If there were a Mount Rushmore for bakers, Richard Bourdon would be on it. Bakers, alas, do not really achieve name recognition status in the United States, let alone receive statues. For Bourdon, this is even more true than for his colleagues. He has no bestselling cookbook or flashy storefront in a major metropolitan area. His bakery is out in rural Western Massachusetts, just a couple hours away from New York City and Boston but still far from the foot traffic of gourmands.
Bourdon’s influence pervades the country’s culinary scene, though, especially during Covid. He has trained some of the most well-known chefs in the nation, including Chad Robertson of the famed San Francisco bakery Tartine. Bourdon has become such a cult figure in the world of gluten that Michael Pollan visited him when researching his book Cooked. Bourdon appeared in the later TV adaptation, with a Netflix crew descending on the sleepy Berkshires town of Great Barrington.
So what sets Bourdon apart? For decades, he has preached the gospel of the humble sourdough, which has long been a fascination in the foodie world. During the pandemic, though, it has become its own kind of celebrity, with millions stuck at home and trying their hand at the time-intensive procedure. When I informed Bourdon that the technique was still very much in vogue on social media, his response was terse: “Still now?”
Bourdon is an idiosyncratic figure — he has been that way since starting out over 40 years ago, when Wonder Bread was the carb of choice in the United States and grains claimed the base of the food pyramid. If you hear his spiel on nutrition, you might even peg him as anti-bread. “The mass production of grain was a mistake,” he told me at one point in our interview, before detailing his low-carb keto diet.
The truth, of course, is more complicated. For Bourdon, everything we think we know about bread is wrong. To figure out why, we have to understand the sourdough.
Bourdon was born in Canada, but he moved to Holland in the late 1970s to study music. He met a girl who was into natural foods, and they started making bread at home. Eventually, he needed a real job. He thought that he could either become a farmer or a baker, so he put out an ad in the paper for both. He figured whoever called first would determine his career. It was a bakery. The rest, as they say, was history.
One of Bourdon’s key theories is that taste is not objective. We are not born with a proclivity to certain types of food — we have to train ourselves. He was young and impressionable, though, and he began to develop a sense for what was “good” and what was not.
In his first two bakery jobs in Europe, Bourdon began to play around more with bread and fermentation. He learned about the history of yeast. For millennia, humans have relied on the “natural leavening” process, which is more commonly known as sourdough. Rather than an artificial yeast, natural leavened bread employs the natural yeast and lactobacillus in the air, in food, and on your hands.
That changed in the late 1800s, when scientists figured out how to isolate yeast and mass produce it. In 1876, the Fleischmann brothers debuted their manufactured yeast at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia to over 10 million visitors. You can still find their yeast on grocery store shelves today.
There are three essential steps to converting grain, which does not want to be eaten, into a food that is both nutritious and delicious: fermentation, hydration, and cooking. By hacking the fermentation process through commercial yeast, though, bread was fundamentally changed — in Bourdon’s view, for the worst. “The advent of mechanization allowed us to make dryer doughs, and the advent of commercial yeast allowed us to put more gas in it,” he said. “You put it in, it rises, and then it comes out. It looks cooked, but guess what? It’s not.”
Bourdon will expound on each of the three steps for hours: He has developed a grand theory over the years that combines philosophy, chemistry, and spirituality, from the intricacies of gelled starch to the rise of civilization. The core thesis, though, is that he does not tout the sourdough process because it’s trendy or more environmentally friendly. He just wants to make good bread.
After his stint in Europe, Bourdon got an invitation to teach at the Kushi Institute, a macrobiotic school in Western Massachusetts. He came to the United States in the mid-1980s with $350 in his pocket and a tenuous immigration status. “I think I have about $300 left,” he told me, “But I’ve been hanging in there.”
It turned out that Bourdon’s adherence to naturally leavened bread had an immediate audience. In 1986, he secured funding to build out his first bakery. Within six months, he went from baking zero loaves to baking 8,000 a week, which is even more than he makes now. He was in a 900 square foot space working almost 24 hours a day. He would start baking at midnight, just as the last employee was leaving, and stay there until 7 pm, before going home to get a few hours of sleep and starting all over again. He did that for three years straight.
At the time, Bourdon could not even get a loan because of his lack of a green card, so he had to rely on a loan shark. Business, luckily, was booming. He began supplying his loaves to the Bread & Circus chain, which later became Whole Foods, driving to Boston three days a week.
After Bread & Circus started making its own bread, Bourdon needed to diversify. He used to throw pizza parties in the bakery, so he decided to turn it into a business. He opened the beloved pizza shop Baba Louie’s in Great Barrington and began selling pre-made pies and shells out of the bakery. He also started making ciabattas for sandwiches, which became a best-seller.
The foundation of the business, though, is still the sourdough loaves. Today, he has a larger space that he built out in the downtown neighborhood of Housatonic, formerly populated with textile and paper mills. I visited the Berkshire Mountain Bakery on a snowy February afternoon, when a fresh coat of powder had made the windy backroads treacherous. Although there was barely a car out, the bakery was humming. Bourdon’s crew was making pizza shells, pounding out fresh dough and rotating it into the industrial oven with massive peels.
Bourdon walked me through the varieties of bread. There’s the peasant french — 50 percent white flour and 50 percent whole wheat — which he agonized over naming (is it the peasant french or the french peasant?) There’s the San Francisco — 95 percent white and 5 percent whole wheat— which is meant to be the accessible one. Even so, people will see it for sale and ask, “Do you have anything else other than sourdough?” And then there are the more experimental ones: a tangy potato onion loaf, a savory olive load, a sweet cherry pecan, each loaded with flavor and depth.
All of them are made from his proprietary mix of grains, which he carefully sources from two different farms in Pennsylvania and New York. This is another of Bourdon’s theories — that wheat should be a blend in order to get the optimal blend of strength and tenacity. “Making bread is the same rule as with people,” he told me. “Three heads is better than one.”
It all comes back to Bourdon’s core belief: We should be cooking what tastes good and makes us feel good. He does not believe in the maxim, “We are what we eat.” We don’t turn into carrots after finishing a salad, after all. “You don’t become what you eat,” he said. “What you eat becomes you.”