Rida Shahin has dough spilling out of containers in his cooler and dough bubbling on his countertops. His bakery is ripe—it smells like yeast—and he is surrounded by hungry starters, starters that need to be fed every 12 hours, no matter what. One of his starters has a Scotch-tape label with the word “new” written on it; another is marked “old.” The “new” was made yesterday. The “old” Shahin made in his home kitchen, out of grapes, water and flour, eight years ago.
Back then, he wasn’t a professional—he was just a fan. He and his wife both had good bread in their pasts—his wife is Polish, he’s Middle Eastern—and they had been searching for a bread they could get behind. Every loaf they found was a disappointment. So Shahin took up the task himself—he looked in a book, found a recipe and made a baguette. The next day, he made another. He tinkered with the flours and made some more. “I was baking every day,” he remembers. “Every day.”
Bread consumed him, and eventually he quit his job as a biologist. (“You don’t see the result for two years in biology,” he reasons. “But in the bakery, you see a loaf of bread.”) He traveled to Minnesota and studied at the National Baking Center, where he immersed himself in an ancient way of breadmaking, where time is the main component. The list of ingredients he refuses to put in his bread (sugar, oil, margarine, fermenters) grew longer than those that he will (flour, yeast, water, salt). He returned to Palatine. He bought a monstrous, expensive French bread oven. And he opened La Farine Bakery.
After a couple of years, Shahin realized the clientele for his breads wasn’t in the suburbs but in the city. So about a year ago, he closed La Farine, took apart his oven, found an abandoned bakery in West Town and set up shop. (This time, instead of flying in an expert to assemble the oven, Shahin did some research and did it himself.)
Hawking his bread from restaurant to restaurant, he started collecting clients quickly: West Town Tavern, Blackbird, Old Town Brasserie. Then he collected some more: Takashi, bin wine café, Piccolo, HotChocolate. Business got so good that he hired some help (no more feeding the starter in the middle of the night himself), but the money wasn’t exactly pouring in.. “It’s a business that does not give you a lot of money,” he says, somehow maintaining his characteristic grin.
When Shahin started baking bread, the price of a 50-pound bag of flour was $8. A few months ago it skyrocketed to $27, and today it has leveled out at $18. Selling $2 loaves of bread was a tough business before prices inflated, but now it’s just getting ridiculous.
If bread makers did get rich—or even just made a decent living—there might be more Shahins in Chicago. But that’s only part of the reason there aren’t more artisan bread makers in town. The difficult, time-consuming art of bread is experiencing a revitalization, but not here, because in Chicago it never really got a proper start in the first place. And that makes for a bread scene that, in the words of Fox & Obel’s Pamela Fitzpatrick, “is horrible.”
Fitzpatrick learned bread in Los Angeles, when she joined the team of the then-fledgling La Brea Bakery. While there, she was mentored by famed baker Nancy Silverton who, over the course of five years, taught Fitzpatrick everything she needed to know about bread. “The nature of being a skilled craftsperson is learning by apprenticeship,” Fitzpatrick says. But “we’re not known in Chicago for having that mastery,” which means that people who really want to become bread makers go to the coasts for their training. (Even the school Shahin attended has since moved to California.) When they’re done with school they often stay on the coasts, contributing to the proliferation of artisan bread makers there and the dearth here.
Today, the best bread in Chicago is in restaurants, either because they carry Shahin’s or Fitzpatrick’s loaves or because, as at L2O, they bake it themselves. But when Shahin opens La Farine Bakery to the public again in a few weeks (this time at 1461 West Chicago Avenue), it can only mean good things. Not only will he be bringing more brioche, ciabatta and sourdough to the public, but he’ll be teaching his assistants the nuances of the art as well. His No. 1 lesson: Good bread takes time and “a lot of patience.” For his customers, however, the wait might soon be shorter than ever.