Behind the Scenes @ The SoNo Baking Company

Deanna Foster

It is still really dark at 4:30 AM , but the pre-dawn hours hold transformative powers.  Darkness will turn to light and the promise of a new day will be realized. Sometimes, both happen sooner than you expect. 

When we arrive at the SoNo Baking Company for a behind-the-scenes tour, it's shortly before 5:00 a.m., but the aroma of warm yeasty bread has transformed two half-asleep writers into eager bakers in training. Owner, John Barricelli, welcomes us in through the still dark café, chairs resting upside down on tables; display cases standing empty. Our eyes have to adjust as we walk through the sleepy cafe into the brightly lit kitchen. Suddenly awake, we are immediately caught up in the rhythm of the bakers at work. 

While 5:00 am may be time to make the doughnuts, it is not time enough to bake the baguettes.  These bakers have been at work since 2:00 a.m., and by the time we arrive, muffins, scones, fruit tarts and galettes are already baked and cooling on racks. In the next 3 hours we will watch as tubs of dough, resting since the previous day, are divided, rolled, shaped, folded and transformed into baguettes, petit pains, croissants, country loaves, ficelles, brioche, Pullman loaves, ciabatta and more. For a food lover, this is better than Broadway.

The SoNo Baking Co. kitchen is a gleaming open space covered in shiny white tiles, visible to voyeuristic diners through a wall of windows. It is worth a visit just for the view. Built from the ground up, John was able to fully design his workspace, and as working kitchens go, the result is breathtaking.  

Functional areas are delineated by work surfaces and equipment, while the oven stands center-stage. To the left is the kitchen and grill area, where Chef Paul Mack is creating lobster salad and bacon-onion quiche for a catering client; to the right is a large butcher block island, where baker Andres Martinez is dividing and weighing dough that will become any one of a variety of breads and rolls. A marble counter top nearby provides the necessary cool surface for handling tart dough. Everyone is moving at a nimble pace, especially for these early hours, and yet there is a perfect calm over the kitchen.  

John takes us past the counter where tubs of risen dough await their turn on the rolling table and around the corner to the inner sanctum: The Bread Room, a small closeted room, where the “starters” that give SoNo Baking Company bread its distinctive taste are held. The Starter, nothing more than water and flour and the wild yeast present in the air, is the wellspring of bread making.  Yeast continuously reproduces in the starter, and fed with regular doses of flour it is always “alive” and always native to its environment. As we gently lift the lids from the bins of dough, the smell is intoxicating.  John tells us SoNo has 5 starters going at all times and while the making of a starter is all science, what John does with his starters is pure craft.  

Everything at the SoNo Baking Company is made by hand, with the help of only a few key machines: a monster spiral mixer that mixes the initial batches of dough, a few smaller industrial mixers to mix cake batter, the Sheeter, which takes 12” x 18”envelopes of dough and butter and rolls them into a thin sheet of smooth perfection, the Divider, which divides rounds of dough into 36 circles on their way to becoming rolls, and the oven, or more appropriately, the stone hearth. 

Weighing in at 80,000 pounds of concrete, this stone hearth is the star of the show in The SoNo kitchen. It is divided into 4 decks with 2 doors or cavities per deck, each 10 feet deep.  A gurney-like slider sits in front of the oven and two 12 foot peels hang overhead. The slider moves from side to side and adjusts to the height of each oven door in order to slide multiple loaves deep into the 465’ oven. 465 degrees and not an oven mitt in sight! The bakers punch open the doors swiftly with the heels of their hands – not a maneuver for the feint of heart (or the tender of skin). The oven can hold 144 baguettes at one time, but John avoids crowding it to ensure good air circulation. The oven is kept at 465’ from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. then turned off for the day, but the hearth holds heat so well, the bakers are still baking pies, tarts and cookies well into the afternoon.  Today, about 100 loaves will be baked in the oven; on Saturdays, the bakers crank out at least 300.

John tells us his baking philosophy is to keep it simple. There are, for instance, only three ingredients in his baguettes:  flour, yeast and salt. While the ingredients may be sparse, the knowledge and experience John brings to the process are vast, though he humbly tells us “it’s all about the timing.” The lifecycle of the dough we see being divided and shaped into dinner rolls began the previous morning at 7:00 a.m.  Flour was added to the starter and the resulting dough left to rise until 10:00 a.m. Between 10:00 and 11:30 that base dough was divided and shaped into loaves and rounds and placed in linen-lined baskets or into large containers to proof overnight. Then from 4:00 to 6:00 a.m. the next day, the tubs, each containing 45 pounds of dough, are turned out and shaped into baguettes or buns; the baskets of sourdough rounds and country loaves are turned out and all are baked.  Breads and pastries destined for a retail outlet or restaurant are packed up at 6:00 and leave on a truck by 6:30; all other breads are on racks in the café by 6:45. This process is repeated daily, 364 days a year (everyone, including the dough, rests on Christmas). John calls the process controlled chaos, but given all the activity, the scene is far from chaotic and actually rather rhythmic. 

We stop to enjoy a latte and a cappuccino and have time to admire the choreography going on around us. If “all the world’s a stage”, these players know their roles and hit their marks. As John is talking, Andres is deftly and ambidextrously rolling two pieces of dough, simultaneously, into perfect spheres that will become the dinner rolls enjoyed this evening at Rowayton Seafood.  At the marble counter nearby, Walter is pounding 2 pound blocks of butter into 6 pound sections of dough with the end of a fat wooden rolling pin. Eventually, this roughed up hunk of dough will become 50 flaky croissants. It’s amazing that something that ends up so delicate starts out so violently whacked, like a carnival mole. 

The bakers are pulling loaves from the oven and in a graceful sweep, sliding them off the peels and onto racks. Gorgeously golden brioche hamburger buns are being transferred from racks and into boxes for their trip to Harvest Supper in New Canaan, and the driver is boxing an assortment of pastries for a delivery to Espresso Neat in Darien. In the grill area, Paul is precisely centering sprigs of chervil atop each small mound of lobster salad. All this movement has a natural feel: everyone seems to know when and where to lend a hand, without needing to ask or offer, and how to intersect the space without ever colliding.  

As we’re enjoying the show through the large windows, John approaches with a warm croissant, recently emerged from the oven. The aroma makes it hard to divert our attention, but John points to the dough rolling through the Sheeter and tells us it was made the previous day. Today, it will be shaped into croissants and left to rest for the remainder of the day. The croissants won’t be baked until tomorrow. Apparently, patience is a key ingredient to a truly delicate and flaky croissant. It may take three days to make, but my patience is wearing thin after 3 minutes.  I am so eager to taste this beautiful bread, but he continues, “A perfect croissant, has 8 layers.” This one does have 8 beautiful flaky golden ridges and when pulled apart it reluctantly unfurls. Finally, one bite reveals that it tastes as perfect as it looks. 

John tells us he is a “baker by heritage and a chef by trade.” He apprenticed at 17 at the River Café in Brooklyn and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America before opening his first two bakeries, one in Manhattan in 1984; another in Park Slope in 1986.  In 1998, he began working with Martha Stewart, and in 2005, missing the customer interaction of a retail bakery, decided to build his own.  A photo on the wall behind the counter in the café shows John’s great grandfather in front of his Williamsburg Bakery in 1904.  He tells us that while he uses some methods learned from his family, the recipes are all his, updated to ensure all natural and fresh ingredients and no transfats. 

Indeed, The SoNo Baking Company is John’s modern vision of an ancient process. People have been baking bread for 6,000 years, and a strong sense of continuity and connection fills this kitchen. I suspect that John’s secret isn’t in the formula, but in the respect he has for the craft, for the space and for his bakers. All appear to contribute to the transcendence of a few simple ingredients into the distinctive layers of flavors and the textures he achieves with his breads.

It’s 6:30 now and more staff has come in to the kitchen. Pans and buckets are being moved to the sink, as most of the dough has been turned out and baked. Slowly, activity moves from the kitchen to the front of the house. Chairs are being pulled down and placed under the tables; trays of muffins, monkey bread, croissants, danish and cookies begin to fill the display cases. At 6:45, the final act: freshly baked loaves are placed on a wire rack, the shelves pitched at a 45’ angle to provide a better view, and rolled into place behind the counter. The lights are brought up and the music is turned on.  The café opens at 7:00, but two customers have entered at 6:50 and are ordering their morning coffee while looking over the baked goods.

At 8:00 a.m. sunlight beings to slip into the windows that flank one side of the café and meets the light that has been emanating from the kitchen since the bakers arrived at 2:00. As we go back into the kitchen to say our good-byes, everyone is working intently, shaping the dough for tomorrow’s breads. John nods at the work being done and reminds us of his earlier comment that “making bread is a cycle.” Having been here for 3 hours, I see the truth in that statement and realize we’ve not seen the beginning or the end, but experienced a slice. 

John does not sell his bread or baked goods at many retail outlets in Fairfield County, but a trip to the café is a thoroughly enjoyable culinary experience. The café is open 7 days a week at 7:00 a.m. for breakfast and lunch. If you’d like to enjoy John’s baking and culinary gifts beyond the café, you have options: SoNo offers catering and will customize a menu for parties of any size; they also make wedding and custom cakes for all occasions.

If you’d like to bring out your inner baker, classes in pastries, cupcakes, tarts and decorating are offered through Westport Continuing Ed. and held at the kitchen. If you’d rather try your hand in your own kitchen, John’s cookbook “The SoNo Baing Company Cookbook: The Best Sweet and Savory Recipes for Every Occasion” hits bookstores on March 9th. Look for him that day on Martha Stewart Live and on his own show: “Everyday Baking,” airing on January 4th on PBS.

SoNo Baking Company 101 Water Street, Norwalk. 203.847.7666

Sono Baking Company and Cafe on Urbanspoon