Most Pacific Northwest epicureans are familiar with the creative, crave-worthy baked goods at Ken's Artisan Bakery in Portland. They may not, however, know that the bakery’s owner (and 2013 Outstanding Pastry Chef award nominee), Ken Forkish, had a twenty-year career in the tech industry before trading in his suit and tie for an apron. Read on to learn about his JBF Award–nominated cookbook, favorite local eateries, and his early-onset obsession with doughnuts.
JBF: Before you opened your wildly popular bakery, you had a twenty-year career in Silicon Valley. How did this transformation come about?
Ken Forkish: I'd always wanted to get out of the corporate world. When I lived and worked in Europe in the late 1980s, a lot of light bulbs turned on, ultimately leading me to want to be a real boulanger in America. The transition from the old career was a little messy, but it all worked out well in the end.
JBF: What’s your favorite item on the menu at Ken’s Artisan Bakery?
KF: Just one?! I'll go for two, if you don't mind. For bread: my three-kilo boule of Country Blonde bread, a loaf that I wrote an essay about in my book, Flour Water Salt Yeast. For pastry: the Oregon Croissant, which is shaped like a Danish, filled with hazelnut cream and blueberries, and topped with local blackberries and pearled sugar. Our local berry farms freeze enough of each year's harvest to keep us in good supply with excellent quality frozen berries year round, which is perfect for baking. We egg-wash with cream and yolks, then bake until we see a burnished, deep brown—so you get a good, flaky crunch when you attack it.
JBF: You also own and run Ken’s Artisan Pizza. What are some of the different challenges of running a bakery versus a pizzeria?
KF: Well, they're two very different businesses. The bakery has a wholesale component, which means we have a delivery van, drivers, restaurant and grocery store customers, and the need to be out the door with bread by 8:00 A.M. every morning. And my bakery is open from 7:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. every day. We might do 500 transactions at the cash register on a busy day, with up to five counter staff working side-by-side at a time, slinging espresso drinks and taking orders of breads, pastries, and lunch, which is big for us. The bakery also has production staff working around the clock, whereas Ken's Artisan Pizza is a dinner-only restaurant open for just five hours each day (we need all day to do prep for an average of 175 covers per night), and it has a bar and table service. Any challenges are tempered by great, loyal staff with a lot of tenure at each location. I don't want that phone call at 2:00 A.M.!
JBF: What do you think is the key to making a stellar pizza?
KF: Great ingredients, for one: good flour, the best tomatoes, great mozzarella, and fresh basil. Proper fermentation of the dough is essential to get that savory quality that lingers on your palate. Balanced toppings, so no one ingredient overwhelms the others. And perfect baking, so that the bottom, the rims, and the toppings are all at the perfectly baked point at the same instant.
JBF: What are some of your favorite restaurants in Portland and why?
JBF: You recently published a very instructive cookbook called Flour Water Salt Yeast. What do you most want readers to take away from the book?
KF: That they can stop buying more baking books and just learn how to ferment dough to get the best flavors and texture—then they can blend whatever flours they want to make a version of bread they can call their own. And finally, that homemade pizza is easy and good.
JBF: What’s your earliest food memory?
KF: Badgering my mom and dad from the back seat of the car to hit the doughnut shop on the way home from Sunday church.