Of all the bakers who run successful bakeries here in the Rose City, one of the most well known and highly regarded has to be Ken’s Artisan Bakery. Owner Ken Forkish has a well known story of leaving the high tech workforce to pursue his dream of running a bakery. The success of Ken’s Artisan Bakery has also recently spawned the opening of Ken’s Artisan Pizza, which has quickly become an extremely popular hang out with local pizza lovers. I had a chance recently to get Forkish to answer some questions for me via email about his culinary lifestyle.
NM: Though many people have heard the story of your background, can you provide us a bit of a refresher on how you got into the bakery business?
Forkish: I left my former career in telecommunications and later internet advertising in 1999 to do something that I really cared about. I was inspired by many trips to France, Italy, and other parts of Europe to build a place that made many of the breads and pastries that I loved but could not find here. A well-made croissant. A rustic tart. A big boule of pain au levain. A real baguette. Things that come from the hands of an artisan. It was a significant and comprehensive life change for me, and a difficult one too. One of my biggest assets, I think, was that I had many points of reference for what these products should be, given the times I lived and traveled in Europe.
I fell in love with the romance of being a baker too. Much of my inspiration came from Lionel Poilane, the well known Parisian baker who died tragically in a helicopter crash a few years ago – Poilane was one of the first to bring back old ways of baking on a large enough scale to make more than a local name for himself, while preserving the methods of small-scale baking. He used the term ‘retro-innovation’, to describe the manufactory he built of twenty-some wood-fired ovens, each managed by one baker. Before I opened Ken’s Artisan Bakery in 2001 I had years to plan, study, read books and fantisize about making my dream come true. Then after we opened the struggle of making the business succeed made some of the dreams and romance fade away.
NM: What is the most challenging thing about running a bakery? Why?
Forkish: In French there is a saying ‘you have to sell a lot of bread to make a little money’. The fundamental thing about the kind of bakery I operate is that the ingredient costs and labor costs are very high. We buy the best quality ingredients (e.g. Valhrona chocolate, whole bean vanilla, organic flour), and make everything we sell on the premise, from scratch. Each day we anticipate how many of a few dozen products we will sell. If we guess low, we run out and people are disappointed. If we guess high, we have a lot of waste, because most items can’t be carried over to the next day.
Personnel management is probably the biggest annual challenge. Finding good people and keeping them is not easy. It’s hard work, early hours, and the pay is not as rewarding as the work. Many of the people we hire are in their twenties and still figuring out who they are, what they want to do, and they tend to turn over and move on. On the flip side, I should point out that we now have a core team of people who have now been with the bakery for a long time, who really care about the place, and who’s company I enjoy very much.
NM: Why do you think people love your bakery so much?
Forkish: Those who appreciate the bakery are the ones who get it when it comes to the integrity of our products. They know we’re not just buying frozen products that we thaw out and bake off. And we have very high standards, even for the simplest of things, so an Oregon Croissant, for example, should be just so every single day. When it’s not, we’re in the back talking about it and making adjustments (these products are not completely formulaic; there is always the need for some adjustment due to changes in the flour, the weather, etc.).
I also want us to show a sense of warmth and welcome, and for our customers to sense that we really care. I always wanted the place to have a community feel about it too.
My mantra for staff has always been ‘trying to get it perfect, every time’. It ultimately defines who you are. And hopefully it comes out in our products.
NM: What are your opinions of the local bakeries here in Portland? Anyone doing it right or wrong and why?
Forkish: I like bakeries that make everything they sell, from scratch, that are seasonal with their fruit and buy from local farms. These bakeries have a kind of integrity that I really respect. Baker & Spice and Pearl Bakery, for example, and Pix Patisserie.
NM: You recently opened a pizzeria which has been well received. Talk a little about that.
Forkish: If you could have told me when I was twelve years old that when I grew up I’d own a pizzeria, you would have seen the biggest smile a twelve year old could muster.
I love the pizzeria. The combination of the space, the wood-fired oven, and the food we are putting out just thrills me. And we really nailed the staff. Alan, my partner who’s running the kitchen, is an excellent manager and he’s done a great job putting together and managing the kitchen team. Up front Peter, our host and manager of the service staff, has really made me proud – he has the people skills to handle a long wait list and people’s expectations as they wait for a table. I’m especially proud that we have a smooth operation that feeds a lot of people, and most are leaving happy.
NM: What, in your opinion, makes a good pizza?
Forkish: First a dough that has excellent flavor, a rare thing in the pizza world for some reason (pizza is a bread after all). Second is balance between the crust, the sauce, the cheese and the toppings – they must all be of the best quality, and one shouldn’t overwhelm the others. Third is proper baking, of course.
NM: When you look at the food scene here in Portland, what impress you? Disappoints you?
Forkish: I’m most impressed that the food scene here encourages small startups by enterprising, young chefs. In Portland it’s possible to open a restaurant for a very small amount of money compared to other cities – the public doesn’t demand a million dollar dining room. There’s not much disappointment here for me.
NM: What are your favorite Portland food haunts besides your growing fiefdom?
Forkish: I have a number of regular places I go: Alba, Park Kitchen, Navarre, Higgins, Paley’s Place, Pok Pok, Vindaloo, Carafe, Murata. And many more I’d go to if I had more time to go out.
NM: Any future plans you can let us in on?
Forkish: Right now, I’m putting more of my time into the bakery – we are getting ready to launch a new line of pastry products built around French cakes and dessert pastries. I think to now, our pastry reputation has shone most bright around viennoisserie and breakfast pastries. Cheryl at Pix has created a new market in Portland for fine pastry, and I’d like to expand our product line in that category. We want more people picking up pastry from the bakery for dessert. So, soon you’ll see Opera Cake, Charlottes, Pyramids, Mousse cakes, and fun, sexier stuff like that.
[You can view Ken's website, with extensive photographs, food essays, etc. here.]
Nino Marchetti joins us here at An Exploration of Portland Food and Drink via the San Francisco Bay Area. A transplant with his wife in the last year and a half, Nino did a weekly food column for a newspaper which focused on profiles of local farmers, restaurateurs, winemakers and others as well as food trends.
Upon moving up to the Portland area, Nino began writing about the local food scene. He has contributed to Northwest Palate and is a regular contributor to The Oregonian as well as PDX Magazine.
Nino will be writing a column once or twice month for us where he interviews a local food persona, be it a chef, distillery owner or baker.