When I think about the American food revolution of the past two decades, I think about people like Ryan Morgan.
Morgan, 44, spent the early portion of his wage-earning years working as a mechanic. You can tell. Stocky, solid, salt-and-pepper-haired, and the furthest thing from a hipster, Morgan talks with a kind of no-bullshit midwestern gruffness that’s common in the city where he lives, which is Cincinnati. He happens to bake some of the best bread and pastries I’ve ever tasted, but you won’t catch him being precious about it. Ask and he’ll tell you that the whole thing was an accident.
Back in 2011, Morgan and some relatives took over a family-owned Ohio bakery primarily so that his father, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, could get restful time at home in his final years. For Morgan, becoming one of the country’s artisanal bread wizards did not seem like a realistic or compelling objective. “When I got here, I was just a mechanic and I didn’t really know anything,” he says. “But I always enjoyed eating.” He did not enjoy eating the bread at the family bakery, however. “Maybe the worst fucking bread I’d ever seen in my life,” he recalls. “Even I knew it was garbage.”
But then something started to happen—the same sort of thing that had happened to so many Americans who, thanks to guidebooks and TV shows and spellbinding tales of celebrity chefs, transformed their lives in the early 2000s by becoming obsessed with baking and pickling and fermenting and beer brewing and heirloom gardening and dry aging and whole-hog smoking and all the rest.
Morgan began with what he knew how to do, fixing machines in the bakery that seemed on the verge of falling apart. Pretty soon he wondered what would happen if the shop—which he had renamed Sixteen Bricks—focused on making excellent bread instead of phoning it in with mediocre bread. That led him to wonder what factors went into excellent bread, which led him through a series of obsessive wormholes (the nuances of fermentation, the use of ancient grains like einkorn, the possibility of milling his own flours) and ultimately to where he is now, thinking about bread all the time. “It’s when my life was ruined,” he says with a snort. “I was like, oh my God, this is the most interesting shit ever.”
When he took the reins, the bakery had only 12 customers, “and I think six of them split as soon as I changed the bread,” Morgan says. Now Sixteen Bricks has 51 employees and about 200 clients around the country. (By the way, this growth reflects a culinary renaissance that’s under way in Cincinnati. The usual “hot food city” stories should start appearing any minute…) If you’ve ever eaten at a restaurant inside a Nordstrom, well, Sixteen Bricks provided the sourdough. Morgan is talking about opening a bakery in Sonoma, California, with Mike Zakowski, who has been one of his flour/water/salt mentors over the past decade. (The other two are Craig Ponsford and Jeff Yankellow. Morgan met Yankellow when, in a moment of mild panic after taking over the ramshackle bakery, he Googled the phrase “artisan bakery consultants.” Yankellow actually called him back.)
Morgan’s bread is bread that you really want to eat (especially toasted with a lot of butter and jam), even though—in true midwestern spirit—it doesn’t call too much attention to itself. He’s a master of balance. He’s not churning out soft, insipid rolls, but he’s also not giving his bread a crust as hard as concrete or a crumb as squishy as pudding. Still, Morgan is deep into a range of experiments. “Look, I’m making a bread right now with lemon-verbena hydrosol in it,” he says. He’s tinkering with a ciabatta laced with chocolate and candied orange peel, too. When I visited Sixteen Bricks in November with David Zilber, the fermentation guru from Copenhagen’s Noma, Morgan’s pastry chef, Rebecca Watkins, offered us pain aux raisins laced with turmeric cream that had just come out of the oven.
If you tell Morgan that he’s got the mind of a mechanic and the soul of an artist, he’s likely to scoff, at first. “It’s way more blue-collar than that,” he says.
But he eventually relents. “Having some kind of artistic outlet might actually be the coolest part of this job,” he says. “I struggled and I still struggle now. There are still sleepless nights. But I make a lot of cool stuff, man. I get to explore and imagine.” And we get to eat better bread.
This article appeared in the March 2020 issue of Esquire. Subscribe Now
Source : Esquire