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You know the game Happy Families? With the rosy-faced Mr and Mrs Bun and their rotund children, all smiling vacantly from their cards? It’s the classic cliche of the baker as a simple-minded village cook who has eaten a few too many of their own pies.
Jim Lahey is not that. The man behind the Sullivan Street Bakery is way more complex. And lean. A sculptor and painter, he studied mathematics, physics, and continental philosophy. And now, at the age of 52, speaks five languages, including “a little bit of Wolof,” the language of Senegal.
“I also have phrases in Arabic, phrases in Greek, I have a little bit of Chinese,” he says. “I mean, I can’t have a conversation in these, but I can say, ‘Hi, how are you?’”
He’s started playing the guitar too – a thing he thought he’d never be able to do. “I can play two songs: ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long Marianne’ by Leonard Cohen. My children hate it, because they’re the only songs I ever play, and my wife likes it. I love sad music. It’s dark, but there’s a light, a crack in everything, and that’s where the light comes in.”
As a young man, it’s fair to say he had less … patience. He worked 37 jobs before he opened the first Sullivan Street Bakery, in SoHo, in 1994. Job 36 was working for Amy Scherber, at Amy’s Bread. Job 37 was with Joe Allen.
“Joe had been looking into doing a bread bakery, and one day he was like, ‘If you ever decide to open up a bakery, give us a call, we’d be interested in buying bread from you.’”
But young Jim wasn’t ready to open a bakery just yet. So he embarked on a “very low-budget bread trip” to Italy instead, where he basically wandered around with a backpack asking (usually older) people where he could find good bread. He started in Milan, finished in Rome, and stopped off in London, before returning to NY.
“I then spent about a year trying to open up a bakery without capital. I’d go to these obscure little bakeries in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn Heights, Harlem, the Bronx, and I’d try to convince the owner that I could bake bread during their off hours.
“I’d get up at one o’clock, get to the bakery by 2.30am/3am, mix my doughs and start baking around 5am. I’d have everything out by 9am.”
He’d then load up his Cutlass Ciera – two-door – with loaves of bread, drive it into Manhattan, and drop supplies off at various restaurants, including Dean & DeLuca. He was bringing in a little money, but not really enough to survive. So, after a long, hard summer, he gave Joe Allen a call.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m dying, you gotta help me out here. If you’re really serious about this, put up or shut-up.’”
Old Joe put up.
“He gave me a stipend, an artist’s stipend. I’m an artist, he’s the patron,” says Jim. “We signed a lease in January 1994, the ovens were first tested on my birthday in June, and we were open by September. That’s when the fun began.”
The Hell’s Kitchen location – on W47th St – 10th/11th Ave – came later, in 2000, and the first loaf of bread was baked in time for Halloween that year. Around 7,000 pounds of bread now leave the ovens there every day, some staying in the cafe, but most going to supply some of the city’s top restaurants.
The space was recently expanded and refurbished with a painstaking attention to detail – all walnut wood and marble countertops, serving breakfast and lunch specials, sandwiches, salads, and pizza, as well as an array of 30 or so breads that would send the carb-phobe running into the Hudson.
Along the way, Jim has published three books (My Bread, My Pizza, and the Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook), got married, had kids, got divorced, got remarried … “our lives are kind of messy at the end of the day. I mean most people’s are,” he says. But fatherhood (his kids are 11, nine, and seven) has brought him great joy and a sense of calm, I think.
He bought a farm upstate in 1998, and now spends his spare time playing two songs on guitar, foraging (“I might have been foraging longer than I’ve been baking bread”), and trying to avoid social media.
“There’s such an overabundance of ideas and stimulation and friends to follow that I almost want to be a bit of a hermit and just totally ignore it all,” he says. “I honestly can’t keep up with it
“And we’re losing something. It used to be when you would arrive in a city like Rome, or Glasgow, or Edinburgh, or London, if you were a foreigner, you didn’t speak the language, you had to ask people for directions or help. That doesn’t exist anymore. You’ve got your phone. There’s a gain, because now you’re independent, but there’s a loss of experience, of randomness.”
At work, it’s the opposite: he’s full of focus, and excited about developing new products, new pizzas (fungi feature heavily right now – some foraged by his own fair hand on Bear Mountain), and experimenting with flavors (his schiacciata grape bread is an insane combination of sweet and salty). And he still sculpts.
This story originally appeared in W42ST Magazine in November 2018.