When I want to experience a little bit of France in the South, I head to the charming Cary, North Carolina, café known to locals as La Farm Bakery. Once you walk through the doors of this little café tucked away in a nondescript strip mall, you leave the land of sweet tea and Southern biscuits behind, and travel to a country village in France, where the specialty of the house is rustic, homemade farm bread.
I had the opportunity to chat with bakery owner and distinguished master baker Lionel Vatinet on one of my visits to the popular bakery. For fifteen years, this modest Frenchman has been wowing North Carolinians with his homemade bread and pastries.
With 70 employees, the bakery makes about 1,000 loaves of bread a day. La Farm’s bread is sold fresh daily in local Whole Foods grocery stores in my area.
“We make bread while you sleep,” jokes Lionel while I sipped on a café au lait and sampled some of his most popular breads.
Lionel’s business partner and wife, Missy, oversees the daily operation while he prefers to stay in the kitchen teaching his craft to others. He is often referred to as one of the top five bread bakers in the U.S, but he’s the only one who has the honor of saying that he has devoted his entire career to teaching. He was the founding instructor of the San Francisco Baking Institute and recently authored his first bread-making cookbook, Passion for Bread: Lessons from A Master Baker. He teaches his skill around the country and at his bakery in Cary with a special series of classes.
He’s a celebrity among bread lovers and at-home bread makers. Before he took me into the kitchen for a tour, he was stopped by a customer who was from Norway but was in North Carolina visiting family. He had read Lionel’s new book and wanted Lionel to know that he made a point to stop in the bakery to visit while in North Carolina.
His most popular bread sold is his signature La Farm Bread. It’s a five-pound sourdough boule, and it was his chef d’oeuvre in the guild, Les Compagnons du Devoir, where he learned his trade.
“I created it in honor of the many large boules that have been baked in community ovens in tiny little villages all over France for centuries,” Lionel told me as I nibbled on his signature bread.
This particular bread has a long three-day fermentation, and this helps to develop the character and flavor of the bread, according to Lionel. It also has a longer shelf life so it can be enjoyed up to five days, just as they do in homes around the French countryside.
As I ate more bread, Lionel taught me that bread is always best served at room temperature, and it should be a sensory experience.
“Bread is about freshness, a crackling of the crust, and a beautiful texture and aroma. If you smell yeast, then you need to change something. It’s not right.”
He outlines many recipes and tips in his new book and truly enjoys sharing his knowledge.
Q. How did you first get interested in baking?
Lionel: At sixteen I first baked at a little bakery in our village. I was thinking about what I’d do with my life, what sort of training I wanted, so I was trying my hand at different crafts, and as soon as I got into that bakery and started baking, it felt magical. Nothing else matched that experience for me.
Q. Tell us more about Les Compagnons du Devoir, the artisans’ guild where you apprenticed?
Lionel: Les Compagnons du Devoir is a centuries old artisan guild in France. This is where I learned to bake breads from many European Master Bakers. I loved the guild for so many reasons—for its focus on spirituality,travel, and community, and because it mad me who I am today. In the guild, we pledge to devote our lives to teaching, sharing, and preserving the ancient art and science of bread baking.
Q. When selecting the ingredients for bread, what should home bakers look for?
Lionel: When baking breads, you want to use a flour made from hard wheat,so look for something called a “bread flour.” You should also look for an organic flour, and if you can’t find organic, be sure you find unbleached and unbromated (all organic flour is unbleached/unbromated).And try to use a local flour when possible!
Q. What is your favorite bread that you make?
Lionel: I love our 100 percent whole wheat. It’s made from local, organic North Carolina flour, which comes from a miller whose stone-cold milling process is excellent and preserves all parts of the wheat. It’s high in flavor and texture, and it represents something that is really important to me: the collaboration that I’ve had with my miller and wheat farmer. That’s been a powerful and rewarding experience for me and my bakers, and our customers.
For more on Lionel Vatinet, his book, and his bakery, visit La Farm Bakery’s website.
Photos by: Leigh Powell Hines
I live like a tourist in my hometown and my dream is to travel the world one luxury hotel at the time. If you love traveling as much as I do, subscribe to Skimbaco Travel, and never miss any travel content from our site.