It's a late Monday afternoon when I reach Caroline Styne on the phone. Above the sound of a busy dining room—the clinking of glasses, the chatter of diners—she sounds small when she answers the call. But Styne may have had a bigger impact on the wine Angelenos have been drinking than any other sommelier in town. Now, along with her partner, chef Suzanne Goin and their longtime bread baker Nathan Dakdouk, Styne is setting her sights on another product that's a result of careful fermentation: bread. Here, we talk with the award-winning restaurateur about how she fell in love with dough.
You’ve operated restaurants your whole career. Why did you and Suzanne want to start a wholesale bakery business?
Years back, when we only had A.O.C. and Lucques, we’d been using bread from another company. We started getting the itch to do something on our own. I’ve always had a fantasy of baking bread, I love the whole process. We actually had a host at the restaurant at the time who was sort of a farmers’ market groupie. He said, ‘Can I bake bread for you?’ and we said ‘yes,’ and we loved it. We loved it so much we started using it for A.O.C. and Lucques. But then, because he was a baker he developed carpal tunnel, and I think he didn’t want to get up early in the morning anymore.
So we thought, hey maybe we should get a real baker. We were looking for a baker, and asking around when this other hostess at Lucques said she knew a baker. She said his breads were really good and that we should meet him. Days later, we got this photograph of this beautiful loaf of bread, just crusty, gorgeous, insanely beautiful bread, like a still-life art photograph. So we called him and asked if we could taste it. The next day, he sent over 10 different types of bread. I’m a crust freak—it’s all about the crust for me. And the crusts were so incredible and chewy. So then he came in and he’s the kind of guy you instantly fall in love with, such a character, an Armenian raised in Venezuela. He said that in boarding school would go spy on a local bread baker stop. Eventually this bread baker said, ‘Hey you in the corner over there, stop hiding and and come here and I’ll teach you.’ He brought all these notes and he started working with his hands and learning just by doing it. It’s ingrained in him, this passion and skill with making bread.
This is Nathan [Dakdouk, Larder's head baker]. When we opened Tavern, we built it so he’d have room to bake, but then that wasn’t big enough. We were getting phone calls all the time from people and restaurants that wanted to buy more. Finally, we said if we want to do this we have to do it correctly and legally, and I knew from the moment I tasted it, this is the best bread I’ve ever had anywhere and we need to get this bread out to the world. And so I talked to Nathan about building a bigger business, and he said, ‘I’ve been hoping for years and years that you’d say that.’ We found space and got equipment financing and the build out of the bakery took almost a year. But now we’ve been operating since November, and been taking on new clients every day.
Most wholesale bakeries par-bake or use dough stabilizers or enhancers to ensure that they have inventory and that the quality is consistent. Is Larder Baking Co. using anything like that?
No, we’re not using any stabilizers whatsoever. In April, we’ll start to put out par-baked loaves, yes, but Nathan has figured out how to do this without sacrificing our quality. There’s no stabilizers or enhancers in the bread, and it’s a 100% organic and non-GMO product. Nathan has worked out a process by which he’s baking the loaves to a precise temperature and then flash-freezing them. It’s going really well. We literally don’t have to add anything.
How many different types of bread are you producing now at Larder Baking Co.?
Oh wow, let me think. There are over fifty varieties of just bread… sourdough, rye, whole week, baguettes, boules, buns, challah, whole-grain, fruit nut bread, blueberry bread, sour cherry cashew bread, date walnut bread, ciabatta… The other thing is we’re doing all of our pastries at Larder as well: Cookies, brownies, scones, croissants, pain au chocolate, chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies. It’s an expansive list of pastries, and we’re selling those wholesale too.
Do you plan to grow outside of L.A.?
Yes, the facility now can handle orders throughout the region. We plan to sell out of state. We’ve been trying to start small and calm and make sure we get all of our procedures and delivery going smoothly before we expand further, which why we held off doing the par-baked line. It will have to all be par-baked but that’s the whole goal, is to expand but maintain quality.
Our production facility will be able to support our production for approximately 10 years. We have the potential to expand at the location as well, without moving. We do recognize that yes, in 7 or 10 years we may have to find another location or expand production into another region.
Will you sell wholesale to other retailers?
Yes, we’re in a couple of small retail locations, Erewhon market, at a small retailer in Topanga Canyon. Our goal is to have it on the shelves in Whole Foods and similar retailers this year.
How many bakers does Nathan have on staff?
Nathan has a large crew. A couple of people are his right hand bread men. There are around six or seven bakers per shift, and someone who is overseeing pastry production and they have the crew as well. We’re baking around the clock. Over the years at Tavern and A.O.C. before that, Nathan put together a tight knit crew of guys who know him really well and have been working beside him for a long while.
Will you be opening up any more Larder retail locations?
Yes, but not this year. We’ve had a busy couple of years, so Suzanne and I decided not to open anything new this year. But if the Larder retail locations we have continue to be successful, then yes, we may open more.