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.”
Head baker Anna Morris kneads whole wheat dough in the kitchen of Root Baking Co. Morris transplanted to Atlanta with the company when it moved from Charleston, S.C. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT / SPECIAL
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.
A few of the offerings from Root Baking Co. (clockwise from center bottom): chocolate-citrus shortbread, kefir coffee cake, grit bread, sweet corn financier. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT / SPECIAL
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.
Chris Wilkins kneads a batch of whole wheat dough in the baking area of Root Baking Co. “One of the tricks to hand-kneading dough as a business owner and baker is to always have a clean hand to answer the phone when it rings,” he said. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT / SPECIAL
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.
Co-owner Nicole Wilkins is operations manager of Root Baking Co., now located on the second floor of the Food Hall at Ponce City Market. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT / SPECIAL
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?
Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.