Lessons from a master baker

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
According to Master Baker Lionel Vatinet

Lionel Vatinet is a master baker and owner of the popular La Farm Bakery in Cary. He has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation as a semifinalist for “Outstanding Baker” in 2015 and 2016. He also wrote the artisan bread book, “A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker” which came out in 2013.But when you sit down with him, you realize he is all of that and more. Not only is he an award-winning master baker, he is a thoughtful and genuine person who cares about the people who walk through his doors. He treats each guest with the utmost care, greeting everyone from the table of regulars to the small child walking out with his mom who explains, “That’s who made your cookie.”While he has a new large production and retail space in the works in downtown Cary, he has plenty of other things already happening between the current bakery and café, the food truck, teaching, caring for employees, and his family. We sat down with him to hear his thoughts on all of those things that make up his life in North Carolina and learned a few lessons along the way.Five lessons from a master bakerKnow your specialty Throughout all of his endeavors — the bakery, the food truck, the book, and the new production and retail space yet to come — it’s apparent that his passions lie in bread and in teaching. “My specialty is bread and when you come we say, ‘You need to see the bread wall. Here’s a sample for you to taste.’ We don’t want to lose who we are. We are a bakery with a café, not the opposite.”His passion is to give and give back to anyone who wants to learn. He provides baking lessons, saying that includes everyone from 7 to 90 years old. No matter to whom he is speaking, be it a future baker or customer, he wants to educate and help them understand what causes the bread to be the way it is.Bread is all about feelingWhile he has a book with recipes, Vatinet is clear that bread is usually three basic ingredients: flour, water and salt. He says it’s not about the recipes, it’s about the method. It’s finding consistency and having a commitment to understanding how you can achieve the results you’re looking for. “If your base is strong, you will build a nice bread wall for the rest of your life,” he said. “You never blame the ingredients — it’s the way you adapt to it.”For those who have tasted his white chocolate baguette, it’s clear he understands how to adapt to the ingredients in just the right way. This crowd favorite sometimes sells out despite La Farm bakers making a couple hundred each day.Sustainable is not a new thing”We are all about North Carolina.” Vatinet uses several local ingredients, including Carolina Ground for his whole wheat and rye flours — flour made from organic, heirloom, North Carolina-grown and milled wheat, and historic Yates Mill’s cornmeal for his yeasted cornbread. “There’s so much we didn’t know when we started — it’s incredible what we have. North Carolina can provide so much for us to make that we want to share with the customer,” said Vatinet. “At the end of the day … are we going to be able to share with our customer what is good for them? Is it nutritious?”Family is firstWhen asked how he came to own a bakery right here in North Carolina, Vatinet immediately starts talking about meeting his wife, Missy, and the life they wanted to build together. While they have both lived and traveled all over the world, they chose to place their professional lives and home in an area that would be good for a family. Now, 18 years later as they prepare another space, he says he must first care for his two beautiful daughters, ages 6 and 7. His favorite bread? Anything with fiber, a multigrain or a rye — the breads that are best for his children.It is important how we share You cannot walk into La Farm without being given some bread to taste. He went on to say that bread was the first philanthropic gift. “When you share it — the beauty of this for me, the biggest reward is when a customer, new or we bring a new product in, we make them taste it and a smile comes. That’s it. We don’t have to talk. It’s what bread is about. When it’s on your table, when you share it with your family, with your friends — it’s going to fill up your belly but also your spirit.”