes to food. I feel that artists struggle to be understood while craftsmen continually seek knowledge. I'm looking to craft bread that pushes the limits of flavor and is highly nutritious for the human body. My craft is a constant learning process and I will never achieve perfection in my lifetime. I wake up everyday chasing intangible perfection. That challenge keeps me passionate and hungry. Call me what you will but, I'm just a dude that loves to bake bread and my name is Todd.
What's the weirdest thing in your fridge/pantry right now?
A fermented whole pepper hot sauce made in Vermont from local produce. Chili peppers are super nutritious for you and naturally fermenting them unlocks even more nutrients and greatly enhances the flavor profile. It's fucking delicious, I put it on everything.
What is the number one piece of equipment you would tell a home baker to invest in?
Cast iron or carbon steel cookware and definately a Dutch oven for baking bread.
Who is one baker/chef that you would like to work alongside for a day and why?
A French baker who passed a few years ago, Lionel Poilâne. And also Argentinian Chef Francis Mallmann.
And lastly, what is the most memorable meal you've ever had?
The Oyster Club in Mystic, CT hosted a "fermentation" themed dinner this past year and Chef James Wayman prepared a "polenta," transforming a polenta bread I had baked for him into a sublime porridge. The creativity and techniques involved in transforming that loaf of bread into what he served was amazing. It was a bowl of pure comfort food. A close second is the cabbage and noodles dish I was served at Firebox Restaurant from Chef Ed Jones. Where that dish came from and what it meant to him was evident in the experience...he cooked it from the heart.