25 Sep - Against the Grain, in conversation with Zoe Kanan
On a Tuesday afternoon in the Simon and the Whale kitchen, Zoe Kanan, head bread baker and pastry chef, rolls out balls of rich dough into elaborate knots for kaiser rolls. The freshly baked rolls aren’t destined for the restaurant’s burger, which comes on a challah bun, but the breakfast sandwich, a deluxe ode to the classic bodega bacon egg and cheese.
The average person might not give the humble roll much thought, but few New York breads are so critical. While the typical bodega bread does its job to bind a melty morning sandwich, Zoe’s version enhances it. Tangy and rich from the buttermilk dough and baked fresh each day, this is far from the average corner store option.
As Head Bread Baker and Pastry Chef, Zoe churns out a stunning array of bread and pastry with the help of Baker Sous Chef Elky Concepcion. In addition to kaiser rolls, challah buns, and pumpernickel, she also makes the restaurant’s bagels, pastries, sourdough croissants and whatever else the restaurant might require for dishes. While we watched her work on pumpernickel and rolls, she was also working on a new baguette recipe, a famously difficult bread to get right in a full-service bakery, let alone the pastry kitchen adjoining a bustling restaurant.
After she finished prepping doughs, Zoe joined us in the dining room to talk running a bread program, her busy schedule, and her decade of bread and pastry jobs before landing at Simon and the Whale.
Freehand: Did you move to New York to study pastry?
Zoe Kanan: I moved to New York to go to college, but I only went for one semester and then I decided to go back to Houston for the summer after that semester. That’s when I decided that I wanted to go to culinary school. I went to the ICC and graduated when I was 19.
FHNY: Where was your first kitchen job?
ZK: I asked if I could help out at a restaurant where I was working front of house after the pastry chef walked off the job one day and the sous chef had to suddenly make the desserts. Until then, I’d always loved food, but it never occurred to me that I could pursue that professionally. Then I had my eyes set on working at Milk Bar before I even went to culinary school. I was obsessed with the idea of working there before I even moved to New York. I was hired to work the counter. I was the busser and had to do what no one else wanted to do, and that was fine because I was just happy to be there.
FHNY: And then what happened?
ZK: After Milk Bar I worked briefly at The NoMad as part of their opening team for six months and then I started working for Mile End. That’s when I first started bread baking. Later when I was working with a woman who became my mentor, Melissa Weller — that is when I really learned the fine craft of baking. I started working for her at Sadelle’s and now she is a partner at High Street on Hudson. She was the most thoughtful in the way she put breads together.
FHNY: Do you find bread is a more valuable skill than pastry?
ZK: It’s definitely a more specialized skill. I don’t know if I would say it’s more valuable because you can’t really sell bread for as much as you can sell desserts for. Most of my time in New York spent baking bread has been in bakeries that are part of restaurants because that’s really what makes it sustainable.
FHNY: What is your current dream right now?
ZK: My ultimate dream is definitely to be a business owner, but I’m still trying to find out what that business looks like. I want to figure out what will be the most sustainable healthy thing that allows me to pay my staff a living wage.
FHNY: How did you come to run the bread and pastry at Simon and the Whale?
ZK: When I started here, I wasn’t a pastry chef. I just did the bread, and there wasn’t a bread program built into this business. I told Gabe [Stulman] that if he wanted to have a bread program we could talk, but otherwise I wasn’t necessarily interested in a traditional pastry chef job. They decided to offer me the position and I wanted, and he agreed to have the bread program be part of it.
FHNY: What’s your schedule like?
ZK: Every day is slightly different. Today I’m working the bread shift so I got here at 5:00 AM. Depending on the day of the week, sometimes there’s a swing shift and someone will come in at midday. Today I did the morning bake off of all the bread and pastries and then I started mixing doughs which wraps up at around 1:00 PM and then I’ll transition into any pastry production or prep work that needs to happen for dinner service. Then hopefully at some point I can sneak in some menu development or administrative time.
FHNY: What is your favorite dessert to make for other people?
ZK: My ultimate favorite is probably the croissant. It really rides the line between sweet and savory. So there’s never a moment when a croissant is not the right choice. If you want something salty, it works. If you want something sweet, it works. But mostly I like to serve it to people because I really enjoy the process and whenever I nail each element, there’s nothing better.
Written by Tammie Teclamariam, photos by Allison Poole