If you have ever eaten a sandwich or burger at The General Muir, Fred's Meat & Bread, Yalla, or Ticonderoga Club and thought, "damn, this is good bread," you can thank Rob Alexander. Alexander has quietly become Atlanta's bread whisperer as he has developed a following among restaurateurs and eaters alike who clamor for his breads and baked goods. After making his mark at Holeman & Finch and Alon's, Alexander has been the head bread maker for The General Muir team for nearly two years. Now, TGM Bread is open in the space adjacent to The General Muir, allowing Rob and the team to greatly expand bread production for their growing operations. Eater recently talked with Alexander about what it takes to make great bread and what it is like to be the bread maker for some of Atlanta's best restaurants.
Tell us a little bit about your history with The General Muir and how the new bread shop came to be.
Two years ago Todd Ginsburg called me about using rye flour since he had hopes of making his own bread for The General Muir. I was soon hired to implement the rye bread along with preparing the other breads that he was buying. The General Muir actually had a "bakery" since its inception, but had never employed a bread baker, and had certainly never made bread for anyone else. The pastry department made the challah but that was the extent. Todd and the rest of the partners knew that with Fred's Meat & Bread and Yalla coming to fruition there would be an increased demand for bread products. Back then, the prospect of opening a separate bakery wasn't something that was routinely discussed. It was more about trying to meet the demands out of the space we had.
Fred's and Yalla both became very popular and the demand was quickly close to double what we initially anticipated. Then Grant Park Famers Market came along and asked if we could make bread for them. As this was happening, the yogurt shop next door to The General Muir went out of business and the opportunity to take over that space came up, and the bakery project came to be. I think there was hope in the beginning that we could find something like this and supply a greater quantity and quality of bread for any ongoing and future projects we might have.
What will the bakery space allow you to do?
We have a great relationship with our landlord and there aren't a lot of restrictions about how we use this space. Our initial idea was to continue to supply our wholesale, internal customers with the idea that we could even take on additional wholesale accounts. There was an idea to do some pop-up lunches here with grilled cheeses and soups, which is why we added the dining table area out front. We will also eventually have a limited retail component, but right now the immediate plan is to not have a traditional bakery with regular retail hours. We may eventually decide to have specific, set block of hours for when the bakery is open to retail during the day. This will allow us to continue to focus on our wholesale production, which is the backbone of the business.
What items might customers find at TGM Bread once you have retail hours?
They will be able to find a lot the items that have been well-received at the Grant Park Farmers Market, like the pain au levain (sourdough with a light sourness), as well as that same dough with Asiago cheese and cranberry walnut. There will also be things like ciabatta and baguettes, as well as buns and other assorted breads that we will be making for our wholesale accounts. We also talked about the possibility of having a set product each day, like Tuesday would be ciabatta day where we will make 200 ciabatta and be open from 4 to 6 p.m. for customers to come in and pick up just ciabatta.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in baking and bread.
In 1996, I did a lot of soul searching on the Appalachian Trail. I had attended a couple years of college and wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I picked up a book by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page called Becoming a Chef, and I thought, "OK," this is what I want to do. A few weeks after that I picked up a book by Daniel Leader, a baker who owns Bread Alone in New York, and I was charmed by his photographs and story. Next thing you know, I'm close to securing a work permit for France. I sort of paved my own self-styled apprenticeship route since there was no real school that specialized in bread baking at that time. The Culinary Institute of America had a bakery and pastry degree program, but only four or five weeks of that was bread baking. I was seeking something more enriching and the opportunity to travel was thrilling, to say the least. I studied in France for all of 1998 and again for six months in 2002.
What is the day of a busy bread baker like?
For the past two years I've been primarily working at night, like 6 p.m. until 2 or 3 in the morning. During that time I'm doing hands-on production of the bread and supervising a staff of four people, but I expect that number will soon grow to about 15. As the business grows and develops, there's an exciting opportunity for me to learn skills beyond just production, like business and financial skills that are beyond production. I know I can produce good bread, but there is still opportunity for me to grow as a businessperson and leader. However, this is my 20th year as a baker, and needless to say, there is plenty left for me to learn in terms of just baking skills.
Bread seems like a simple enough food, yet it's so hard to make well. Why can't I make good bread at home?
There are so many minute variables that require you to adjust to the circumstances that it can take literally years to learn. Some people call it the "relationship to the dough," but that's a little too Zen, a little bit out there. Whenever you have variables that affect the way the dough is rising, or the properties of the dough, these are things you can only learn to adjust to with experience. The average home baker probably doesn't aspire to gain that amount of skill; it takes an excessive amount of time and attention to detail. As a professional, I have to execute on a high level every day, with absolute consistency. I have to be dialed in to all of those variables.
For example, take this flour that was delivered this morning. If this flour comes off of a refrigerated truck and I take my thermometer and stick it in the middle of the bag, it might be 55 or 60 degrees. If I use that flour and don't pay attention to that temperature detail, I'll get a dough temperature that is too cold, which creates a set of variables that requires specific adjustments. If I'm a home baker, I might follow a recipe that says to allow the dough to rise for one hour, but if it's a cold dough, it might need three hours or more to properly rise. As a professional baker, I'm bound to a certain consistency. If my hamburger bun is even a half of an inch shorter today than it was yesterday, chances are a lot of the chefs I do business with are going to call me. And they won't be happy.
Any news on future projects or new breads we might see from you?
Todd really wants me to do some work with ancient grains and heritage grains. We were so successful with Fred's and Yalla in the limited space that we had, and we still had pastry production and other things we needed to do. I didn't have the time or space to do other cool projects that we might want to get into. There should be more unusual flavors and breads coming in the near future. We'll wait to see how retail goes; we may do a special bread with ancient grains and release it once per week as a special for that day. That's how the general public will be able to source our regular and special items once we are up and running.