How to go from college scientist to James Beard Award-nominated baker in less than five years:
When Alex Bois was a biochemistry major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he planned to go into beer brewing as a career. But after contracting liver disease while traveling in Bangladesh, he lost 40 pounds and couldn’t stomach much of anything other than bread. Putting to use his knowledge of chemistry and fermentation, he baked his own. After impressing friends and then Jim Leahy, owner of New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery, he went pro. Shortly after, in 2013, he followed a girlfriend to Philadelphia, where Ellen Yin and Eli Kulp were planning to open High Street on Market next to their Old City landmark, Fork. High Street was an instant hit, and Bois’ breads got as much attention as (or more than) the rest of the menu.
Last year, he went out on his own with Lost Bread Co., milling his own grains. Working out of a former garage on a side street near Front Street and Girard Avenue in Kensington, he and his small staff bake bread for restaurants, farmer’s markets, and his business partner’s Four Corners Management, which operates the popular Morgan’s Pier and the Parks on Tap beer gardens. Last week, Lost Bread launched a retail counter in the front of the bakery at 1313 N. Howard St., open 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, to sell such items as the signature beetroot rye and cheddar paprika breads.
I sat down with the 31-year-old Alex — say his last name “bwah,” as his French ancestors did — last week at the bakery.
Baking is science. Tell me about your background.
I did my undergraduate work in biology labs, specializing in biological rhythms — the daily rhythms of mammals, hamsters, that kind of thing, which I think I was drawn to because I had such screwed-up rhythms of my own. Here I am again, working weird hours. I was doing that and I wasn’t happy. I was planning on transitioning into brewing beer professionally. A lot of my knowledge in school and biology linked up with fermentation, microbiology, and grain chemistry and agriculture, and all that you need to know a little bit of brewing. I had the opportunity to go live abroad after school, which I did, and ended up basically contracting a liver disease that shut me down for a few years. I started baking while I was sick. It relied on a lot of the same theoretical knowledge. The overlap of the intellectual part was crazy, but entirely different rhythm and physicality, and that just really appealed to me. The things related to baking and all the elements that go into it are somehow the only things that manage to lock down my attention in a way that makes me functional, rather than just scatterbrained.
How did you know baking would be a good career choice?
Even after leaving Sullivan Street for Philadelphia, I wasn’t sure about baking professionally. That’s like the Food Industry. Food production can be pretty brutal. It’s not necessarily clear that if I go into that, that I’m going to have a sustainable career. I also really wanted to continue to pursue things related to waste reduction and food justice. There were a bunch of organizations that I reached out to, that I investigated, who were doing impactful things with food. Some restaurants, but mostly like Greensgrow, Food Trust, and Philabundance. Fork [the restaurant next door to High Street] was on there.
Did bread lead you to Fork?
What really got me wasn’t the artisanal bread board. They have a menu which is really exciting and interesting, but actually just seeing green coriander used a couple times on the menu! I’ve been growing food gardens since I was a kid with my mom. I’ve always loved green coriander, and I never see it used in restaurants. I was so excited to see that and find some people that had a similar appreciation for this weirdly both obscure and super-commonplace ingredient, which now you can get, before you couldn’t even source. … I started working at Fork with the intent of helping with their fermentation-related stuff and helping to support their bread program that they were kind of struggling with. Then, a little bit into it, the plans for High Street started to materialize more.
Why did the breads at High Street get so much attention?
It’s a combination of things. I think really it boils down to, in some ways, that we have this revolution spawning what you would call new American cuisine over the past 30 years. Before that, the vanguards of the movement were imports from other, more developed restaurant cultures. I don’t want to say food cultures because food culture is a different thing than restaurant culture. But you have the French brigade system, you have all these elements in place. The country as a whole is just reeling from the decimation from the large-scale industrialization of food production. We’re just in a rough spot. This new revolution of a style of cooking also encompasses sourcing and all sorts of relationships. Your relationship with your purveyors and customers really didn’t extend to other areas within the restaurant sphere until more recently. You’re starting to see new-wave or third-wave coffee roasting and craft beer, resurgence of craft beer. I feel like it’s a much more recent thing to hit the world of bread. Bread is a staple. … Whether that be rice, nixtamalized corn, or different root vegetables, but for probably the majority of the world, there was some form of bread. There’s plenty of people doing wonderful bread and plenty of people doing interesting bread, but there wasn’t necessarily the right mix of market factors and agriculture and infrastructure and other things for there to be something like new American bread. And, that’s really starting to come to pass and I think that was what attracted people and also just the willingness to look at bread broadly without being dismissive of different styles and things like that.
Take Wonder Bread and looking at it and [thinking], well, this is terrible for you and it’s kind of terrible for our country, but it’s actually an amazing product and it appeals to so many people. How can we take some of that and make products that appeal to more than just the 1 percent of people who are overeducated and have disposable income that they don’t necessarily know what to do with or can afford to spend a lot on food? That was, for me, I just wanted to tackle everything and anything. Then I can curate it.
Were you a Wonder Bread kid?
No. My mom really always tried to find the best baguette she could find. I was mainly baking cakes and weird experiments when I was a kid. I once spent two months trying to create the perfect brownie from scratch with no recipe and no reference and refusing to write anything down. I made the most disgusting, sad excuses for brownie bread crackers, brownie goulash. I don’t even know. Then I ended up making, what remains to this day, a memorable and delicious brownie. Of course, I didn’t write down the recipe and I don’t think I ever made a brownie again, maybe until 10 years later or something like that.
When I discovered nut tortes, I was obsessed. German tortes are pretty much all nutmeal and bread crumbs, because we always had old bread lying around. That, actually, was a strong motivator for a lot of reasons naming the bakery the Lost Bread Co. It’s really a direct translation of le pain perdu, which is what the French call French toast. They don’t call it “our toast.” It means lost bread. We would stockpile old bread. We never threw it out. It would just be like a hard stone in a closet, and then when we had enough or when we were feeling festive or for brunch or whatever, my mom would soak them overnight in eggs, milk, nutmeg, sometimes a little vanilla, little sugar, fry them the next day in a lot of butter and sugar. Always sugar in the pan so it burns and caramelizes and we’d have the most delicious possible … I think was one of the most delicious things I could conceive of as a child.
What’s the goal here?
I’m all about access. I’m trying to source as responsibly as I can, as deliberately as I can, while keeping the price point as low as possible. That definitely includes having retail outlets, because wholesale is a purely volume game. No matter where I live in the city, I want to be able to walk to my neighborhood store and buy a good, nutritious loaf of bread.