If La Farm Bakery in Cary cornered the world’s bread market, there would be less use for spreadable butter. That’s because the bakery’s bread demands little accessory. Lionel Vatinet, a master who creatively unites the traditions of French baking with new and ever-changing local flavors, opened La Farm 13 years ago with his wife Missy.
Located on Cary Parkway, the crowded dining room at La Farm, and later the bread Vatinet offers me in the kitchen, proves the place worthy of a quick jaunt from Raleigh. Inside the nondescript exterior — a tribute to Cary’s overall aversion to architectural individuality — La Farm is bright and, for lack of a more masculine term, cozy. A place off a major road, the café manages to maintain the atmosphere of an eatery people might stroll into off an avenue.
On a recent Sunday, as Vatinet and I stood over a wooden table in the kitchen, a slab that wore the pale varnish of flour, the house was full — tables in the café were surrounded by well-dressed churchgoers, more recently awakened faces ordered coffee and people sat on the patio behind an enclosure the warm day rendered unnecessary.
“After 13 years the spark is still there,” Vatinet said. “And we continue to want to innovate and enjoy and share the bread we make every single day.”
The bread he makes isn’t regular bread, like a loaf you’d find bagged in a store, and it’s not simply an offering of the café. La Farm began as a bread retailer and the café was added three years ago to compliment the bread, he explained. The bread is the heart of his operation.
Vatinet has been in the United States for 20 years. Prior to settling in Cary, he worked around the globe, in the Caribbean, England and Paris. In 1995 he was the founding instructor at The San Francisco Baking Institute, a school offering artisanal bread and baking instruction that is still in operation today, and eventually made his way east, working, teaching and consulting.
La Farm Bakery is the product of his life’s passion — something he said would not be possible without his wife.
“What you see is her. What you taste is me,” he said, proving that the foundation of a marriage is, both in America and a sea away in France, a man’s ability to know his role.
Besides offering customers a great product and a unique experience, La Farm also offers baking classes. The mission of La Farm is to teach the fundamentals of baking bread and continue traditions many generations older than the country he now calls home.
“There is no secret here,” he said. “Here we have to share. We are going to give people knowledge to empower them. We are here to teach and to educate. I can give you the recipe and you can Google it but it doesn’t mean you know how to do it.”
He speaks often of a guild he is a part of, a collection of bakers committed to sharing techniques, successes and experiences. He passes along the fundamentals and encourages others to build from that with flavors of their own choosing.
“The beauty of baking is that we work with four ingredients — one is yeast. So you can teach them and they go home with it and what they make is going to be their own interpretation,” he said. “The essence of baking is fermentation. It takes a lifetime to understand it.”
A baking class with Vatinet will not prepare one to open a bakery, but it will pass along the basics of baking, like learning a chord on a guitar, still months away from a song and a portion of your life away from being considered a musician, but underway nonetheless. He compares baking to brewing beer — as craft brewers continue to pop up and gain footing, with a remarkable number of people having surrendered a bathtub or closet to a hopeful recipe. Baking is turning building blocks, information a baker like Vatinet is happy to pass along, and constructing a house.
After hearing about his history and his mission to share his craft with as many people as he can, he brings out bread — a lot of bread. We try La Farm’s signature sourdough boule, a multi-grain and a whole wheat. He sources some of his specialty grains from North Carolina. Vatinet bakes 15 different styles daily and adds more than 20 seasonal varieties throughout the year. He teaches me to squeeze the bread, smell it and use the whole of my mouth to eat it.
“Like wine,” he said, while I nodded with a full mouth.
Vatinet offers up an asiago-parmesan bread, a white chocolate mini baguette, a cinnamon, raisin and pecan loaf and a milder Italian bread. Each looks pre-determined, which is remarkable in that baking is irregular, yeast is temperamental, but each thing Vatinet produces looks as though I imagine he imagined it.
“You eat with all your senses,” he reiterated, as I sniff and chew.
Vatinet plans to publish his first artisanal bread cookbook in the fall of 2013 and La Farm is currently operating a bread truck to reach more people. A visit to La Farm and a meal centered on their bread leads to a new appreciation for an art that has fed both kings and peasants alike forever.
I left La Farm with enough bread to relieve the hunger of a small brigade and did not stop on the way home for butter.