If you drive down Cary Parkway you'll see La Farm Bakery near the corner of High House Road, sandwiched between the Carvel Ice Cream shop and a dry cleaner in the ABC Plaza. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but step inside and you can smell the nutty, slightly sweet aroma of freshly baked bread, hear the lilt of French accents, and taste the perfect almond croissant.
Open since 1999, La Farm is owned by Maitre Boulanger (master baker) Lionel Vatinet and his wife, Missy. Broad and strong-shouldered, with big brown eyes and only the thinnest layer of hair, Lionel Vatinet looks like he has spent hours kneading dough. He has. After seven years of hands-on training, he earned his prestigious French title in 1990 before coming to the United States in 1991. Since then, he has consulted with start-up bakeries and in-store baking and manufacturing par-baked programs to help them combine quality with profitability. In 1999, he helped train Baking Team USA to win the World Cup of Baking.
Now La Farm is in the spotlight. On Feb. 28, Triangle-area Whole Foods stores began carrying Vatinet's Asiago-Parmesan, Cheddar-Jalapeno, Ciabatta, White Chocolate Mini Baguette and sourdough La Farm, as well as his Hearth Baked Granola. A month later, on March 29, Rachel Ray featured his oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip cookies as the "snack of the day" on her TV show.
For the Vatinets, the partnership and the media attention come at a good—albeit busy—time; they are planning to open a second Triangle store later this year.
The Cary bakery is filled with raspberry cream tarts, baguettes stuffed with roma tomatoes and mozzarella, even coffee and hot chocolate, but the large round loaves of sourdough called La Farm are Vatinet's signature.
Each five-pound boule represents centuries of French tradition. For generations, villagers throughout France used community ovens to bake wheels of hearty, whole-grain bread that could feed their families for up to a week. This thick-crusted round loaf—not the baguette—is the real French bread that inspired Pierre Poilane to open his Parisian bakery in 1932. His son, also a baker named Lionel, made the old-style bread world-famous and planted the seeds of America's ongoing bread revival.
When Vatinet was a young boy, his father took a picture of him standing in front of a sourdough boule, his nose crust height, a big smile on his face. A simple photograph at the time, it hints at Vatinet's long love affair with bread and baking.
At 17, he discovered he liked working with his hands. He explored manual vocations like ceramics and masonry, and after choosing baking as his trade, joined the Campagnons de Devoir, an elite craftsman's guild with roots in the Middle Ages.
Modern-day campagnon societies train young French men and women in almost 100 trades through an ancient apprentice system that includes a six- to eight-year training period known as the Tour de France.
Vatinet's tour took him to almost 10 bakeries, where he learned to use different techniques, tools and materials by day, then studied his trade at night before completing the masterwork that earned him his title. It also introduced him to a profession and a way of life in which the oldest bakers guide the youngest, passing down age-old secrets from person to person.
"I thank the Campagnons every day for the tools they gave me," he says.
All bread, be it sourdough, Ciabatta or rye, is made from flour, water, salt and yeast. Watching these four ingredients metamorphose into myriad tastes and textures is one of the joys of baking; the process by which they make this transformation is one of its mysteries.
True to his French upbringing, Vatinet believes bread should be shared, and he has spent the past 17 years trying to dispel the myths that surround it. He teaches people to bake hot cross buns, Irish soda and Italian bread as well as sourdough at La Farm and all over the country. One of his goals for the bakery is to be, in Missy's words, "the Hallmark of food," to create special products, like an Easter challah or a Cinco de Mayo tart, for different holidays and special occasions.
"We want to create what customers will want to take home to share with their families," Vatinet says.
Every time Vatinet teaches, he makes sure his students touch the dough. "Baking with feeling, this is very important," he says. "With no touch, you lose the soul of the bread."
Like Poilane's pain au levain, Vatinet's La Farm bread is naturally leavened, which means its yeast is grown through a process called fermentation.
"Fermentation is the key to quality," he says, "and fermentation means time."
Vatinet starts the process by using a tiny portion of flour and water to create a live yeast culture. After about 10 days, the pale-yellow, slightly sour-smelling mix starts to bubble and froth.
"This is the mother, the spirit of the bread, and you must treat it properly," he says.
Now the bread is ready to travel its three-day journey to the oven. On Day One, Vatinet "feeds" his dough by adding flour once every 10 hours. "It's like a three-course meal; you need at least six to eight hours to digest," he says. Day Two is for mixing and shaping the loaves, and on Day Three the dough is refrigerated for 12-16 hours before it is baked.
La Farm uses a mixer, so the operation is mechanized, but 95 percent of the shaping is done by hand. "We are an artisan bakery," Vatinet says. "We believe direct contact with the dough is important; we respect fermentation and we take the time to develop a beautiful loaf of bread."
The crusty sourdough boule that emerges from the oven is honey-brown with a satisfyingly chewy texture and mild tangy taste. When you squeeze it and breathe in the aroma, it smells sharp and outdoors fresh, almost like freshly cut wheat.
Vatinet came to the United States to help a struggling Washington, D.C., bakery, then moved to California to work as an instructor and executive baker at the San Francisco Baking Institute. It was there, while teaching a class, that he met his wife, Missy. She worked for Eatsies, a gourmet grocery store based in Dallas, and was looking for a baker.
"I took his class and fell in love, head over heels," Missy says.
Before long the two were married and planning to open a business of their own. After considering locations all over the country, they decided on Cary.
"We couldn't afford the West Coast and New York City felt too fast," Missy says. "We chose Cary because it is a growing market with an international community, and we like the lifestyle."
Their timing was perfect.
Frank and Maureen Ferrell had started Durham's Ninth Street Bakery in 1981 to give people a healthy alternative to machine-mixed, mass-produced bread. The bakery, which is still open today, helped launch the Ninth Street renaissance using local ingredients like eggs from Latta's Egg Ranch and flour from Lindley Mills.
Steve Cameron, who now manages 85 employees at the Triangle's Whole Foods bakehouse, started working at the bakery six months after it opened. "It was a great gathering place," he remembers. "It was also the first Triangle bakery to do whole grain bread that was all natural. Most other bakeries made bread with a mix that was full of preservatives."
Throughout the '80s, while alternative businesses flocked to Ninth Street, West Coast bakers like Steve Sullivan of The Acme Bread Company began using European baking techniques to create the first American wave of artisan bread.
The word artisan is now used so often, it's almost meaningless. But most experienced bakers will tell you that true artisan bread has been produced in some way by hand. "Beyond that," writes Maggie Glezer in her book Artisan Baking Across America, "artisan bread is most likely to be European-style bread, sometimes sourdough, sometimes not."
By 1990, Lex Alexander and Rob Nichols were both making plans to bring these hearth breads to the Triangle. Alexander and his wife, Ann, were the original owners of Wellspring Grocery. After they sold the business to Whole Foods, he recruited New York City artisan baker Michael London to help open the Whole Foods bakehouse in 1992. Nichols studied at the San Francisco Baking Institute and apprenticed with its founder, Michel Suas, before becoming the bread baker at Weaver Street's newly opened bakery in the fall of 1993.
Then Claudia Cooper and Hartmut Jahn opened Durham's Guglhupf Bakery and Patisserie in 1998, selling naturally leavened loaves of sourdough and rye bread along with cakes, tarts and croissants.
By the time La Farm opened, the Triangle had changed from a collection of sleepy Southern towns into a major metropolitan area where residents searched for and enjoyed crusty European-style bread.
The first time Ana Vandewater, the store team leader for Whole Foods' Cary store, tasted La Farm bread, it reminded her of bread she had tasted in Paris.
In an effort to bring more local vendors into her store, she invited store team leaders from Raleigh, Cary, Durham and Chapel Hill to taste Vatinet's products. After they approved, she led the effort to get his bread on the shelves in all Triangle-area Whole Foods stores.
Today, the five breads are baked then cooled at La Farm seven days a week before being delivered to the Whole Foods bake house, where trucks pick them up for distribution to the four stores.
"The customers love the bread; we often sell out immediately," Vandewater says. "I think many of them are happy they can get La Farm products here, so they don't have to drive to Cary."
Although La Farm is not the only Triangle area bread on Whole Foods' shelves—they sell pita bread from Raleigh's Neomonde Bakery as well as Ninth Street Bakery products—the partnership comes about at a time when people are looking to buy local products, and Whole Foods has been criticized for not carrying them.
The company's co-founder and CEO John Mackey responded last summer by announcing a $10 million initiative to support local farmers with long-term, low-interest loans. At the same time, he called for a shift in product mix over the next 10 years. Ten percent of Whole Foods products are from local vendors; his plans are to increase that number to 30 percent by 2016.
Teresa Jones, associate marketing coordinator for the company's seven Carolina stores, says that while they are actively seeking new sources for local products, the stores already carry hundreds of them.
"I think the perception is different because we haven't been as active at pointing out these local products as we could have been," she says.
In Cary, Vandewater wants to offer her customers a variety of baked goods that includes local products, and she feels lucky to have Vatinet's bread in the mix.
The partnership works well for La Farm, because it helps increase their name recognition. "We also share many of the same values," Missy Vatinet says.
La Farm uses unbleached and unbromated flour for healthier bread, and they also get ingredients from local farmers like Bobby and Linda Melvin, who grow 175 varieties of herbs at Melvin's Gardens in Franklin County.
"Each time my husband delivers to La Farm, they send him home with a loaf of bread made with our herbs," Linda Melvin says.
For now, the partnership with Whole Foods has changed little at Vatinet's bakery—La Farm still bakes between 800 and 1,500 loaves a day in one four-deck oven.
"We hired a new baker, but not just for Whole Foods," he says. "It takes time to train someone, so we are proactive."
Vatinet now employs one part-time and three full-time bakers. He joins them each midnight when they arrive at La Farm to start mixing and shaping the bread that will be sold later that day. At 6 a.m. they are still joking and teasing one another—all in French—as they take the croissants, baguettes and round sourdough boules from the oven.
Vatinet admits the hours are long, but he can't imagine doing anything else. "Baking is like a force in you, a way of life," he says.
For him, the reward is watching customers' expressions when they bite into a croissant or a loaf of La Farm.
"To see them realize 'This is bread, this is what it can be....' When I can share that with people, it gives me pleasure."
In interest of full disclosure, the writer is married to a former Whole Foods executive.