Jim Lahey is having a teaching moment. His classroom is the flour-hazed kitchen of his Hell’s Kitchen–situated Sullivan St Bakery. His students this morning are Alvaro and Dumbia, two employees whose dismaying pizza bianca alla Romana technique has agitated the master. Seeing that the six-foot-long flatbread they just slid into the oven contained invisible-to-the-lay-eye “thumb divots,” the 45-year-old scourge of bread “mediocrity” decides to show how it’s done.
Lahey, who looks like Bruce Willis might if he went on a zero-carb diet and started wearing Crocs, has taken to studying the movie Master and Commander for its leadership lessons, which seem to boil down to a 21st-century landlubber version: Meet my high standard or walk the plank. Working quickly and fluidly, he stretches out another six-footer, carefully using the flats of his palms. Then he “docks” the bread, dimpling it with a shallow-tissue finger massage that will keep it from inflating like pita. “What’s nice about bread at its best,” Lahey says, “is it expresses craftsmanship.”
Ten minutes later, the apprentice bakers’ pizza bianca comes out of the oven, charred and lunar and exuding deliciousness. Unless you are Lahey. “These big bubbles—that’s what we do not want. We do not want this. This is a defect.” He gestures clinically at an errant fraction of the bread where it has puffed up a little. “If I had to rate this, on a scale of one to ten? Five. Passable. Commercial. But not the highest standard.”
Alvaro and Dumbia smile sheepishly. A few minutes later, arguably the best bread baker in New York City peels his own bianca out of the oven. A slight improvement, but part of it he finds “too flat.” Lahey rates his own creation a 5.5.
Amid New York’s current bread renaissance, with its upstart microbakeries like Bien Cuit and La Boulangerie, no one’s flour-dusted fingerprints are as evident as those of Jim Lahey. As the man behind both artisanal-Italianate Sullivan St Bakery and beloved charred-crust-specialist Co. pizzeria, Lahey has been at the forefront of both the nineties New York quality bread-quake and the more recent tomato-pie wars. Lahey is the rare dough-slinging craftsman known beyond his industry. He belongs to the tiny club of restaurateurs who have dared publicly criticize their reviews by the Times. (He unhumbly suggested that perhaps Frank Bruni would prefer the pizza at Ray’s.) His stunningly easy “no-knead” bread recipe, publicized as “revolutionary” by Mark Bittman in 2006, made Lahey into a kind of DIY folk hero. But it’s his own bread, served everywhere from Jean Georges to Gramercy Tavern to the Breslin, that set the bar for the new generation. The renowned food writer Corby Kummer has called Sullivan St his favorite New York City bakery, and earlier this year Bon Appétit named it one of the ten best in the U.S.
Lahey seems to have been born with a grenade pin in his mouth. After being kicked out of art school by a dean he says threatened to defenestrate him—“I said, ‘If you lay a finger on me, I will rip your balls out through your fucking eye sockets and I will shit in your mouth’ ”—Lahey made several trips to Italy, including nine months in the Tuscan countryside, learning to love bread. In San Gimignano, he soaked leaves in water, releasing their light coating of wild yeast and using the resulting solution to make the starter that has generated his bread for the past eighteen years. (Proud-parent style, he pulls out his iPhone and shows off a picture of his yeast, a microscopic tableau of cellular balloons and rods he was recently e-mailed by a Harvard genetics professor he had been hooked up with by author-gastroethicist Michael Pollan.)
Back in New York and scraping by in Williamsburg—one year, by his count, he held 37 different jobs—he largely taught himself to bake, and in 1994, with backing from the restaurateur Joe Allen, he opened Sullivan St Bakery in Soho. His bread was a mahogany revelation. Caramelized to the verge of burnt, it was intensely crusty on the outside and pillowy on the inside. The Lahey style, and the shapes and terms through which he expressed it (Pugliese, filone, stirato), is now ubiquitous. It wasn’t just that Lahey’s bread was as fine as any you might find in Rome. Part of the pleasure of his baking was its sense of playfulness, his imaginative riff on Italian tradition: One of his latest innovations is the canotto, or “dinghy”—an addictive little boat of salty-sweet dough filled with, for example, mascarpone, Gruyère, and prosciutto. His wholesale customers came to include Dean & DeLuca and Gourmet Garage. By 2000, he had expanded from the original shop to a larger space in Hell’s Kitchen, and by around 2004 annual revenue had risen to $4.5 million.