Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Breaking Bread with the Prager Brothers

Louie and Clinton Prager at their bakery in Encinitas

It took way too long for me to finally connect with these guys, but it was worth the wait. I was first introduced to  Prager Brothers Artisan Breads by my friend Catt White of SD Weekly Markets a couple of years ago. They had dropped off samples to her office in what I gather at the time was a way to get into her farmers markets. After tasting the breads she got in touch with me, telling me to come over and try some. They were that good.

Somehow emails got crossed, a wickedly rainy day at the Hillcrest farmers market last winter yielded an introduction to younger brother Clinton, 27, at another stall but I was so soaked to the bone I fled back to my car and skipped going over to chat with him.

All this is to say that the opportunity only came at an opening event a few weeks ago for the new Banker's Hill market Back to Roots, where they are selling their breads. They're still mouth wateringly good and I was determined not to let that opportunity pass. And last week I went up to their Carlsbad bakery to chat.

What strikes me about the two is what always gets to me about the most talented chefs and vendors I meet--their absolute dedication to and passion for what they create. Not to take away from Clinton, but Louie, 28, seems to have made bread making his sword in the stone. Trained as a biologist at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, it all began when he'd helped a friend out with a pizza place in Escondido. The pizza was simple--just cheese--and made on hot stone. Louie wasn't won over by the pizza business but he was intrigued by the crust, by the process of making the dough.

"When we get into things, we like to go back to the roots of it," he said. "So I learned everything I could about wood-fired ovens."

That included reading Kiko Denzer's "How to Build an Earth Oven." If you were resourceful enough, Louie explained, you could make an oven for under $175. So, he scrounged up leftover clay from Miracosta College. He found some bricks. He built his first oven and started making oven-fired pizzas.

Then Louie started in on breads. He met Richard Webb of the 3rd Street Bakery in Los Osos, near Morro Bay, who became his mentor. Webb's first assignment for Louie was to read Jim Lahey's book, "My Bread." Then came another reading assignment. Then Webb began selling Louie flour at cost. "I'd bring back loaves for him to check out. He taught me how to bake bread, but he advised me to be a biologist."

Around this time Louie also discovered Alan Scott brick ovens, traveling up and down California to learn what he could about them. Back in Encinitas, where he and Clinton were raised and still live with their parents and where Louie was building brick ovens, Louie was taking Webb's advice and looking for a job in his field of botany. But he'd heard about a pizza place with a wood-fired oven. He met the owner, Wayne Hageman; the pizza place would become Blue Ribbon Pizza. Hageman invited Louie to come in and bake bread at night, but this was before the restaurant opened. With its success, Louie found himself back in his parents' backyard, baking loaves and entering the farmers markets. But, he's grateful to Hageman and with the success he found at the markets, he never looked back.

This was about three years ago. "I'd bake from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., sleep for a few hours, then go to the markets. That lasted about a year and then we found our current spot, which fortunately, was zoned for both commercial and retail," he recalled.

Clinton, a musician, had been helping out both baking and selling at the markets, but as business picked up and Louie began to rely on him more and more, it became clear that both brothers had to be all in to make it work.

Today, they make close to a dozen varieties of breads, including a pain au levain, olive rosemary, raisin walnut, sesame semolina, multigrain, miche (a rustic sourdough), walnut whole grain, ancient grain made with spelt, and volkornbrot (rye sunflower). They also make some flatbreads and rolls, pretzels, and are starting to get into baking cookies (definitely indulge in their sable, all wonderfully grainy and buttery and salty) and granola as well as yeasted breads, like baguettes. Any excess loaves are donated to a nearby charity.

"We bake around 200 loaves a day now, mostly for farmers markets," Louie said. "But we're just going into Baker & Olive in Encinitas, Seaside Market, OB People's Market, and we're in Back to Roots. And we have our own retail shop here."

And the breads? Most find their origins in their housemade sourdough starter. So what you get in each bite is a hint of sourdough tang, rich flavors of the grains, with a nice crust formed from the heat and steam of their ovens. "We describe our breads as naturally leavened organic whole grain," said Louie.

"We learning as we go," he added. "Some of the best bakers in the country are our friends. The Bread Bakers Guild of America has been a great resource as has been the baking community. They're really supportive because the business is so difficult."

Noted Clinton ruefully, "There's a reason no one's doing this anymore."

But for the brothers, this is something they passionately want to do. "It's now about artisan food, but is it realistic? Is it sustainable," questioned Louie. "We need to find the right balance between being an artisan business and having sustainable volume."

To that end, they have another project they want to launch: creating a flour mill, what they call a "community grain project." With more people demanding quality flour, they would have the volume to buy heirloom grains and make flour for the public or other bakers. And, they'd start classes for the public to encourage more home bread baking.

But the emphasis remains on their own bread baking. "We want to be a small and high quality, to do something unique," said Louie. "We want customers to know the bakers by name when they come in."

You can find Prager Brothers breads at the above shops, as well as the Hillcrest Farmers Market, Leucadia Farmers Market, Vista Farmers Market, State Street Farmers Market in Carlsbad, Encinitas Station Market, and Little Italy Mercato. Their retail shop is 5671 Palmer Way, Unit J, in Carlsbad.

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