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On the Rise

Nancy Silverton is a perfectionist. Quick and easy won't do. That's why the La Brea Bakery queen has caused such a stir with her expensive, hand-shaped loaves. And the rest of the country just may get a taste.

July 28, 1996|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cook" and "chef" are four-letter words that both start with C. Otherwise, they're different species.

Guess which one describes Nancy Silverton. She reads cookbooks as if they were novels, and when she brings dessert to a dinner party, she carries her own ice cream maker--hand-cranked, no less. Her husband says she has the gastronomic equivalent of perfect pitch.

"Like some people have perfect pitch, some people have a perfect sense of taste, and not just about flavor but about texture and the look of a plate," says Mark Peel, who should know. He's the chef behind the acclaimed restaurant Campanile, which he runs with Silverton.

Silverton, in turn, has staked out her territory as the bread maven of Los Angeles and as the discriminating taster--and baker--behind La Brea Bakery. The deceptively tiny store attached to Campanile has seeded a $10 million business in a mere seven years, plying foodies from San Diego to Santa Barbara with the luxury comfort chow of the back-to-basics '90s--bread, 30,000 pounds of it a day.

"It's an extraordinary thing she's done to create this kind of luxury product out of an ordinary product, out of the commonest and most ordinary food there is," says Mark Furstenberg, a Silverton disciple and owner of Marvelous Market in Washington, D.C. "That's not to say her bread isn't good, because it's wonderful."

Indeed, the food world is agog that Silverton has come so far despite La Brea's sometimes exorbitant prices and word-of-mouth marketing. But Silverton's intense will to bake may take her even farther--across the country, in fact, as La Brea experiments with special baking techniques for shipping out of Southern California.

And now Silverton has detailed recipes for 45 of her basic luxuries--as well as the odd dog biscuit and sourdough waffle--in her third and latest cookbook. "Nancy Silverton's Breads From the La Brea Bakery: Recipes for the Connoisseur" (Villard) was written in collaboration with L.A. Times food Editor Laurie Ochoa.

One of Silverton's not-so-secret ingredients for success is her admitted obsessive streak. This is a woman who cares so much about the "hole structure" of her loaves that her culinary compatriots have dubbed her "Her Holiness." Silverton is the rare bird who finds the perfect loaf of bread frankly thrilling.

At the moment, however, Silverton is less than thrilled.

"You missed all the mulberries!" foodie Steve Cohen bleats as he suddenly appears before her, surrounded by the fragrant stalls of the Santa Monica Farmers Market. It's a typical Wednesday morning for Silverton--every week she shops for Campanile, trailed by a couple of disciples who help her taste and lug. What's not typical is the specter of a mulberry crisis.

"She was sold out," Cohen continues. "Swear to God. Prepay for next week. I was there 30 minutes waiting. She flagged me to the front of the line, and I said, 'I'm Jewish.' I couldn't do it. Guilt. By this time, I'd prepaid, so the gelt took care of the guilt."

Silverton, 42, frowns. She weaves her way through the stalls to a white Dodge Ram parked in an alley. She plucks a small round loaf from her goodwill arsenal on wheels and takes it to the Mulberry Lady.

"If someone said, 'What should a berry taste like,' a Persian mulberry is what it is," Silverton says, her Pre-Raphaelite curls tucked up in a swatch of plaid fabric.

Just not today's Persian mulberry. Even though the berry lady is in fact out of mulberries as billed, three stragglers nestle in a small bowl, which she proffers to Silverton. She lifts one to her lips, thanks the woman and leaves.

"They're not that good," she says later. "They're not ripe yet. They need another week."

Not quite up to Silverton's standards.

She has virtually banned commercial yeast from her bakery. She starts her crusty breads with a mixture spawned by wild yeast culled from the skins of grapes. And she blows off bakery equipment dealers trying to sell her bread-shaping machines, opting for the old-fashioned technology of human hands because it affects the taste.

"That bread is very cheap to produce because you're constantly turning out bread," Silverton says. "We can only turn out bread once a day. And that's why a lot of it is very costly, and it's also hand-shaped, which is also very costly."

Perhaps too costly? Furstenberg, who apprenticed at La Brea, admires Silverton's methods but is in awe of her prices.

"What is unique about Los Angeles is La Brea has stood alone in that city and has dominated the [upscale] market," he says. "And what is also unique in Los Angeles is the prices La Brea charges seem fantastic to those of us in the baking business. The prices are beyond comprehension to the rest of us."

Competitor Il Fornaio, the San Francisco-based restaurant and bakery chain, agrees. "They have an excellent product, but their breads are extremely expensive," says director of marketing Michael Mindel. "To charge $5 for a loaf of bread is pretty much inconceivable."

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