Iliana Imberman Berkowitz grew up in a household where analyzing the food the family ate was just as much a thing as was preparing and eating it.
“We’d talk about why this recipe turned out better than before, and we’d really get into the details,” Berkowitz said. “We’d have this careful analysis of the food, more so than politics or current affairs or the weather.”
That level of analysis is something she hasn’t outgrown; when she doesn’t like something, she really doesn’t like it.
Take, for example, one bakery staple: the sourdough baguette.
“My French-style baguettes are sweet, not sour,” she said. As far as she is concerned, “sourdough baguettes should not be made nor consumed. I have very particular feelings about that.”
When asked to explain further, she said, “Sourdough is for large loaves. A baguette is long and is mostly crust. The crust to crumb ratio is not right for a sourdough baguette. The thickness of the crust, when there’s so little crumb to balance it out when you’re chewing, it’s just wrong, it’s very wrong.”
That kind of discernment has helped take her bread business, As Kneaded Bakery, from a pop-up to farmers markets to her first brick-and-mortar bakery in two years. It will hold its grand opening this weekend in San Leandro.
And bread lovers take note; Berkowitz isn’t shy to say that she thinks she’s making the best bread in the Bay Area.
“If I don’t believe that, why would I expect anyone else to?” she said, adding, “I’m going to come off so arrogant, I’m excited.”
She’s mostly known for her miche (a round, rustic, whole-wheat sourdough loaf inspired by world-famous Parisian bakery Poilâne). The fact that it has rye flour in it too and ferments longer than any other bread gives it an extra tanginess. There is a porridge bread that has almost a custardy consistency (she says some customers try that one and say, “That’s all I need.”). Another sourdough loaf has flax and sunflower seeds. She also makes a mean challah, and offers a spelt flour loaf, which also has wheat flour in it, but Berkowitz notes many gluten-intolerant people try her bread and are able to digest it because of its fermentation. All of her breads have a darker crust than many; she says that’s where most of the flavor resides, but that doesn’t mean the interior suffers — not at all. While most of her ingredients are organic, she’s not certified, yet.
She also will serve “noshes,” like morning buns and bialys, with an expanded menu of those coming later. But, she stresses, As Kneaded is primarily a bread business.
Berkowitz, 30, chose San Leandro for her bakery since it’s where she lives.
It was in college at American University in Washington, D.C. that she got the baking bug; while her father was the main cook at home, and an excellent one at that, she didn’t really become interested in it herself until then.
Baking became an outlet for her for when she wasn’t studying. “It was a way to procrastinate, but I was falling passionately in love with making food. It became like my third major,” she said.
Rather than thinking about the paper she needed to write, she’d be planning to make an ice cream from David Lebovitz’s cookbook Scoop or sables (a French butter cookie) by Dorie Greenspan. It was an ex-boyfriend’s mother who had given her Simply Organic, one of Jesse Ziff Cool’s cookbooks (the chef at the popular Flea St. Café in Menlo Park). Now, Berkowitz supplies Cool’s restaurants with her bread.
By the time Berkowitz graduated college in 2010 with a social sciences degree, she didn’t have a clear path of what she wanted to do. Her interest in food led her to take a job with a specialty Italian grocer in Philadelphia. She started in the prepared foods department, but when the store began carrying fresh bread, she was put in charge of the bread department.
“I was taking bread from other small local bakeries, and getting schooled in the language of it and sampling it and talking about it, but not really knowing how to make it myself,” she said.
From there, she got her first job at a bakery, where she learned that she loved production baking.
“I didn’t realize it would be so different than at home,” she said. “At home, you can do one or two steps and then walk away from it. When you’re in a production kitchen, you’re doing 40 things at once. You’re dancing around a bunch of other people and machines. It’s a bit like a circus and I loved it; not everyone does.”
She then got a job baking bread at Parc, a Starr Restaurant Group eatery in Philadelphia, where she met her mentor. Starr owned more than 30 award-winning restaurants throughout the northeast and Parc supplied the bread for many of them.
By the time Berkowitz moved back to the Bay Area in 2015, interest in artisanal bread had grown. She took a job at Facebook in its baking department for the high salary and good benefits, but left when she realized she was making a corporate product that was not remotely up to her standards, for employees that didn’t know the difference.
After Facebook, she worked at now-closed bread company called Pain. It was there, while working in a commercial kitchen in San Mateo, that she began renting out the kitchen for additional time, to bake her own bread. She started small with a pop-up, and then a bread club, where she baked around 100 loaves a week and delivered them all herself. Then she began selling at the farmers market at the College of San Mateo and in Kensington.
Now she has multiple wholesale accounts and is looking for more throughout the Bay Area.
What makes her bread truly different?
“Almost everyone who’s starting a bakery now is making the country bread from Tartine Book No. 3,” Berkowitz said, referring to the cookbook by famed San Francisco bakery. “They’re making the country bread and adding their own stuff into it to make it theirs. At our bakery, every dough is completely different. We are harkening back to the craft of breadmaking. It was not invented here in the Bay Area in the last 20 years; it’s an art that’s centuries old.”
She bakes her bread in a massive $80,000 gas-fired, steam-injected deck oven that came on a container ship from Italy in over 200 pieces and was assembled on site.
What Berkowitz loves most about bread is “that there are so many factors that need to come into play to get everything just right to make a good loaf. There is the time, temperature, fermentation, hands, hydration, how the grain is that day and the milling quality,” she said. “There are a lot of factors that determine an outcome, and it’s more than just a recipe. I don’t find it romantic, most people who don’t do it for a living do, as they’re seeing it from the outside. I’m glad it’s perceived that way, but when you’re in it, it’s heavy and messy and wet and alive. You’re wrangling an alive thing.”
Berkowitz puts this knowledge to use also by advising people, for free, about issues they might be having baking bread at home. “There are many different people that I’m advising at any given time,” she said. “I think a personal connection is really important.”
“I love to feed people and I love educating people about bread and grain and the process and what goes into it,” she said. In addition to people supporting a woman-owned business, she said, “I also think it’s important to know your local baker and have connections with the people who are nourishing you. My bread is an extension of me. We are linked inextricably.”
As Kneaded will celebrate its grand opening Nov. 3 and 4, featuring free samples, pop-up coffee by Wheely’s and family-friendly activities. The bakery will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. As Kneaded breads can also be found in a growing list of stores and restaurants throughout the Bay Area.
A slightly different version of this story appeared in J. The Jewish News of Northern California.