You know you’re talking to a serious baker when their sourdough starter has a name. “Stan” is what baker Natali Harea calls her container of culture that flavours and leavens her dark, super-tangy sourdough loaves.
You might say that Stan is part of the reason that customers are swooning over the bread baskets at a some of the foodiest restaurants, including gezellig, play, and Navarra.
She came up with the name Stan while chatting with her friend and fellow chef, Katie Brown at Beckta Dining & Wine (Harea worked at Beckta for a year and a half before dedicating herself exclusively to bread baking). She had finally tossed out an old sourdough starter that Harea says never properly matured (“I hated it and it died”), but says her new starter has been wonderful and tremendously forgiving. “I don’t even have to feed it and it’s just incredibly reliable.”
The two chefs decided a man like that would be called Stan.
In fact, Stan was a contender for the name of Harea’s bakery, but her family and other business advisors convinced her to go with something more straightforward. Five months ago, she launched Nat’s Bread Company from the basement of Westboro’s new dining hot-spot gezellig — her first dedicated client. She rents the gezellig kitchen space “after hours” and bakes bread fresh daily for McKeen’s Metro as well as the trio of Stephen-Beckta-led restaurants, among others.
When the gezellig staff is clearing out of the kitchen around midnight, Harea is just arriving. She bakes loaves — about 8 to 10 at a time — all night and then in the morning hops in her car and delivers the bread to clients. It has completely inverted her workday from the years spent working in restaurant kitchens from noon until midnight. She sleeps during the daytime and then has dinner with her boyfriend before going into work all night. “I’m starting to get used to it,” she says.
While Harea learned the basics of baking as part of Algonquin’s culinary program and did a stage for a few months at The French Baker where she learned about shaping breads, she says she is largely self-taught. She learned the step-by-step of various breads by working her way though the book The Bread Bible and visiting the forums of www.thefreshloaf.com.
Working with Chef Rene Rodriguez when he was at Black Cat Cafe, and later as sous-chef for Trish Donaldson, she was known for making wonderful breads. Rodriguez asked her to join his kitchen team as the baker when he opened Navarra, and she did. She went on to cook at Beckta but always knew she wanted to open her own bakery. When Stephen Beckta was preparing to open gezellig, he offered her the opportunity to make that dream a reality.
There was a sense of deja-vu when I visited Harea in the restaurant’s basement one evening last week: the 27-year-old reminded me of a young Kevin Mathieson who began here by baking breads by himself overnight in the back of the defunct Henry Burger kitchen. That was seven years ago and Art-is-in Bakery was about to set a new standard for good quality artisan breads in this city and change the way many of us eat on a daily basis.
Harea has almost reached the limit of the number of loaves she can produce herself every week without taking her business to the next level and hiring staff. So far her bread line includes the sourdough, a semolina and sesame bread, a four-seed bread, potato bread, and something similar to baguette that restaurants use for crostinis. She says she chooses not to add a lot of flavour elements, things like herbs or cheese, because she prefers to show off the flavour of the bread itself. “My sourdough has a powerful sour, not a timid sour flavour,” she explains.
Rather than opening a retail operation, Harea says she’d like to continue to supply restaurants and focus on that for now. One day “far down the road” she says she might consider a retail space, perhaps in the bakery-starved Westboro neighbourhood.
“I think there’s a lot of people who want good bread.”