Is Baltimore ready for a French bakery that whips up six variations on the traditional baguette?
Or a bakery/cafe that offers sourdough bread made without commercial yeast . . . and takes two days to prepare?
And will down-to-earth Baltimoreans really flock to a cafe that features cucumber-and-goat-cheese sandwiches?
The answer, according to Bill Himmelrich, baker, chef and owner of the Stone Mill Bakery in Mount Washington, is an emphatic yes.
He was so sure Baltimore is ready for a Euro-style bakery and eatery that he staked his entire future on a career as a baker and purveyor of high-quality baked goods and deli items. And that's even more interesting when you remember that Mr. Himmelrich was a New York banker who decided his heart is in Baltimore -- and in baking.
"Instead of the new-fangled stuff like bread stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes or things like that, I make authentic, classical bread," Mr. Himmelrich says from a corner table in his cafe on Sulgrave Avenue. "The world is getting back to basics and people will always need a baguette."
Later this month, he'll open a second Stone Mill Bakery in Green Spring Station on Falls Road in Brooklandville and next month he'll move from his Mount Washington location to larger quarters a few doors away.
You might say that Stone Mill Cafe is, ahem, on a roll.
Before his dream of a European-style bakery and a chain of related eateries could be realized, however, Mr. Himmelrich needed to put a rite of passage behind him: the "mid-life crisis."
"I had been working at Morgan Guaranty in New York for two years when I turned 25," recalls Mr. Himmelrich, now 29. "Realizing the first quarter-century of my life was over, I told myself the second quarter would be the one when I would do something I loved."
But what would he do?
Since he'd always been intrigued by food, friends suggested a career in cooking. Then, a fortuitous thing happened: the stock market crashed. It was 1987 and paper fortunes evaporated all around him, presenting yet another reason for pursuing a new career as a chef: "Even in a depression, you can always work with your hands and make a living."
So Mr. Himmelrich moved to Paris to learn classical cooking techniques. Diplomas hang on the wall of the cafe next to the entrance: They include certificates from La Varenne, the Ritz-Escoffier Hotel cooking
school and several two-star and three-star restaurants where he worked in France.
"I worked like a dog 18 hours a day," he says about his apprenticeship. Then, grinning: "I had a great time!"
Next stop: Washington and stints at the kitchens of 21 Federal and I Ricchi, two of the District's tonier restaurants. There he learned the subtleties of making handmade pasta and bread.
Within a few months, his fame as a wizard at the art of bread making was growing. While moonlighting as a doorman at Paolo's, an Italian restaurant in Georgetown, he got the job of setting up an in-house bakery for a chain of restaurants.
Two years ago he quit that job and returned to his hometown and founded the Stone Mill Bakery. At first he worked out of borrowed kitchen space, selling bread to restaurants and retail outlets -- and building a reputation as a reliable source of high-quality bread and bakery items. About a year ago, he opened the cafe with the same name in Mount Washington.
Today, Mr. Himmelrich operates his 3,500-square-foot bakery at Meadow Mill in Woodberry, the converted Londontown factory in Hampden. The bakery supplies more than 20 types of breads to his cafe, as well as Sutton Place Gourmet in Pikesville, Mastellone Deli & Wine Shop on Harford Road and the new Eddie's Super Market on Charles Street near Towson.
Despite the recession, Mr. Himmelrich reports business is good. Bread, especially good bread, is trendy. "There's a very demanding clientele in Baltimore," Mr. Himmelrich says. "It's an old-fashioned city in search of Old World quality. And customers want it simple. Which is why they love my cafe."
But bread -- firm and crunchy on the outside and soft, sweet and dense on the inside -- is the heart and soul of the Stone Mill Bakery.
"Cooking is all based on taste -- after all, even when you're making a sauce, you depend on your ability to taste. But baking is a science," he explains. "It's more like lab work -- basic fermentation and feeding the yeast, a natural one-cell organism. It's really simple, but you have to decide on how to treat the subtle nuances."
It's attention to the subtleties that allows him to create six variations on the standard baguette.
"There's an ideal shape, ideal softness on the inside and an ideal crunch on the outside," he says, pointing to a platter of the variously shaped breads, which range from the standard baguette to round loaves. "Using exactly the same dough, I make couronne (crown), ficelle (string), epis (stalk), batard (round) and boule (ball) breads."
He uses the same loving approach when deciding how to create the different types of bread the bakery produces. "I apply the appropriate principle to each class of bread: brioche, basic white French, sourdough, croissant, pastry," he says. Add to the list carrot, olive, raisin walnut breads, along with pain de mie (a white bread with a thin, dark crust and a fine crumb) and focaccia, a hand-rolled Italian flat bread made with fresh rosemary and extra virgin olive oil, and you have a pretty good idea of his variety of breads.
While he says making bread at home isn't as difficult as most people think, Mr. Himmelrich contends it's simply not possible for the average kitchen to duplicate his breads. But you can still get good results, by paying attention to the craft.
"Use a $2 spray bottle to mist the loaf as it bakes to achieve a good crust and buy a set of baking stones at a cooking store," he advises. "But the most important thing for home bakers is to use quality ingredients. Then get a basic book on baking and follow the principles. It takes time to learn how to do it right."
It also takes a lot of time to bake bread at home.
"Most people aren't willing to do it every day," he says. "After all, it takes two incomes to live now. No one has the time.
"And that's the reason we're successful."