It’s 7 o’clock in the morning. While most New Yorkers are hustling to work, Baker Kamel Saci has already been at his “office” since 3 am. There is a well-rounded selection of breads being ushered in and out of the oven doors: cereal, ciabatta, sourdough, focaccia fino, and prosciutto. From what I can see, hundreds of loaves are being weighed, shaped, scoured, set aside to rise, seasoned and baked at the same. While some loaves are rising, others are being shaped and another set is baking in the oven. But Kamel Saci never once looks at a clock or watch. “I know exactly what I’m doing,” he assures me. “I just feel the dough. I know when I have to bake it, when it’s ready. They call me, ‘Dad! Shape me! Bake me!’”
With over 16 years of experience, Kamel Saci certainly knows his bread. He grew up in the small town of Vianne in France, and his journey into bread baking began at the age of 19 at a bakery in Bordeaux. Saci then studied at the Institut National de la Boulangerie Pâtisserie in Paris in 1999, and worked with renowned baker Eric Kayser. Three years later, he headed to London, where he was the head baker at Aubaine. In 2003, he moved to Barcelona, where he was the manager and head bread baker at Baluard Bakery. While there, he also opened four other bakeries, including Crusto Panaderia. Then in 2009, he was the operations and production manager of Le Rendez-vous Bakery in Miami, Florida. In 2011, he arrived in New York City, where he is currently the head baker of il Buco and il Buco Alimentari & Vineria.
After making fresh bread for the day, Baker Kamel Saci gave us the lowdown on how his career came into being, how he almost didn’t become a baker, the role and history of bread in France, making bread around the world, and the importance of good quality organic ingredients and a natural rising process.
The Chefs Connection (CC): Are these recipes you’ve been making for a long time?
“No. I just take flour and I make a recipe.”
CC: Do you even write it down?
“No. Everything is in my head. I let [my baker] Benjamin know sometimes, in case I forget.
“Basically, in Europe, we have a different kind of flour. When I moved to the United States, the flour was different. I had to change my process, recipe, everything. I don’t know if I went back to Europe if I [would] know how to make bread.”
CC: Do you remember the first bread that you made?
“Yes, in Bordeaux at my first job. I was just baking the bread. I was the first guy in the bakery in the morning, taking the bread from the proofers, from the fermentation room and baking it. And after, I started to [make the bread].
“The first bread I made was a baguette. It was wonderful, but very difficult.
“When I started to bake, it was not my career. I was a professional judo fighter on the French National Team. This was my line of work. Now I train more in jiu-jitsu.
“I trained for a long time in judo. When I finished high school, I was looking for a summer job. I found one working in a bakery, but I didn’t know [what it was]. The guy trusted me and showed me how to bake bread.
“It was just the summer and I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to do this all my life.’ I had an injury in my knee, so I couldn’t train anymore in judo. I wasn’t ready to go to college, so I just decided to stay at the bakery. I stayed 18 months. I started to do shaping and mixing. And after, I decided to … change my life. I became a bread baker.
“I moved to Paris [to go to] school for bread and pastry. I got my degree and I worked for Eric Kayser. He has a bakery here in New York.
“I wanted to travel, so I moved to London and worked at a big restaurant there. We supplied the bread for the restaurant, for Pierre Gagnaire, and Joel Robuchon. Big chefs. So it was very interesting. I worked almost for a year over there. Then, a woman from Barcelona asked me if I was interested in moving there and opening a bakery.
“She invited me [to go] there for a week vacation. So I decided to move to Barcelona. And I opened the bakery. It became the first bakery in Barcelona and one of the best in Spain. A wood-fire oven. Very good bread. A very interesting challenge. A lot of hours.”
CC: What were some of the challenges?
“It was the first time I worked with a wood-fire oven. I trained a little bit, but not like this. Working in a different country; I never worked in Spain.
“It was opening my first bakery by myself. I was working by myself. It was just me. 17 hours a day. Seven days a week. I did everything. It was a very big challenge. So I did it and it worked.
“From there, a guy and his wife decided to open a bakery in Barcelona, but one where you can have coffee, a juice bar, a sandwich, a salad. The one I had before was just bread and some croissants. So I opened five bakeries for them. It became a franchise. Six months ago, they sold everything.
“I also opened another one called Crusto Panaderia. ‘Crusto’ in Catalan means ‘crust.’
“After, I moved to Miami, because the guy from Paris is the son of the president of the Assembly National. He tried to invest money in Miami and open a bakery over there. So I moved with the project, but it was a kind of factory. It was good quality, but it was hard to find bakers and supplies in Miami.”
CC: Your parents are from Algeria. What’s bread in Algeria like?
“They have this Arabic bread. It’s kind of like a pita, but you have more crumbs and it’s big. And because of the influence of the French colony, they have the same bread as the French. The most popular bread in North Africa is the baguette. Every baker has baguettes. There are baguettes everywhere.”
CC: Do you have any funny stories from the kitchen?
“I remember a story that wasn’t funny, but now thinking about it, it was very funny. I was in Barcelona. I came to work in the bakery at 2 o’clock in the morning. I open my fermentation room, but it broke in the middle of the day and I didn’t know. So I need the fermentation room around 10 degrees Celcius. It was 75 degrees Celcius! I remember opening the door and there was a fermentation smell. I almost fainted. All the dough was dripping everywhere. It was the worst day in my life. I think I worked 22 hours that day making the bread again and cleaning everything. It wasn’t funny then, but now, I think, ‘Wow.’ [Laughs]”
CC: What attracted you to the field of baking as opposed to other work in the kitchen?
“For myself, it’s more animated. There’s something very similar [to martial arts], the discipline you have around it. After a night of partying and not sleeping, baking bread is not good. You can’t do this. You have to be focused. You have to dedicate yourself to the bread. It’s very important, because if you miss a step in baking, you will never have the same result.
“When I ended my judo career, it was difficult for me to know what to do [next]. I studied business, but I wasn’t interested in it. I choose this, because I feel great and it’s challenging. The bread changes, the weather changes, the humidity changes, the flour changes. Visiting different countries, traveling, working with different kind of flour from around the world.
“I don’t have a routine, because every day I have to change my organization, the way to make the bread, the recipes. The hydration is not the same, because of the weather. When I go to Mexico or Florida, it’s not the same. I have to feel the dough, feel the bread to see what it needs.”
CC: Is it something you learn over time? I mean, they don’t teach you that in school, right?
“No. In school, you learn the basics. They talk a little about it. At the beginning of my career, I was doing the same thing every day and the bread wasn’t the same, wasn’t good. Sometimes it was fantastic. I asked myself, ‘What did I do to make this bread wonderful or wrong?’ I was doing the same thing every day, so I didn’t understand. So I started to investigate and see the influence of the weather, the humidity. I started to fix and change all my recipes, the fermentation, the way to make the bread.”
CC: What’s a typical day for you?
“I start at 3 am. I see my organization, what I have to do. The first thing I check is the weather. I start to bake my bread, see which kind of bread is ready to bake and which has to wait a little more. I’m not the kind of person who does something and waits. I manage my day and organize my day. I’m baking and proofing and shaping at the same time. I finish something and I start something else. My morning is like this: I mix, I shape, and I bake.
“So when I start in the morning, the first thing I need to have is a coffee. I have to wake up.”
CC: It’s still dark out!
“Yes, it’s very dark. Usually the weekends are busier. So we have to bake a lot of bread for the restaurant and some wholesale.”
CC: Do you supply bread for other places?
“We used to supply for more restaurants, but we stopped doing this. So every day, I try to have different kinds of bread. On the weekends, we have chocolate bomboloni, chocolate brioche, milk chocolate and hazelnut bread, Parmesan cheese bread, and olive bread. During the week, I also change it a bit.”
CC: And you’re also exploring a lot in creating new types of breads. How does that process work when you’re trying a new recipe?
“It’s like, I’m thinking about a product. For example, when it was raspberry [season], I took raspberries and dried them and made a bread with raspberries. I work a lot like this. I try to have seasonal fruit in my bread. I like working with nuts, working with different kinds of flour. I have a cereal bread with a blend I [create]; it’s not a blend you find everywhere. I mix sesame seeds or sunflowers, flax seed and crack wheat, not in equal parts, but as a balanced whole. Roasted. I like roasting my cereal. You don’t have these hard seeds; I soak them in hot water, so it melts inside the bread. I like to play with the flavor.”
CC: Can you talk about the natural rising process that you use?
“Fifteen years ago, when I started to bake at school, we did a sourdough leaven. I kept my base of leaven and I travel with it. So the leaven I have downstairs is 15 years old.
“With one pound, you add one pound of water and two pounds of flour. So you can have small pieces or you refresh and you have more. And after, it just grows.
“I started this sourdough with organic honey, organic apple, organic grapes and hot water. So basically I refresh this sourdough every day with hot water and once a week with some honey. I use most of this sourdough with my bread. The sourdough is something that raises the bread, but at the same time, it gives you a flavor.
“Back in the day, no one had yeast. Everyone was making bread and keeping a piece of this bread and using it the next day. It was a kind of fermented dough that becomes sour over time. So it wasn’t the typical yeast that people use now.
“So I use an old style technique to make my bread. It’s healthier. It’s more natural. You can keep the bread longer. It’s not this kind of bread that will be hard after three hours or mushy if it’s rainy outside. This is the kind of bread you should not eat; it’s not healthy.”
CC: You also mentioned the natural rising is from apples and berries.
“Yes. Basically, it’s like wine. We take grapes and after it ferments, create alcohol. Sourdough is the same. When you take these grapes and apples, and mix them with honey and hot water, it creates a fermentation. You can see all these bubbles coming up. It starts to get moldy and you smell the sourness. And after, you can keep it all your life.
“Back in the day, all the women, when they have a daughter and the daughter was getting married, the gift was a piece of sourdough to make bread for the husband and kids. In Europe, it was like this.”
CC: What is the difference between sourdough and an instant yeast?
“Rushing the process. I’m not rushing the process. If my bread is not ready, I take my time. If I need one more hour to shape, one more hour to bake, because my bread needs more time to rise, or to be ready to be baked, I just wait. I will never rush the process. It’s very, very important. The quality of the bread will never be the same. It’s very important for me that my product has a consistency all day, every day.”
CC: Gluten-free is a relatively new trend. What’s the relationship between that and your bread?
“Basically, I think people have the wrong idea about this, because not a lot of people have Celiac disease. There is small percentage of people who have the real Celiac, the real allergy. People are confused between sensitivity and allergy to gluten. You need gluten to make bread. Without gluten, the connection between the flour and water would not exist. So I have some customers that come here and say, ‘I cannot eat bread, because I have this sensitivity to gluten. I say, ‘Just try my bread and let me know how you feel.’ They come back every day and have my bread.”
CC: [Laughs] Would you ever make gluten-free bread though?
“Yes, I did. In Spain, I did. When you do a gluten-free bread, your room has to be totally gluten-free. In Barcelona, you have people with true Celiac disease. They cannot eat gluten. So we had this closed room with gluten-free products.”
CC: Why do you think that is more common in Barcelona than here?
“In Barcelona, they have the biggest population of people with Celiac. Some people move to Barcelona for this; they have the biggest hospital that specializes in treating Celiac disease.”
CC: How much bread do you make in one day?
“I make between 350 and 500 pieces of bread, depending on the day. The weekend is more like 500. During the week, around 400. And it’s just by hand.”
CC: What’s the most bread you’ve made in one day?
“A lot. More than a thousand. In Florida, I had 50 bakers working for me. The bakery never stopped; it was 24 hours a day. Sometimes we had orders for 20,000 loaves.”
CC: Wow. That’s a lot.
“Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s not the same. I mean you can have good quality, but so many people are touching the dough, you cannot control everything. We had a very good percentage of very good bread, but some people are not looking for quality, but just cheap, soft bread. We had this kind of client too.
“Some people don’t believe in bread. For me, where I’m from, especially in Europe, the bread is very important. You go to the restaurant, a three-star restaurant, they have the top of the line bread. The bread and the wine have to be very good. Otherwise, how can you sit in the restaurant [with] a big chef and not have real bread on the side? If I were a chef in a restaurant, bread for me would be very, very important, as important as a good bottle of wine.
“It’s the first thing you have on your table. If you start with something that’s like ‘Wow, this is a bread!’ then you can enjoy your dinner, your dessert and your drinks. It opens your appetite, I think. If it starts with a good quality bread, I know I chose the right place and I know I’m going to have a great meal.”
CC: What do you think makes your bread special or more unique than other bread?
“The patience and the love I put in it. It’s my work. It’s not something I do for a paycheck or because I need to work. It’s my career. It’s my choice. And I love to make bread. When I wake up in the morning, it can make my day or ruin my day. If I have a day when the bread is not being good, I’m upset. And when I have a beautiful bread, it makes me very happy. It’s something I like to make.
“It’s similar to coffee. I have a friend who is a coffee roaster. He told me, the coffee will take the ambiance and everything around it, and you feel it in the coffee. The bread is the same. When I make bread, it takes in the energy around it. Basically, when you take your time and you like what you’re doing, when you eat the bread, you can feel it: He likes his job and he likes what he’s doing.
“It’s because I do everything by hand. The only machine I have is a mixer. I mix a big quantity of dough, so I cannot mix it by hand. But after, I don’t have a divider or shaper. I shape by hand. I put my bread with a peel inside the oven. When I was in Barcelona, it was the same. I like to work like this, very old style.
“I like when people like what I’m doing. I put a lot of energy, a lot of patience in my product. So hopefully, people feel it.”
CC: How would you describe your kitchen philosophy?
“I would say simple ingredients and good results. I don’t like things when they’re too complicated. I never put thousands of stuff. It’s just flour, salt, water and sourdough. Very natural. After, if I do something special, I will have a mix of seeds, but I don’t believe in 15 different kinds of seeds. You will never have them all in your mouth. So I like simple ingredients.”
CC: So you’re from France, you’ve lived in London, Spain and now the States. How do you think the bread differs in those places?
“I didn’t feel any difference with London, because London is very close to France. Spain, yes. Because Spain has a lot of character, Spanish people, especially Barcelona. Big families loving this big loaf of bread. So you have to adapt not your recipe, but maybe the kind of bread you make. So I enjoy working in Spain, because I’m from the south, close to Spain. When I moved to Paris, we were doing this crazy bread: cheese, nuts. London was this way too. You have to play with the flavor for people to like the bread. Where I’m from, people have real interest in the bread. But we just have simple bread, like a country loaf. I grew up with this four-pound dark crusty bread. You cut a thick slice and put butter on top. This was your breakfast, your teatime, and sometimes dinner with a bowl of soup. I feel it was the same in Spain.
“The United States is different. New York is different, also. New York is like every big city, more like Paris. You have to adapt your bread for the community that you have. In Miami, the Latin community likes sweet bread, soft bread.”
CC: Since you’ve adapted so much, do you have specialty bread that you’re known for?
“My specialty is all bread with sourdough. Very big bread with old flour. I like to work with buckwheat, spelt, rye flour, stock ground flour. These flours are very powerful. With spelt, you can smell it everywhere. I like these old, old breads. I guess it’s my specialty.”
CC: What is your favorite way to eat bread?
“Very simple way. Just with butter and that’s it. [Laughs]”
CC: When do you have breakfast? You wake up so early.
“Yes, sometimes, at 7 o’clock, we have a piece of bread with some butter, and coffee. We have a little snack.
“I think I like the simple way to eat bread. I grew up on a farm. I’m 35 years old, but when I say this to people, they’re like, ‘No way.’ I was going to the farm with a bucket and coming back to my house with milk from the cow. My mom was boiling the milk, taking the cream from the top. And my neighbor was making butter. And I remember all my life, these memories with my parents. Cutting the bread, this flavorful country bread, with this butter on top. I miss this flavor sometimes. [Laughs]
“When I go to France, it’s the first thing I do: have bread and butter.”
CC: So do you think growing up on a farm has led you to this path as a baker?
“Maybe. Back in the day, when I was young, if you told me I would become a bread baker, I would say no. When I started, I thought it was just work for the summer.
“So I helped him during the day. He was very happy, because I tried to do my best, because he was by himself. He hired me for the whole summer.
“I decided to stay with it [learning for another] 18 months. Four months after I start, when I start to be better and understand more, I like it a lot. It made me happy, really. And it was like, ‘Wow. I want to do this.’
“The baker in Bordeaux offered for me a contract, but I refused. I said, ‘I want to learn more. I want to travel. I want to go to school and have my degree as a bread baker.’ So he understood.
“So I did my schooling in Paris, had my degree and started to work and learn more and more and more. I think you never stop learning, in baking, especially with bread. A lot of people make very good bread. It’s a very good job. It’s a very odd job, but it’s very good. It gives you a lot of satisfaction. You can be proud of yourself at the end of the day. I’m proud of what I did and what I’m doing.”
CC: What’s something new that you learned about bread making?
“When I moved to the United States, I remember the first bread I made. I have my background and knowledge from Europe. I put my flour and my water in the mixer, and thought, ‘What’s wrong with the dough?’ I thought I made a mistake. I called one of my friends, ‘I don’t understand what I did.’ He said, ‘You have to see what is in your flour: how much protein.’
“Basically, in France, you ask for bread flour and we have a number: 345, 355, 365. And here it was totally different. I had to find the right flour to do the right bread, the one I like and the one I want.”
CC: How has the craft of bread making changed over the years?
“Bread was something very natural, very important for people. If I speak about French people, the French revolution started because of bread. The king put a tax on the bread, so the bread became expensive and no one could buy the bread. It started a revolution.
“They were calling the king and queen, the bakers. Back in the day, the bread was very good quality. And after WWII, when there was a baby boom, everyone was consuming a lot. Bakers produced more and when they produced more, the quality went down. They started to rush the process. You can find this in Portugal and Spain, especially in the south. The bread was bad, very white, no flavor. Most of the bread was frozen.
“After the 90s, people start to understand and miss good quality bread, and to understand how to eat well, to be healthy. We talk more about sourdough, organic flour. People start to understand why it’s important to eat well. We talk more about sickness, cancer, when people are worried about why we have this—maybe because of the food. Because of the quality of life you had before that you don’t have now.
“The quality of the bread changed. Now it’s much, much better. I think 10 years from now, we will have very good quality of bread. I mean, everywhere.”
CC: What’s your favorite bread?
“I like ciabatta. And I like stone ground bread. It’s very natural, very flavorful. There’s a famous bakery in France called Poilâne. They have this big bread baked with stone ground flour baked in a wood-fire oven.”
CC: What’s next for you?
“The next step, hopefully, is to open my own bakery. I don’t know when. I don’t know where. But I would love to open something in New York. I’m not crazy about having 10,000 kinds of breads. I would like to have this place where you can have a very good breakfast with beautiful croissants. I’m not this kind of baker who thinks, ‘I’m French, so I have to have French baguettes.’
“I traveled a lot in my life and [have] influences from everywhere. I would like products from everywhere, everything organic, everything from scratch. Yes, I’m French, but [I’m] from everywhere in the world. My parents are from Algeria. I was born and grew up in the south of France where they have Italian, Spanish and Portuguese in my neighborhood. I lived in Paris. I’m more thinking about international flavors, but important for me, very natural. So this will be my next step.
“My life is very simple: traveling and baking. When I wake up in the morning, I’m happy to go to work. I find my balance. I think I am very lucky. I see a lot of people unhappy about their job, what they’re doing.
“I’m happy. Bread is something very important to me. Bread is kind of like life, bringing life to everybody, something living all the time. You can feel it. You have to control the fermentation; you have to control the baking. It’s not something that you leave and come back. It’s not pastry. You can make pastry at home. Making bread at home is very difficult. It’s not a recipe you can follow. People ask me for a recipe, but I say, ‘I can’t give you a recipe.’ You can have the same recipe I have, but you will never make the same bread. It’s impossible. You have your hands and your feelings. I have my hands and my feelings.
“Benjamin and another baker take care of the bread when I’m off on Sunday and Monday. Why on Sunday and Monday is the bread not the same? Because we don’t have the same feelings.”
CC: But don’t different people just make different breads?
“Yes. You also have to like what you’re doing. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you will never be a good baker or good cook. If you don’t like to cook, don’t try to be a cook. When I have bread and I see the baker, I’m not surprised. I know exactly [how] the baker is when I see the way he baked the bread, the quality of his bread. Sometimes I want to say to a baker, ‘Try to find something you like.’ I can tell you’re not happy. I can tell you woke up this morning and you’re tired. Food is the same.
“My flour is not a magic flour. My ingredients are the same. It’s not about ingredients or the recipe; it’s about you and your feelings. I feel I’m a baker, and I feel I will be a bread baker for all my life. It’s something I chose. It’s something I found. This is more my secret. I think I was born to be a bread baker.”
CC: Yes, I think so.
Interview and photos by Kara Chin