On certain mornings, the village of Georgetown smells as if it was baked inside a loaf of bread. That was my initial thought when attempting to track down local baker Rob VanKeuren. I had the address, but wasn’t certain where he was exactly. My “Where are you?” messages went unanswered, although not on purpose, the guy was wrapped up in baking. A cluster of mailboxes and my own lack of sleep the night before combined for confusion and I ended up in a driveway, still sniffing the air, and I was greeted by a tiger-striped cat, then a kid. I asked if he knew where I could find “the guy that bakes bread.” He brought my question to his mom and returned with, “Go to Lombardi’s. A right turn out of the driveway and immediately on your right.”
I sheepishly cracked the door and entered the Italian restaurant. The bready aroma hit my nose so hard I could practically taste it. I was quickly greeted by a “Hey, man!”, by a guy wearing shorts, a plain blue t-shirt, an apron, and long oven-safe gloves, who was in full-on baker mode, stacking circular-ish loaves of sourdough and egg-washing flaky croissants. I was clearly in the right place, and it was unmistakably Rob, who I had been following on Instagram for a while, always drooling at the sight of his breadporn posts. We got to talking and he offered me something I hadn’t heard of before, called a kouign-amann, basically a croissant-muffin hybrid with a crusty exterior, buttery interior, and a crystallized salted caramel bottom. Perfection, if you ask me. Between bites of this sweet, salty treat, VanKeuren revealed that he hasn’t made and sold bread all that long. In fact, it’s very recent.
VanKeuren—a Weston resident who grew up in Darien—worked in finance for 14 years post-college. When he got laid off a handful of years back, he took a yoga trip to India, and that’s when the revelation started. “That trip was my Eat, Pray, Love moment, or in this case, eat, bake, love,” he said. “I realized I was done with finance. I said to myself, I’m not going back. I love food, I wanna be around food. I worked in restaurants in high school and college.”
He returned from India with an idea to open a small pizza and ice cream place. It was then when he met Frank Lombardi, the owner of Lombardi’s Trattoria, through a mutual friend. Lombardi thought VanKeuren was a pretty good cook, so he agreed to teach him about how the restaurant business operates. For the next year, he worked six days per week, doing everything from stacking wood to cleaning the oven to taking out the trash. “After a few months Frank let me work the line, taught me about the wood oven, and then I started to make pizza,” VanKeuren said. “Eventually my pizza started getting round and I stopped burning them.”
While he worked at Lombardi’s, VanKeuren thought about a restaurant of his own, but that plan changed when he went into a local bookstore. “The Tartine Bread book caught my eye, and I’ve always kinda wondered about bread,” he said. He immersed himself in the book and watched online videos to get tips from Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery. VanKeuren further honed his newfound craft by baking for his family, friends, and neighbors, but then Frank had an idea. “He told me to make a bunch of dough and try baking in the wood oven,” VanKeuren said. “By my standards now, they weren’t good, but back then they were amazing! Dark, crusty, bubbly, and when I opened the oven doors, the steam rolled out like it came from an old locomotive, and I thought holy cow, this is awesome!”
A self-proclaimed problem solver, VanKeuren continued learning about bread and baking, and that begins with sourdough. “Every time I want to learn about something I start at the beginning and pick it apart,” he said. “Sourdough is the traditional way of making bread, and I got into it during a trip to Italy. I like that it uses no commercial yeast, you don’t have to feed it sugar or warm water, and the cultures (that he brought back from Italy) will keep growing and coming back.”
His love of sourdough bread has since grown into pastries. VanKeuren mentioned that there are maybe 50 bakers in the world that specialize in making sourdough pastries, so he decided to teach himself about a year ago, despite all the trial-and-error and frustration he said it caused. And as I learned, his one-man process takes a great deal of time. He chooses—unlike commercial bakeries—to bake the old-fashioned way, using no leavening agents to speed up the incorporation of air in the dough. Instead, he lets the natural ingredients work on their own, resulting in ultimately better bread in terms of texture and taste. It’s almost a week-long process when you factor in shopping, the making and resting/rising of the dough, and a few days of intensive baking sessions.
Now that he’s evolved as a baker, and received local recognition, he’s been sold out, and unsure if he’ll ever open a storefront. “I don’t know. I love the idea of my own space but I realized what I do well is bake, not operate a retail establishment,” he said. “It becomes something different, maybe the product will change or suffer if I expand.”
Currently, he has some wholesale accounts, but he focuses on baking for locals that stop by Lombardi’s on Friday and Saturday mornings starting at 10 a.m. If you’re trying to get the goods, you should direct message him your order ahead of time on Facebook or comment if he posts to reserve a loaf. If you’re planning on stopping by to snag various croissants or pastries, get there on time. At 9:45, there was already a line, and some folks had sizeable orders in addition to pre-ordered loaves of sourdough and cinnamon swirl brioche.
While in line, VanKeuren’s loyal customers sang his praises. A few shared, “It’s the best bread!” and “I’m here every week.” Other fans of his saw my teaser photos on social media and commented, “We’re so lucky to have an amazing talent like Rob VanKeuren in our neighborhood! His breads and pastries are wonderful!” and one even DM’ed me with, “You won’t find a level of sourdough anywhere else in Fairfield County that Rob is producing. It immediately takes me to memories of toasting a loaf of Tartine’s sourdough on my mornings in San Francisco. So grateful for Rob’s fascination, dedication, and perfected joy.”
VanKeuren himself might never say anything he bakes is perfect, that’s just who he is. But his customers certainly think so. Even if he doesn’t believe his problem-solving mentality has solved the puzzle of baking, he’s damn close to the solution.
Rob tells us that starting next week, his baked goods will be available for pickup at NEAT in Darien. Tuesday for toasts and Friday for bread.