by Coral Lee

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For this Heritage Radio Network On Tour special report, the HRN team braved the 11-mile journey uptown, to the Orwashers factory in Hunts Point. After donning hair nets, we slid past vats of bubbling wine-grape yeast starters and oohed and aahed as shapers churned out perfect batons. After the tour, the team sat down with owner Keith Cohen, to a feast of lox-laden bagel-wiches, melty cookies, and sticky bun babka. Keith shared Orwashers’ long-standing place in NYC history, the importance of constant self-critique and re-invention, and how his eating habits often resemble that of a 10-year-old’s.

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With a wine warehouse to the right, and another bread wholesaler to the left, the HRN team felt eerily at home in Orwashers’ bakery’s South Bronx location; if not for the occasional coastal breeze, you’d think we were in Bushwick. After introductions and passing out hairnets (and beard-nets), we were whisked away into the mixing rooms.

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Though Orwashers’ accounts are largely wholesale, only 3 mixers were going, manned by 3 workers. Keith stresses the importance of hand-made breads, and though mixing machines are utilized, the assistance is minimal.

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“I don’t know if any of you have grown up with people who can do anything–they can do wood work, work with metal, et cetera… that’s the talent of our team. I would say 90% of the team can at least do 2 positions in the bakery. It’s either mix and shape, or shape and bake, and the most senior guys can do all 3 positions. And what that does, obviously, is allow us to move people where need be, but more importantly, our team members understand the whole process. And that’s why we can develop the products that we do.”

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Orwashers breads use 100% natural fermentation, requiring meticulous planning and some serious TLC (their sourdoughs take two full days). Owner Keith Cohen is a big proponent of using local flour, Their “ultimate whole wheat” uses grains from the Finger Lakes, while their “levain locale” sources grains from North Country Farms. He has even created a natural yeast starter using wine grapes (Chardonnay and Cabernet from Channing Daughters), water, and flour; he also has developed a beer bread, using stout.

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On his experimentation with wine grapes, Keith explains, “I’m not the first one to use grapes for their yeast. This dates back to the first leavened bread made by Egyptians. So they’re really the first ones, and what inspired me, was that this bakery was old. And when I took over this old, historical bakery, I wanted to recreate some of the breads that you would have seen 300 years ago. I approached Christopher Tracy from Channing Daughters thinking that, he would think I’m crazy. But Christopher, the winemaker and now my partner, said ‘hey man, sure!’ and so I went out there (this was 2008 in November), we took some Chardonnay grapes and some Cab, and we grew these fantastic starters.”

Starters will change, depending on weather–and it has nothing to do with any error on the bakers part. “We do it differently than some bakeries. Some bakeries have legacy starters–50, 100, 150 years old; I like to rebuild our starter every year, around harvest time, Thanksgiving. I consider it our ‘vintage’. It’s ceremonial; we rebuild it, and we find that it’s stronger each time. This is a time where we get to reflect back on the year; a lot of the team has been here for awhile, so they look forward to it.

Having a perfectly hermetically sealed environment is simply not practical. “Different flours can absorb water differently. We just got a flour delivery–a blend–but throughout the year, it’s aged differently; sometimes there’s more moisture. We have all these different products, these different doughs, different dough temperatures, everything else, and it’s a huge amount of coordination. I equate it with trying to run the subway system. You have all these different lines, different doughs, different shapes, and you also have the limiting factor, which is the oven. Maturation is going on all day, and there’s no sophisticated database system to refer to. It’s just gut instinct.” And that’s just part of the complex, beautiful chaos.

Orwashers workers have to be in constant communication with their wholesale clients to ensure the doughs started by 4AM, proofed and shaped by the 6AM team, baked by the 8AM team, and delivered before that 9am deadline to the grocery stores (including Whole Foods Market) and fine-dining restaurants we all frequent. Keith is proud of Orwashers’ covert command of the bread-basket market: “we’re the first thing that the person eats. The first impression – as with anything in life – is really important. So, I’m happy to be on the tables of a lot of great restaurants in the city, and a lot of great sandwich shops.”

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So how does a 100-year old bakery stay relevant and innovative? “With the new store on Amsterdam, I decided to venture; we were a bread company for 100 years, all we did was bread, but I said, ‘it would be nice if we could do some other stuff.’ And more so than the sticky bun babka, or even the cookies, I wanted to create a bagel. I mean this is a 100-year old New York based, Eastern European business! But I didn’t want to just copy any other bagel recipe. I wanted to look at it the way we approach our breads. Our bagels use two separate starters, there’s a slow fermentation, we do not boil it. I know that’s a sacrilege in some places, and we have a different way of baking it. A traditional baking oven is just a big rotating oven, or like a big pizza oven, but our ovens have steam. So we hit that steam button pretty hard, instead of the boil. The bagels are not as shiny, but that also means they’re not as loaded up with sugar. When you eat our bagels, made with a much longer and slower fermentation, you don’t go into that carb-coma. It’s lighter on your stomach. There’s a real flavor to it.”

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So now that he’s developed a killer bagel recipe, is it perfect every day? Keith says it’s hardly the case. “And again, it is those nuances: the weather, types of grains, baking temperature. It is my job to be constantly critical: ‘this is too tough, too sweet, not enough seeds.’ That’s the fun of creating a new product. Experimenting with all these different iterations, and finally going, ‘oh my God! This is great!’ and not really knowing why or what happened, so you repeat it again and again, to really make sure you have it down. A baguette seems like a very simple product to make. But we found it to be the most complex. I spent 11 days with my head baker in France learning from scratch. You kind of had to throw out everything you knew, because sometimes you develop bad habits–as with anything. We met with a top baker there, and we did it in the school laboratory environment, and everything was great. But then the head baker, Mario, said to me, ‘well that’s great, we’re making 20 baguettes, and everything is perfect here, what are we going to do once we have to work in a small space?’ So then we went to this tiny bakery in Paris, where they’re cranking out 1500 baguettes a day. That bakery is very similar to what our location on 78th street–the original store–looks like. Retail on top, with a basement bakery. These guys had mastered small spaces. Everyday, we were constantly looking at the baguette… cutting it open, looking for the holes, the proper taste.”

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What sparked Keith to reinvent the wheel in the first place? “I went to Gjusta and Gjelina; what I found is that they have the look down, of the bread. They just didn’t have the flavor and the fermentation. So it’s kind of like building this great house, but it’s missing the insides. I am pretty simple, and I think baking works pretty well for me. I don’t think I can be an executive chef – I mean, I guess I could, if there were only 5 things on the menu – but baking is simple, yet there remains a strong level of complexity in the process. And during that entire process, while it looks very simple and also very well staged, there’s an organized chaos. Stuff is not that same everyday. Baking has to be who you are. What you do is now who you are. The bakery business means long hours, 24 hours a day, to do it correctly. And you have to be able to make that commitment. Luckily, I didn’t have that many other talents, so I wasn’t sidetracked. It is a 7 day a week operation. You have to start early, and you have to shut down late. And the next day, you have to do it all over again.”

You can find Orwashers’ breads at their Upper East Side and Upper West Side locations, or at NYC Whole Foods.

For more information and updates on local suppliers at Whole Foods Market follow @wholefoodsnyc on Instagram.