In Lionel Vatinet's presence, lively lumps of dough full of bubbling yeast become smooth and compliant.
"You have to show eet who is in charge," Vatinet instructs in his deeply French-inflected voice as he covers a butcher block table with hand-formed boules, batârds and classic baguettes. "You don't want to tear the dough, but you have to work it. You have to love the dough."
Vatinet, author of the new A Passion for Bread: Lessons From a Master Baker (Little, Brown), has been in love with dough since his childhood in France—a fact in evidence from the portrait on the book's title page of him cradling a loaf nearly as big as he is.
Demystifying the experience of making bread is as important to Vatinet as waking at dawn to make it himself for loyal customers. A graduate of the elite Les Compagnons du Devoir Guild, Vatinet holds his teachers in the highest regard for showing him how to convert his passion for baking into a brilliant career that has taken him around the world.
Vatinet has shared his gifts with top culinary students for years, notably at the prestigious San Francisco Baking Institute. He leads bread and pizza classes every month at La Farm and at the Cary home he shares with his wife and business partner, Missy. They recently installed a wood-fired brick oven to expand teaching opportunities.
For those unable to enjoy these hands-on experiences, Vatinet aims to share his expertise and inspire home cooks to become avid bread bakers through his book. The handsome volume contains more than 400 photos that demonstrate step-by-step techniques, as well as his "7 Steps to Making Great Bread."
"When I first said how many photos I wanted in the book, I thought my publisher would faint," says Vatinet. "I want people to learn what dough should feel like in their hands, how good it smells and how much better it is for you than commercial breads. People say they are afraid of yeast and don't believe they can make bread like La Farm. But they can."
A Passion for Bread also contains dozens of popular recipes from the La Farm Bakery, several of which will be prepared by Fearrington House Chef Colin Bedford at a brunch event on Nov. 10.
While La Farm's flavorful breads get a boost from a custom oven that coats the dough with a timely spray of steam—the new outdoor oven features a steam spigot—Vatinet shares tricks of the trade for creating a similar environment in the average home kitchen. He also discusses the importance of using the best local and organic ingredients, such as North Carolina-raised and -ground wheat and local honey, to yield the tastiest loaves.
Vatinet is a key player in the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project. His wheat and rye flours are sourced exclusively from Carolina Ground Flour in Asheville. He plans to add its white flour as soon as the crop is viable.
"This is how bread has always been made in my village in France," he says of the practice of relying on local and regional ingredients instead of cheaper commercial brands. "It is what they call terrior. It's what gives bread its unique flavor, as well make it healthy to eat. It is good for the immune system."
Home bakers may not have easy access to artisanal ingredients, yet Vatinet advises that they purchase only organic and unbromated flours. "The use of bromates has been prohibited in Europe for years," he says. "It has been linked to cancer. I will not use it and strongly recommend that home bakers do the same."
Educating customers, and being educated by them, has led Vatinet to tweak his breads over the years.
"The South is known for softer breads and biscuits, so we had to develop an audience for crusty, chewy bread," he says, cringing at the mention of factory-made, long-lasting soft white bread. "Good white bread is delicious, but I do not think of that as good bread. To me, bread is an everyday commodity not meant to last for weeks."
In a bow to customers who enjoy crumbly cornbread, Vatinet created his hearty Frenchman's Corn Bread with local, stone-ground Yates Mill cornmeal. Cinnamon Raisin Pecan bread is a seasonal favorite. He also makes a moist and savory rye bread that makes Northern transplants feel at home.
"They are called Yankees, no?" he says with a playful gleam in his eye. "We make different breads on different days, and we have customers who come every week to get their favorite. They come in and shout to me, wave their hands. Let me tell you, it is a pleasure to make people happy with bread."