Chefs to Watch 2016: Zack Hall, Clark Street Bread, Los Angeles
Calling someone a home baker doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence. But that’s exactly how Zack Hall started baking traditional breads, in his basic apartment oven. Except Hall wasn’t just playing around: He was soon able to sell his breads to the likes of Trois Mec, Animal and Farmshop and quickly became one of L.A.’s most sought-after but impossible-to-find bakers.
“I thought I would open an Italian restaurant, but I really liked bread,” he recalls. “I made a loaf of bread one day, and the next day made another. Then another one and another, and I never stopped.”
Hall isn’t exactly a novice. He spent time baking at Proof Bakery and Kenter Canyon Farms, and trained at a traditional bakery in Sweden. The breads he produces—rustic, flavorful loaves with a tangy flavor that speaks of a long fermentation and boasting a chewy, hearty, crisp crust—are a revelation for anyone who loves traditional breads. After biting into a piece of his country loaf, you gain a new respect for what you can accomplish in a home oven.
Baking is a second career for Hall, a former musician who found himself burnt out on music and looking for something new. He found parallels between music and baking that made the career transition work.
“Baking was something I could do on my own,” he says. “I didn’t need a whole line, a whole ensemble working together. And it was something I could do with my hands. It’s the same as guitar; it is a mental thing, but the physical relationship is also enjoyable. I loved the way the bread felt in my hands.”
Hall has since graduated from baking out of his apartment to try and keep up with the demand from restaurants and farmers’ markets, and now has a production oven and a stall at Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market.
“We focus on the traditional breads, but that’s just the foundation,” he says. “It’s like being a musician. You learn the fundamentals of jazz, of blues. Then you have to practice for a decade. But once you have those things down, then you have the ability to do whatever you want. Now I work on the basics, and then I’ll move on to making my own style.”
Now that his breads have been developed and are consistent, Hall says the next step is to “try and make the absolute pinnacle.” He’ll have an opportunity to do so at the retail bakery he plans to open in the spring of next year. But there’s no fear that he’ll ignore the traditional breads that have gotten him this far. Hall might be a young baker, but his mentality is as old school as they come.
“Start with the best-quality ingredients, do things the traditional way, and then try advancements,” he says. “Work in a gentle, slow way that respects the dough. Make it taste good and look good. You can’t rush it and you can’t cut corners.”
Q&A with Zack Hall:
How do you describe your bread?
It’s inspired by traditional European breads: sourdough, ciabatta, baguette. I’m really drawn towards those classics; they never go out of style. They are commonly known as the best breads. Besides that, I like the crispy crust, nice aroma from fermentation. That’s pretty much it; it’s pretty simple.Fermentation—that’s all bread is, really. The better your fermentation, the better your bread. To some extent, you could have shitty flour, ferment a long time and still produce a good bread. It won’t be as good without the flavor of good flour, but it will be an enjoyable experience.
How do you find calm in your kitchen?
It’s not a relaxing business, but it’s rewarding. It took a couple of years for me to take a break from it, but now I can step away, which is good. I got sick of not having that release. I just got into soccer, so I’m really passionate about European soccer. It’s exciting; I’m learning a lot. And wine—the older and more knowledgeable I get, the more I enjoy it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing things the European way and having a glass of wine or two every day. Soccer and a glass of wine is the perfect way for me to relax. Food, wine and sports; that works for me right now.
What meal changed how you feel about food?
It wasn’t any one experience. My mom would take me to good restaurants growing up. She exposed me to a lot of good food. Then I took it one step further. I think I was around age 16, and for some reason I wanted to try everything. I had never tried sushi, so I tried that, but not just tuna or salmon; I ate uni and everything. I had to try ramen, pho, every single exotic food. I just kept getting more and more passionate about food, and I didn’t want there to be any food that I hadn’t tried. I drove all around the county searching for more tasty stuff. So it was that love of eating. I keep telling my wife I’m going to be like Brando—be good looking at first, and then gain 500 pounds.
What would you do if you weren’t a baker?
I was a musician, but I stopped playing. I didn’t play for three years after I got into baking. I was burnt out, exhausted. But I’ve started playing again. My uncle hosts jam sessions at his house, so I’ll go over there. And [music] feels the same that it did when I first started; I’m doing it for the pure joy of it. There’s no work stress related to it; it’s come full circle. I don’t play often; it’s done for me professionally. But life is a little too quiet without music on. Maybe I’d be a stockbroker. Something extreme and further away from this. It’d be nice to wear a suit every day. If I have the opportunity to get dressed up, I take it.
What baking book is most important to you?
I started with Jim Lahey [My Bread]. That was genius, how easy he made it for the amateur. He did a great job with that. The next are more technical. Tartine Bread. Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast. Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread. I have 40 to 50 books, but these are the ones I go back to. If you could stage at any restaurant in the world, where would you go and why?
Any place that inspires me, where I like the quality of what they are doing. I like Jane on Larkin in San Francisco. They are nice dudes, and what they are doing—breads and viennoiserie—is great. It would be cool to hang out with them, learn their techniques, their methods.
What’s on your baking bucket list?
In the next year, the challenges are going to be running the café: the front of the house, having an espresso program, expanding the menu to sandwiches and salads. There’s also this reserve tank of Scandinavian specialties that’s I’ve been wanting to do; traditional pastries that I’ve had in Sweden and Norway. I’ll probably break those out in the next six months.