Chris and Nicole Wilkins sat at a table outside Root Baking Co. The action behind the glass doors was too loud for conversation. The dining area of the couple’s new cafe was taking shape, as construction workers drilled away on floors, seats and walls. A team of bakers and chefs was busy in the kitchen, working through test batches of breads, pastries, soups and sandwiches. Root Baking Co. was days away from opening, and there was still so much to get done.
“There is an energy to weirdo bakeries,” Chris said, glancing at the hubbub.
“Energy” and “weirdo” are probably the two terms that best describe Root Baking Co., its owners, and their unlikely journey in the bread world. Those words also explain why the young couple from upstate New York uprooted the bakery that they started three years ago in Charleston, S.C., and planted it in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market.
Chris couldn’t have guessed that baking bread would be his calling, but after earning a master’s in Italian film from Indiana University, he realized he didn’t want to live a life in academia. Nicole is an anomaly, too. She holds an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and a doctorate in pharmaceuticals that she still puts to use daily in her job with Aetna.
Since getting married in 2012, their love of bread has taken them to five cities in three states — a small town in Vermont, then south to Athens, Savannah, Charleston, and now Atlanta. “We keep moving around,” Chris said. “With a purpose,” Nicole added. “All the moves make sense.”
Weirdo bakers train under other weirdo bakers, then they open their own places and do weirdo baker things. In Chris’ case, his mentors were Randy George of Red Hen Baking Co. in Vermont and Thom Leonard of Independent Baking Co. in Athens. George taught him why regional sourcing matters. Leonard ingrained in him the fundamentals of growing and milling grain, and the importance of leavening. Wilkins recited the first sentence from Leonard’s “The Bread Book”: “If it’s not leavened, it’s not bread.”
These two influences are brought to bear on every boule, baguette and sticky bun that goes in the oven at Root Baking. Chris sources heirloom grains — wheat, corn, rice, millet and more — from regional names such as Anson Mills and Geechie Boy Mill. He mills the grains in-house, using a custom stone mill built by his Vermont baker-friend Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread.
He adheres to Leonard’s leavening advice by fresh-milling his starters. Fermenting the grains, he explained, adds aroma and flavor. “It’s not too sour of a thing we’re after. We value complex, sweet, a little bit tart,” he said.
Complex, sweet and a little bit tart would be his grit bread. It features a sourdough made with African guinea flint corn, a once-traditional grain of the coastal South that is disappearing.
Chris ticked off other baked goods in the rotation at Root: semolina ciabattas, corn kamut financiers, sorghum brioche sticky buns, salted chocolate-citrus shortbreads and, his newest discovery, one that he deems “the best baker snack” — a bar of chocolate slapped between slices of bread.
The chocolate sandwich and other baked treats are just one component in the delightful oddity that is Root Baking Co. In Charleston, the couple worked out of a measly 750-square-foot space to sell their wares wholesale to restaurants, and peddled the edibles at farmers markets. Here, on the second floor of Ponce City Market, they have nearly five times the space. That means room for a retail counter, and for cafe seating — not just so that diners can enjoy breads and pastries with a cup of coffee, but real meals for lunch, dinner, Sunday brunch and even weekday happy hour.
Yes, happy hour. Weekdays, from 4 to 6 p.m., out come the baguettes, hot from the oven and ready for folks to pick up on their way home from work. Out, too, come the beer, the wine, the ginger beer.
Happy hour at a bakery just might be the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Actually, Chris is even excited about sliced bread these days. He led me into the space and stepped behind the counter to show off his new toy. “This slicer is amazing! You can choose your own slice!” He grabbed a baguette and set it on the shiny metal guides. “How thick do you want it?” he asked. Sandwich bread size, I told him.
He pulled down the handle. The blades whirred. He beamed like a kid as he handed me the slice.
Chris will get to play with that toy every day, because, unlike most bakeries, Root is open daily. Since starters have to be tended to daily, the Wilkinses figure they might as well open up the place to customers.
“Starters do what starters do,” Chris said.
And, Chris Wilkins will do what Chris Wilkins will do.
Are you ready for the energy of this weirdo bakery, Atlanta?
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