La Brea Bakery, a staple in Los Angeles, California, turns 30 this year. To celebrate, its founder Nancy Silverton has developed a line of special edition breads, called Founders. Silverton, a bread and Italian cuisine aficionado, started the bakery in 1989 before selling it in 2001.
Silverton is also co-owner of Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles and Newport Beach, plus Osteria Mozza, Mozza2Go and Chi Spacca in Los Angeles. She has worked with some of the country’s most notable chefs, including Wolfgang Puck at Spago.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation, which starts with Silverton outlining her upcoming plans.
Nancy Silverton: [I’m in] the process of opening up two new restaurants. One a full-fledged restaurant, one sort of a quick serve. One by the end of the year, the next one in January.
Kai Ryssdal: So look let me ask you since you mentioned starting up new restaurants, are you an entrepreneur or are you a chef?
Silverton: I’m neither. I’m a cook.
Ryssdal: Is chef like a pejorative?
Silverton: No, you know, I’m so old school. I remember when I first started cooking and …
Ryssdal: … you were a kid, right? This was like college or something?
Silverton: Yes, a little older than a kid, but in college. But my first sort of serious restaurant job, where they gave me a button-down white jacket to wear and I was like ‘Wow, only chefs wear buttoned down white jackets.’ And I never wore one again. So, there you go.
Ryssdal: You like getting your hands dirty, I guess, is the name of the game.
Silverton: I like to get my hands dirty. I’ve got a small little empire.
Ryssdal: Oh, come on. You’re like a force … this is radio. They can’t see that eye — that side eye you just gave me.
Silverton: OK, I won’t be self-deprecating. But I don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur.
Ryssdal: Fair enough. That said, you started some things.
Silverton: I did.
Ryssdal: In this town and in the world of food — bread specifically — which we’re going to talk about in a little while, but also just that idea — the kind of cooking you do was new-ish.
Silverton: New-ish, but I had my role models, you know, coming from California. Especially up in Northern California, there were a handful of women that were such great cooks and they really — even back in the mid-70s when I started cooking — they really defined what California cuisine was all about. And that was a style that I adopted and one that I’ve stuck to through my whole career.
Ryssdal: Does it feel like 30 years, by the way?
Silverton: You know, it not only feels like longer than 30 years. Just what La Brea Bakery has become, you know, the original bakery was a block further down, where we baked. If I said to you, “we baked 1,000 loaves a day” that sounds like a lot. But that really in the scheme of things is not. Now we bake at our two bakeries — one in Van Nuys and one in New Jersey — hundreds of thousands of loaves a day. So it’s a little different. And so that part of it seems like, wow, and it all started here in this little space on La Brea.
Ryssdal: Let me ask the business question. When did you realize that 1,000 loaves was not enough?
Silverton: You know, quite early on. Not enough meaning that the space was not big enough …
Ryssdal: … space wasn’t big enough. I mean, you have said you can’t make money selling bread unless you’re doing it at scale.
Silverton: Well, yeah. We didn’t have a wholesale business, as well as the retail business. But very early on we realized that we needed to move to somewhere a little bigger. You know, the style of bread that we do at La Brea Bakery, the flavor of it and its characteristics are achieved by long, long fermentation periods. So that means that the dough itself is taking up a lot of real estate. To make a lot of money in the bread business is to just, you know, churn those loaves out. But these need to sit, they need to sit and develop. And because of that, you need a lot of space.
Ryssdal: What is it about bread? I mean you were a pastry chef and then you started La Brea, right? What is it about bread and that side of cooking?
Silverton: I think it was Wolfgang Puck that told me — or taught me pretty early on in my career — that the two most important parts of a meal is what you start with, which is the bread and what you finish with, and that’s the dessert. So, I was lucky, I was the bookends of a meal, you know?
Ryssdal: I think it was a talk you gave or something, a number of years ago, in which you were talking to a group of women entrepreneurs, maybe cooks, maybe not. And you said, you know, back when I started there was a feeling that you had to do everything. And there’s a great picture of you with one of your kids, who’s a babe, I mean, tiny baby, and there you are filling out like a menu chart, right? You know the picture I’m speaking of?
Silverton: I do, but I wonder when that was.
Ryssdal: Well, you know, well 30 years ago plus or minus.
Silverton: And I have three kids, so it could’ve been any of them.
Ryssdal: But the point is, it was challenging back then. You felt you had to do everything. Do you still think that women in this industry today feel like they have to do everything?
Silverton: For me to let somebody else do something and — back then —and me being critical of it, I only had myself to blame, right? And so, in the early stages of my career, it was very difficult for me to delegate. I wanted to really have my hands on everything and then be responsible for everything. So I would give something to someone else to do and I would watch them and it’s like, well it’s not quite square enough or I really think it should go at this part of the plate. And so a lot of times it was easier just to do it myself. But it got to the point that either I had absolutely zero life or I had to step back, delegate, realize that it wasn’t always going to be exactly the way I would want it. But at least it was my choice, you know?
Ryssdal: Have you made peace with that?
Silverton: I have made peace with that, until I don’t make peace with it, like when I go in and I see something has gone so awry. And I’m like [screams] and I pull my hair out.
Ryssdal: But, that’s your kind of job now, right? Quality assurance. You’re the keeper of the flame, as it were.
Check out some sandwich recipes from La Brea Bakery below: