The art of breadmaking is a beautiful thing. In an age of always-on technology and schedules filled with one to-do after the next, breadmaking is a study in unhurriedness. Speed is not of the essence when it comes to carefully sifting flour and adding just enough water to bind together the dough. In fact, the desire to rush is entirely contrary to breadmaking at its core. Since time is essential to the development of flavor, sometimes the only thing to do is take a breath and let the dough do its thing.
Daniel Leader knows all about letting bread be. A baker since college, he’s quite comfortable leaving his edible creations alone for hours, if not days. When he returns to them, they’re full of rich, nuanced flavors that shine brightest when toasted to a golden crust. Said crusts, along with the aerated dough inside them, can be found at Bread Alone locations across the Hudson Valley in Boiceville, Lake Katrine, Rhinebeck, and Woodstock, not to mention the 40-plus farmers markets throughout the New York region.
So how did one man turn his passion for organic bread into a full-blown Hudson Valley enterprise? Let’s just say it involved more than a little hard work and a whole lot of flour.
Leader remembers watching his grandmothers make bread. As a child, he was greatly impressed with their skills as cooks and often found himself awestruck by how they transformed simple scoops of flour into multilayered pastries and airy loaves.
“I remember them making old-fashioned strudels and stretching it on Formica tables,” he reminisces. “I can still see the speckles on the table.”
In college, he fell into the world of breadmaking via the famed Tassajara Bread Book by Zen priest Edward Espe Brown. A guide to the slow art of dough, the book was an eye-opening resource for Leader in terms of what breadmaking could and should be.
“It was slow and careful. It was whole-wheat and healthy. It was very thoughtful and a very caring way of baking, and that really appealed to me,” he says.
Thoroughly smitten with bread as an art form, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. The school only offered a two-year general culinary education program at the time, so that’s exactly what he did.
Leader’s first stop after earning his degree in 1975 was New York City. As is the case with many a chef, he cut his teeth working in fast-paced metropolitan kitchens. During August, when the restaurants closed for summer breaks, he escaped to Paris at first to visit colleagues and later to apprentice at boulangeries. He had already done the groundwork of making friends and contacts with local bakers in Paris, so it was relatively easy for him to find a backdoor into kitchens that were often staffed exclusively by native artisans.
“I became this odd character as this American who wanted to bake French bread,” he says. “I learned the craft from old-school bakers who learned from their fathers.”
During this stage of sorts, he immersed himself in the ever-changing world of bread culture. As he learned from the experts, no two days in the kitchen are ever the same. When temperatures change, humidity fluctuates, and ingredients vary by batch, the only thing keeping loaves from turning to the mediocre are the uncanny instincts of the artisans who craft them.
Although Leader’s day job kept him firmly entrenched in New York City kitchens, his heart longed to recreate his experience in France. Following his gut, he purchased a small house in West Shokan for a mortgage that cost less than his apartment in New York. When he later eyed a bitty building for sale in Boiceville, he nabbed it for a bargain, then said farewell to the Big Apple in order to bake bread in the Hudson Valley.
When Bread Alone opened in Boiceville in 1983, it was a barebones operation. Leader had a work table, a mixer, a wood-fired oven, and that was it. Fortunately, that was all he really needed to craft his organic, naturally fermented, artisan loaves. Because what he was doing was so different, so stripped down, and so genuinely good, it wasn’t long before Bread Alone’s reputation began to spread.
As the word about Bread Alone’s quality loaves trickled throughout the Hudson Valley, Leader, alongside his wife, Sharon, knew it was time to expand. In 1987, he recruited fourth-generation Parisian oven maker Andre Lefort to construct two brick ovens for the brand. Over the years, he and Sharon introduced the bakery’s signature boules and sourdoughs to new communities with stores in Woodstock (1993), Rhinebeck (2000), and Kingston (2015). They also established a remarkable presence at farmers markets both in the Hudson Valley and in New York City. Today, Bread Alone stands can be seen at approximately 45 markets, with additional retail locations in the region.
In regard to operations, the Kingston location has been the headquarters for the baking since 2013. The facility powers through about 80,000 pounds of flour a week and remains open 24/7 for the bulk of the year. The only time it’s closed is for 12 hours on Christmas. (Event then, it’s a hub for actively fermenting starters and rising doughs.) Of all the four locations, Rhinebeck is consistently the busiest, thanks to an influx of weekend foot traffic from visitors to the village. Yet even the Dutchess County storefront pales in comparison to the Grand Army Plaza farmers market in Brooklyn, which can sell more loaves on a single Saturday than the Hudson Valley locations sell in a week.
And that’s only the retail end of things. In addition to expanding the Bread Alone brand to tremendous proportion, Leader has carved out time to compose multiple books on breadmaking. Most recently, he debuted Living Bread: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Making with Lauren Chattman in October. More than just a recipe collective, the read delves into the ingredients and practices that define artisan breadmaking and scatters in stories from artisan bakers across the globe. With chapters on everything from “Changing Wheat Landscapes” and “Simple Sourdoughs” to “Sprouted Breads” and “Using Leftover Starter,” the compendium is a resource for bakers who seek to hone their preparation and place their craft within the global breadmaking industry at large.
Throughout Leader’s 30-plus year history in the Hudson Valley, he’s never lost sight of what it means to be an artisan bread maker.
“I think I’m a simple guy at heart,” he admits. “Bread Alone is a very complicated business now, but everything about my work is the same.”
In essence, Leader is very much correct. Bread Alone continues to define itself according to the ingredients and practices to which its founder committed inn 1983. The grains are organic, the ingredients are as local as possible, and the bread is always made under the caring eye of skilled bakers. To create the beautifully crusted loaves that gild the café shelves, bakers utilize Leader’s long and slow fermentation process. Sourdoughs remain a signature, but they’re just the tipping point of the bakery’s offerings, which also include brioche, ciabatta, miche, peasant bread, and so much more. Recently, Bread Alone rolled out its line of Nordic breads, which shine with a delightfully sour flavor and nutritional density.
All the breads feature prominently on the café menus, which offer bites like avocado toast and grilled cheese on organic pain au levain and spicy roasted cauliflower on multigrain ciabatta. There are also pastries, which have arguably become just as famous as the breads themselves. As anyone who’s graced the counters at Bread Alone can admit, one look at the flaky chocolate croissants and sugar crystal-sparkling blueberry muffins is all it takes to give into temptation.
Four stores, 200-plus employees, and countless pounds of flour later, Leader is ready to embark on a new phase in his career. In October 2019, he made the decision to pass the title of CEO to his son, Nels. A bread lover like his father, Nels is also an advocate for sustainability. Looking ahead, he hopes to expand upon the sustainable initiatives implemented by Leader, the most notable of which is a 196KW solar array on the roof of the Kingston headquarters. Bread Alone currently boasts 664 solar panels producing 196KW of solar power, or enough to fuel 25 American homes per year. As they operate now, the panels cover 30 percent of the company’s energy needs. By 2030, the brand hopes to up this number to 100 percent.
Elsewhere with sustainable programming, Bread Alone partners with Toast Ale to turn extra bread into beer. It also composts food at each of its cafés and donates leftover food to local soup kitchens and charitable organizations like City Harvest. Since 2018, it has been a member of 1% for the Planet, which supports the establishment of environmental solutions across the globe.
With so much on the horizon for Nels, Leader will continue to remain a presence within the Bread Alone family. Yet he’ll also be traveling across the country to talk about his book, consulting on projects with national brands, and collaborating with leading culinary institutes to educate the next generation.
And he’ll make bread. As he explains to aspiring bakers during talks and in his writings, bread making is a means of returning to simpler times, making things by hand, and decluttering the mind and finding patience. When that happens, and when simple ingredients like flour, salt, yeast, and water come together, artisan bread comes to be.
“I often equate breadmaking to that melody you love that you just dream about. There’s something so deeply satisfying that touches you about it,” he says. “Good bread does that for people.”