Free Bread Baskets Are So 2013
“When I was growing up, free bread was, like, the thing.”
Like many people, Executive Pastry Chef Chris “Tex” Teixeira had no trouble recalling the complimentary bread baskets that once regularly graced restaurant tables, providing pre-meal snacks. However, he said that this practice is a dying art today, within newer American restaurants in particular. Instead, restaurants are increasingly presenting diners with a new vision: artisanal bread programs. At Chicago’s Homestead on the Roof, where Teixeira works, the bread basket currently costs $7.
So we have to pay for bread now?
The concept of bread baskets with price tags isn’t brand new; but the idea is picking up steam. Food & Wine magazine identified “ambitious bread-and-butter programs” as one of the top food trends worth trying in 2013.
At Homestead On The Roof, one of Teixeira’s many responsibilities is to oversee the creation of the restaurant’s artisanal bread basket. This basket’s contents and accoutrements change.
Seasonally inspired cornbreads, classic french bread, and brioche filled with Serrano ham have all appeared at some point. Also, who needs regular butter when you can use Oaxacan honey butter instead?
More care and attention goes into baking than in the days of the free bread baskets. Teixeira recalled spending two years perfecting his recipe for making herb sourdough bread—his personal favorite—from scratch. It takes four hours to make baguettes. Croissants? Three days.
Creating bread that serves as more than a distraction for diners awaiting entrees requires considerable time and effort. Time and effort aren’t free.
Is it really worth the money?
Teixeira likened the differences between free bread baskets and artisanal bread programs to the differences between boxed wines and fine wines. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of boxed wine. However, people are willing to pay more to taste the subtle yet complex flavors of a Grand Cru Burgundy.
Everything that leaves Homestead’s kitchen receives a personal touch—even the bread. As Teixeira said, he and his team “don't just throw ingredients into a machine and let something pop out.” He described bread as a living organism, especially the starter, which needs to be monitored and even fed—sometimes on a daily basis.
Following a recipe is the easy part. Making bread stand out requires a deeper level of knowledge, respect for the ingredients, and intuition. It’s a labor-intensive process, which means that bakers have an understandable amount of pride in the finished product.
Teixeira said people tend to have one of two mindsets when it comes to paying for bread, "[They either think] it's not worth it or it must be pretty good bread if you're not giving it away for free." According to him, almost every table orders the basket.
But it’s just bread, right?
“If you're going to be paying for the bread,” said Teixeira, “it needs to be good and it needs to be an experience.”
Like almost any dish at a fine-dining restaurant, artisan bread baskets should try to expand people’s culinary horizons in some way. At Homestead, this may mean baking black truffle into a loaf of sourdough or replacing traditional butter with goat and sheep butter.
"For me, [bread] brings back a memory," said Teixeira and he pointed out bread is nostalgic comfort food for many people. Items like Homestead’s cheddar biscuits directly appeal to childhood memories.
With artisanal bread programs, restaurants such as Homestead On The Roof draw on that nostalgia while presenting diners with refined, meticulously prepared creations. The free bread basket may be disappearing, but the new baskets serving as standalone menu items are worth a try.
Photo by Andrew Nawrocki, Groupon
Read about other food trends:
Step aside, hybrid French pastries and fancy iced lattes. Plain old American toast is the new café sensation.
Butter coffee is a Tibetan-inspired drink making its way to American shores. Learn more about many coffee shops' newest offering, including if it contains yak butter.