Norman Jean Roy can present as a modest baker, owner and creator of the Breadfolks bakery in Hudson. But make no mistake: Roy is still a great seducer, a man working his angles, as you would expect from one of the world’s most famous—former—photographers.
When Roy was earning his coin shooting the most beautiful people in the world, he used these gifts to create timeless photographs that were bigger than the very big personalities within them: a luminous Rihanna, draped in a shark’s mouth; Johnny Depp worn and rough, a sun flare casting an unlikely halo. He was at the top of the game, one of the very few photographers in the world for whom budgets were never a concern, with Vanity Fair and Vogue willing and able to fund his vision for their reflected glory.
But after two decades of traveling the world for shoots, and experiencing “the best of everything,” as Roy describes those heady times, he walked away in 2014. “I never fell out of love with photography,” he says. “I fell out of love with the industry.”
He got rid of his studio, sold his apartment, and he and his wife, Joanna, decamped to their homestead upstate, then in Tagkhanic. He took a year to live, instead of work, and then began to think about what was next. Enter bread.
“Bread is simple, primal,” he says. “We don’t survive as a society without it. Every culture has bread.” Roy, who grew up in Montreal, has memories of baking bread with his grandmother, using a natural levain (starter).
But bread is simple in another way that mattered to Roy, after years of making images that sold magazines and movies: having a bakery was an end-to-end process he could create and own. “It’s a closed-loop transaction,” he says. “That was the appeal. I make it, I sell it to you, and that’s it.” But Roy is still Roy. Bread may be humble, and the work may be hard, but what he has created with Breadfolks is nonetheless a masterwork.
After finding the ideal bakery location in 2019, on Hudson’s busy Warren Street, Roy went off to the revered San Francisco Baking Institute for their intensive courses in the art of bread and pastry. Then the pandemic landed, throwing off the launch plans; a sit-down café around the back of the building never opened, and now houses 50-pound sacks of heirloom grains and tall stacks of straw proofing baskets. But when Breadfolks opened, as a storefront only, in July 2020, they were instantly selling out, with lines of customers queuing to get the goods.
The country batards, fougasse, rugbrød, miche, baguettes and any other number of bread types are all naturally leavened without yeast, yielding dense, chewy, flavorful loaves. And the croissants and cruffins and petite tarts all crisply shatter, revealing buttery flaky goodness inside, some filled with inventive flavors like pistachio cream, lavender-scented apple filling, chai pumpkin spice cream with yuzu ganache, and more. The shiny, crisply laminated Kouign-amann (sugar cake) is perhaps the summit of what one could expect of flour, sugar, and butter, a flight of fancy as sumptuous as any lineup of models swathed in couture, standing in Roy’s rich light.
Yet the goods, excellent as they are, are just part of what’s at play here. Every single detail of the experience has been designed and considered by Roy: the shop’s design and branding, and its flawlessly executed Instagram (the sexiest bread photos around). Then there’s the team of dedicated bakers hired from the best bakeries in the country and the world (“it’s not Bread folk,” says Roy); the precise production schedule that unfurls like a perfectly choreographed dance in the tidy and tight kitchen (one baker, Tim, who at 6-foot-6 is the exact height of the 5-deck Italian bread oven); and even the intentionally irregular menu so a customer is never quite sure what will be in the shop, guaranteeing surprise and delight at every visit.
Roy insists that he chose bread because “it’s simple and elemental.” But he is also fully in control, aware that he’s made hundreds of decisions that sharpened and shaped Breadfolks into what it has become. “I’m not surprised by our success,” he will admit, “But I am profoundly humbled and filled with gratitude.”
Roy left photography because he’d mastered it, there was nothing new for him to learn. Asked if he’s mastered bread, he and tall Tim share a knowing laugh, as they turn leavened batards out of their cozy linen-lined baskets onto the oven shelf. “You never know when it will surprise you,” he says, explaining it’s a living thing he can’t command. “The bread always owns you.”