When I first covered Rob VanKeuren more than a year ago, I found him in the early morning hours baking countless loaves of bread and hundreds of croissants at Lombardi’s Trattoria in the Georgetown section of Wilton.
A lot has changed since then.
VanKeuren outgrew the brick oven at Lombardi’s, so he took his magic baking show—and loyal customers—over to a larger space at GrayBarns, where he sold loaves and pastries out of a barn.
Unfortunately for VanKeuren’s sourdough-obsessed following, his stint at GrayBarns was short-lived. As a result, his sought-after bread for public sale disappeared for a bit.
Some months after, VanKeuren announced something more exciting, plans to open a bakery of his own, right next door to NEAT in Downtown Darien.
And now, it’s finally come to fruition.
I caught up with VanKeuren at the opening of his brand-new digs to see what’s good with him and Flour Water Salt Bread.
When we first met, you weren’t sure if you would ever open your own bakery. What changed?
Well, it’s a big undertaking just to get something open, let alone a full retail shop in a busy town. And, I just kept with my passion, which is baking, and the business was growing to the point that I either had to make it big or make it gone, because I had all these customers showing up again and again, buying more and more and I was like, this is either going to become a living or just go back to a hobby because it wasn't paying the bills and it was time consuming.
Take us through what it took to get this place up and running.
This is gonna sound corny, but the universe kind of came together. The coffee shop (NEAT) called and said, “We’ve got this thought, maybe we can bring it together.” Rocky Genovese came down and said, “I’m going to help you build this out, because you’re a baker, not a contractor.” So, he opened his Rolodex of contacts up to me, whether I needed a glass guy or an electrician. It was amazing.
There was a lot behind the scenes. A lot of planning, a lot of meetings at town hall. Zoning, building, fire, health, everybody. It's a long process. So, it went from concept to layout, layout changed, equipment came.
And what about last night? What was it like when you got to go-ahead to FINALLY open the doors?
When I got the go-ahead from the health department, fire marshal, then the day before the Department of Consumer Protection, and the building inspector came in around 3 p.m. and said, “You’re good to go!”
I grabbed a cup of coffee, sheeter, apron, let’s go! I worked straight through until 2:30 a.m., slept at a friend’s place across the way until 4:30, and then right back here. I made over 600 pastries, 180 loaves of bread. I joked that Eversource must have been wondering what was going on with the power grid at two in the morning.
Now that you’re officially open, tell us what’s up at Flour Water Salt Bread. Most of us know about the sourdough, baguette, the croissants. What’s new in your repertoire?
I’ve started doing puff pastry. It’s tedious to do by hand, nearly impossible, but since I’ve got this RAM Sheeter…
You’ve definitely got some fancy new equipment in here to get stuff done!
It’s amazing. All made in Italy. With this new equipment I’ve been able to do new things like an apple turnover, or nuage de pomme (apple cloud), as I’m calling it. I’m doing a lemon puff, like a lemon tart but with puff pastry. The lamination I’m getting with the sheeter and the crumb structure from the oven is better than I ever dreamed about.
So, someone recently asked me about you, and I said something to the tone of, “I was a fan of his bread before, but I got a sneak preview taste of a loaf before he opened, and I think it’s better than before.” I don’t know if that’s a credit to you improving over time, plus, now you’ve got gadgets you didn’t have previously.
A little bit of both, yeah. The equipment is huge. I’m getting spring (bread talk for “dense crumb”) in this oven that I’d normally only get on a perfect day. I’ve got steam injection that comes out like a locomotive, like in the 1800s rolling into a coal railroad station. It’s so awesome, you hear it kick on, PSSSSHHHHHHH! Thirty seconds of steam, it’s totally sealed, the oven’s blazing hot. I’ve literally only dreamed of this. Even having a spiral mixer, and not doing it by hand, makes for great dough development.
I know you messed around in the past with Cronuts, or English muffins, so how about it?
Frying won’t happen because of the local code, but I’ve got to work out a method with this equipment. As you know, I’m good with wood-fire ovens, combi-ovens, anything that’s not supposed to do what it’s supposed to do. But I have an idea to do a reverse puff pastry, a super traditional French method. Instead of dough-butter-dough-butter-dough, it’s butter-dough-butter-dough-butter, so it basically fries on the outside in the oven. I should be able to get a Cronut-like texture and fluff.
Tell us anything you think we need to know. Do the shameless plug thing. Shout-out your Instagram page or something.
I’m open five days, Tuesday – Sunday from 7 – 1 or until sell-out. NEAT will also carry some of my pastries, and you’re welcome to bring your coffee from there over here. The best way to stay updated is via Instagram or Facebook.
Last but not least…you’ve got a baby on the way! That’s exciting!
Very exciting! The baby’s due on January 27. We’ve had plenty of bun-in-the-oven comments. Paige and I are very happy about it. We don’t know whether it’s a boy or a girl, we’re keeping it a surprise.
New baby, new bakery!
Exactly! Basically, two new babies!
Flour Water Salt Bread
20 Grove Street; Darien