The notion of “quality” is elusive, often subjective—difficult to define. It conjures connections to usefulness, excellence and beauty.
In his partially autobiographical novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert M. Pirsig intimately explores the definition of quality, at one point suggesting that “quality is a direct experience”—that is, we must personally experience quality in order to fully grasp its meaning. It exists independently of intellectual perceptions. The proof is in the pudding.
Some people place such a high emphasis on quality that they hang their shingle on it—like Publican Quality Bread has in Chicago. Just bite into any of the signature artisan breads the bakery distributes to restaurants throughout the city and you’ll have all the personal experience you need to define quality bread for yourself.
Refining the concept
The origin of Publican Quality Bread traces back to 2012, when delegated staff baked breads and other goods during off hours in the kitchen at The Publican, a notable Chicago restaurant that perfectly evokes the sentiment of “rustic elegance.” Its cuisine is hearty, farmhouse-inspired fare, with rustic—yet refined—breads to match.
Later, the bakery team relocated to the basement of a sister business, Publican Quality Meats, a butcher shop, bakery-café and upscale retail market. Publican Quality Bread was growing, refining its approach—and its definition of quality.
As the bakery’s production ramped up, its staff diversified and expanded to meet the bakery needs of the various restaurants and taverns across One Off Hospitality Group, a notable Chicago culinary network that includes not only The Publican and namesake-associated businesses Publican Quality Meats and Publican Quality Bread, but also Blackbird, Avec, The Violet Hour, Big Star, Dove’s Luncheonette, Nico Osteria, Publican Tavern, Anker and Pacific Standard Time—from French-inspired fine dining to Mexican street food. The group got its start back in the late 1990s when partners Donnie Madia, Eduard Seitan, the late Ricky Diarmit and Chef Paul Kahan collaborated to open Blackbird. Avec followed next, and then the hits just kept coming. To date, the group has garnered seven coveted James Beard Awards.
In late 2014, One Off Hospitality Group eventually opened the dedicated bakery facility that serves as the home of Publican Quality Bread today, helmed by Greg Wade, head baker. Under his supervision, Publican Quality Bread has grown well beyond serving its sister enterprises across the restaurant group. Today, the bakery also provides artisan breads to around 100 Chicago restaurants, as well as some retail locations.
Wade’s connection to bread traces back to his childhood. “I grew up baking with my grandmother when she would babysit us,” says Wade. “My parents would always come home to little flour handprints all over the kitchen and pretend to be mad about it. Once I was a little bit older, I started baking bread with my dad on the weekends.”
After earning a degree in culinary arts, Wade got his start at Taxim in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, where he specialized in breads and pastries. He then joined the opening team at Girl & the Goat in 2010, flourishing under the direction of Chef Stephanie Izard, eventually overseeing bakery production for Izard’s Girl & the Goat, Little Goat and Little Goat French Market. His next stop was Publican Quality Bread.
Wade specializes in long-fermented breads that feature local grains. He has helped cultivate a network of local and regional grain suppliers, regularly working with members of the Artisan Grain Collaborative, a group of bakers, chefs, farmers and others who seek to “create a regional food system built upon regenerative agriculture furthering the health of communities and natural resources.” He was honored with James Beard Award nominations for “Outstanding Baker” in both 2017 and 2018, and was featured in the documentary, “Sustainable: A Documentary on the Local Food Movement in America,” released in 2016.
Inside the bakery
Wade says that Publican Quality Bread can generally manage a peak output of up to 1,000 loaves per day. He notes that production could be higher, but they only work during regular daytime hours. “We want to offer a very good quality of life for the bakers,” he says. “We don’t want to go into overnight shifts.”
Wade notes that the bakery does about 10 different mixes per day, yielding about 30 different products. Publican Quality Bread specializes in several types of long-fermented artisan breads, including:
- Ciabatta, 60-hour fermentation, made with Spence Farm Abruzzi rye and Glenn wheat
- French baguettes, demi and full, 60-hour fermentation, made with light Spence Farm rye
- Sesame semolina Pugliese baguettes, 30-hour fermentation, made with golden semolina and Spence Farm Glenn wheat
- Multigrain “1979” baguette, 60-hour fermentation, made with five grains and five seeds, 30 percent whole grain
- Sourdough pan bread, 60-hour fermentation
- Multigrain “1979” pan bread, 60-hour fermentation, made with five grains and five seeds, 25 percent whole grain
The bakery also makes specialty seed crackers, with rye flour and sesame, charnushka, sunflower, pepita and flax seeds.
All of the bread flour is transitional organic and unbleached. Wade notes that all the whole grain used at Publican Quality Bread are local. “We get off a vast majority of it from Spence Farm. We also get a lot from The Mill at Janie’s Farm, and our oats come from Ackerman Family Farms.” All are located within a few hours of Chicago.
The sourdough starter used at Publican Quality Bread came from Pamela Fitzpatrick, a friend of Kahan’s and the former head baker at the former Fox & Obel in Chicago. “She was also one of the original bakers at La Brea Bakery with Nancy Silverton. So, we like to speculate that the starter may have been from La Brea,” says Wade.
“It all begins with the starter,” continues Wade. “We feed it three times a day, and it is always left out at room temperature and never sees the cooler. That’s not only for the health and the strength of the starter, but also to have it fed on a routine schedule so it behaves more predictably. We also start by soaking whole grains—flour, cracked and whole—and let that sit out at room temperature for 12 to 18 hours, which will start fermenting naturally, activating a lot of enzymes.” This adds significant flavor notes to the breads, he says. “The following day, we incorporate that with the sourdough starter and also more flour and water, and sometimes seeds, sometimes honey. We withhold salt at first during the autolyse processes, allowing the dough to develop on its own.”
After a set autolyze period—sometimes half an hour, sometimes three or four hours, depending on the mix—the bakers add salts, do the final mix and we ferment for three to four hours. “Then we pre-shape, rest, do final shaping and let it ferment for another hour or two at room temperature before going cold for about 24 hours. Then we pull them out and bake straight from cold.” Wade actively adjusts each recipe based up of the absorption rate of the flour that’s delivered to the bakery.
Baking is done primarily in deck ovens, but Publican Quality Bread does some baking in convention rack ovens.
“We focus on quality and integrity first and foremost,” says Wade. “We want to partner with local farms not only to support local producers, but also because you’re able to have a more-flavorful product and have it be designed and grown directly for you. I’m proud of the fact that we’re able to form a baking community in Chicago and have it be involved with everyone along the grain supply chain, from farmer to miller, baker and consumer.”
At a Glance
Company: Publican Quality Bread
Website address: www.publicanqualitybread.com
Products: ciabatta, baguettes, pan breads, crackers