The Capital’s Best Bread Is Made Behind a Laundromat and Served at Le Diplomate
If you’re a paniphile (which is just a $5 word for a bread-lover) and can’t resist a mystery, you will love The Case of the Hidden Bakery. I recently discovered that some of Washington, D.C.'s best bread is made not in a specialty shop but in a nondescript commercial production bakery behind 16th and U Streets NW.
There aren’t any signs to tell you where to go, but any day of the week, between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., if you stand in front of Jim’s Cleaners and Starbucks on 16th Street and wait, it won’t take long before the telltale smell of baking bread floats in the air. Then, just as quickly as it arrived, it is gone, leaving you perplexed as to the source, which I discovered is hidden in a dingy back alley to the left of Jim’s Cleaners. The alley is lined with parked cars, large trash dumpsters, and nondescript commercial spaces. If you wait long enough, a dark gray metal door will eventually swing open and release tempting tendrils of yeasty aromas.
A peek behind the door reveals a windowless kitchen and five bakers hard at work mixing, kneading, shaping, and baking, surrounded by racks of dozens of beautiful loaves of just-baked bread. The space is barely 900 square feet - but the kitchen’s diminutive size seals in earthy aromas of toasted nuts, wheat, rye, cranberry, and oats that are so intense you may get a little giddy and light headed from the close quarters.
The bakers’ synchronous movements are fluid and practiced, and each one displays an economy of motion acquired through years of quotidian handicraft. These are the people responsible for baking the signature bread served at Le Diplomate on 14th Street NW, owned by Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr. Le Diplomate is his homage “to the cafés in St.-Germain in Paris.” Leading Starr’s team of bakers is head baker Cody Brandon, who Starr says is “an artisan beyond his years and a stunning craftsman.”
Through the magic marriage of heirloom whole-wheat flour, a living levain starter, water, and a short list of stellar ingredients, Brandon and the other bakers are able to celebrate the French legacy of bread baking at the core of Parisian café culture, regional traditions, and French national identity.
Le Diplomate’s dedication to freshness makes it possible for diners to rediscover that there is nothing as comforting, mouthwatering, and pleasing to eat as a freshly baked loaf of bread slathered with butter, dipped in sauce, or topped with a rustic cheese. It’s an indulgence you rarely find in restaurants - few eateries tackle the challenge of making their own bread.
Many would if they could, but it’s virtually impossible for any restaurant to bake all of its bread on site - few can afford the necessary staff and equipment or spare the space. But artisanally baked bread is a hallmark of the Le Diplomate dining experience, so every day hundreds of guests eagerly await the bread baskets’ arrival on the table.
Despite the challenges involved in making every bread in-house, Starr took the risk, hired a team of rock star bakers, and built an off-site production baking kitchen stocked with the right-sized commercial mixers, bench tables, dough sheeters, racks, ovens, and walk-in refrigerators. Establishing a production bakery may have required a significant investment, but the effort has paid off. Every day from 3 a.m. to 7 p.m., the bakery produces buttery brioches, crisp baguettes, sesame-topped hamburger buns, honey oat sandwich bread, multigrain levain boules, and cranberry walnut boules. The demand hasn’t wavered since Le Diplomate opened in 2013, and the ever-popular loaves continue to serve a variety of purposes: the bread accompanies the cheese and charcuterie platters, it’s used to make French toast, croque madame and other sandwiches, and it’s a hallmark of Le Diplomate’s café menu.
Every Monday through Friday, Brandon and his cohorts bake approximately 129 to 150 baguettes and 45 to 60 levain and cranberry boules plus the hamburger buns. Just to cover the demand for the weekend, about 400 baguettes and approximately 120 levain and 120 cranberry boules are baked on Fridays to be ready for service during brunch, lunch, and dinner. It takes dedication, patience, and laser-focused attention to detail to consistently produce excellent bread, and Brandon is up for the challenge because the chemistry and artistry of bread are part of the allure. “Baking has a strong emotional attachment to me,” he explains. “It reminds me of my childhood. I was a curious kid, always into puzzles and problem-solving. Baking bread requires the same analytical thought process. Every day is a battle with the weather and the climate to control the living product in your hand and create this delicious item that’s really the foundation, culturally and literally, for Le Diplomate.”
Brandon has an active imagination and is always experimenting with new flours, ingredients, flavors, textures, and original ideas, and soon his latest bread will be available in the dining room. It’s a hearty muesli loaf made with pepitas, sunflower seeds, golden raisins, dried blueberries, oatmeal, and pistachios, and it will be a fantastic addition to the fall and winter bread basket and hearty cheese platters. So what’s next? Look for a polenta bread and seed bread shortly.
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