But drama ensued. There was a split from his business partner (and former girlfriend), who held on to the original location and renamed it Grandaisy. One of Lahey’s main distributors opened a rival bakery in the Bronx called Il Forno. Both Grandaisy and Il Forno sold product lines indistinguishable from Lahey’s, and Il Forno undercut him on price; he soon saw swathes of his wholesale business cannibalized. “Shameless things were said to get business,” he says with uncharacteristic diplomacy. More of “my imitators” followed. To fight back, he says he engaged in a kind of strategic malingering for three years, deliberately lowering the standard of his bread to appear weaker and throw his adversaries off their game. (He got the idea from Star Trek.) In recent years, Sullivan St–style loaves have become so common that it’s easy to imagine they are imitations of Italian bread rather than Lahey’s idiosyncratic interpretation of it. Lahey professes to be unconflicted about the Lahey-ization of New York bread. “Back then, I was really offended,” he says of one of the more blatant knocker-offers. “Now I’m flattered. Now it’s, ‘Let’s make our bread even better, let’s make sure we give them something difficult to imitate.’ ”
Lahey heads upstairs to his office to meet with a consultant who’s advising Lahey in his attempt to get the bakery LEED-certified. Sullivan St is in transition. Over the past three years, Lahey has shrunk his business by 30 percent, eliminating deadbeat wholesale customers and subpar workers. At the same time, his company is on the verge of expansion. In January, he will open a second Sullivan St Bakery, on Ninth Avenue two doors down the block from his pizzeria Co. Also in the next few months, he will begin renovating the main bakery here on 47th Street. The tiny space for customers will expand to accommodate around 50 seats and serve beer and wine. This office will become what Lahey calls the University of Bread, where he will teach classes in baking and more specialized subjects (microbiology, wheat science). It’s all part of his campaign to undo what he sees as the “bigger is better” culture, first at his own company and then in the industry as a whole.
Those who remember when bread in America came down to a choice between Wonder bread and, if you were lucky enough to live near an old-world-style bakery, maybe a workmanlike baguette could be forgiven for thinking we are living in a bread Belle Époque. Lahey sees only a dark age, a “prevailing culture” of Hot & Crusty and Panera, where corporate chains have appropriated the term artisan. Where the baker has no respect. “I think it’s just above working in a car wash, that’s how glamorous it is,” Lahey says. “Even though it’s the mother and father of all culinary ritual, it’s viewed as the bastard child.” He is frustrated by four-star chefs who serve no-star bread. “Even Eric Ripert and Daniel Humm, I hate to say it, they buy the most horrific bread in the world. I tell them, either hire me or poach someone who works for me.” He is fed up with disrespectful customers. “I don’t want to say anything negative about any of my customers, but I’ve got some amazing customers that are behaving so inappropriately, not paying their bills. A great example would be a certain historic Upper West Side gourmet marketplace.”
Partly because he’s fundamentally an artist and partly because he is a competitive businessman, Lahey has continued to evolve what he does. Once everyone else started making Sullivan St–style bread, Lahey began using his no-knead method, which for a time was his method for making all his bread (and which, as a collateral benefit, released home bread-makers across America from the tyranny of the bread machine). Now he has shifted his emphasis away from no-knead and toward using all-natural fermentation. Lahey was drawn to this method because it dates to bread’s preindustrial age and because, he says, “it makes proteins easier for our bodies to digest.” (To address his own wheat sensitivity, among other ailments, Lahey recently infected himself with hookworm, placing mail-order larvae on his skin under a bandage and waiting for them to burrow into his body and modify his immune system. “Twelve weeks from now, if everything goes well, they’ll be in my lungs and I’ll have a bad cough, but instead of spitting out the worms, I have to swallow them.”)
Lahey is a perfectionist but not a fetishist. He rolls his eyes at such received truths of baking as the superiority of doppio zero flour (“Such bullshit”) and the mystique of the ideal starter (mention of which summons forth an exuberant jerk-off motion). He is constantly experimenting. In his apartment above the bakery, where he lives with his girlfriend, Maya, and their infant daughter, Pia, his jotted thoughts and ideas are markered everywhere—on big white pages tacked near the drum set in his man cave; on the white glass cabinets he has installed in his kitchen—from lists of ingredients (egg yolk, chocolate, chiles, brine pickle) to management principles (“Utilize, deploy, schedule”) to meditations on baking culture (“This lack of standard has led to a failure of the bread industry”). A “really gross stoner experiment” he did was a “trailer pie” featuring Cheez Doodles, Oscar Mayer bacon, and “Tobosco sauce” (half Tabasco, half Bosco chocolate syrup). “I actually came up with it when I wasn’t stoned,” Lahey says. “It was really gross, I have to say, but it was really cool.” One of Lahey’s creative principles, which he inculcates in his employees, is that no matter how bad an experiment turns out, you have to eat at least part of it and find something redeeming in it.
It’s these same non-bottom-line tendencies—Lahey’s speech is salted with references to Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, and “the means of production”—that led Lahey to deliver bread to Zuccotti Park nightly and let firefighters and postal workers pay wholesale at his store. “I love that the Port Authority canine unit buys my bread,” Lahey says, watching one of its vehicles drive away.