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Bread Beginnings at the Gjelina Group
Conversation with Chef Pedro Aquino & Shelley Kleyn Armistead at Table 26, Gjelina
Over the years, I have heard Pedro mention on occasion that he remembers the early days of baking bread at Gjelina before it morphed into what it is today, a full time program with 9 bakers making 12 different loaves, bagels and buns.
Shelley Kleyn Armistead: I was curious about what your memories are, your recollection of how bread came to be at Gjelina. Because I think from the outside, our customers associate bread in the group with Gjusta Bakery. I don't think they even necessarily realize that all sandwich bread at GTA and your bread here for charcuterie was actually baked here on site prior to the inception of Gjusta, and it was because of that that Gjusta came to be, right?
Chef Pedro Aquino: Yeah.
What are your memories of how bread ended up in this building?
The way I see it, it was because we were already using bread. And that wasn't part of our program. We were getting bread from La Brea Bakery. That's where we were getting all our ciabattas for our toasts, namely the mushroom toast.
We started with dinner, and then we opened lunch, and we were getting more bread.
Because we were introducing sandwiches.
Yeah. And then just one day, back then, Chef Travis said we were going to start making bread and that was going to be part of the program. Meave was working with us, you know Meave McAuliffe, right?
Oh yes, she has Rory's in Ojai, which is incredible.
She really helped with the bread. So yeah, that's how it all started. Just like, he said we're going to start making bread and I would like you guys to start working on the levain, so the natural yeast. We got that going. It was me, Meave, and Rachel Fox, too. We started experimenting, and feeding the starter.
And then Travis obviously was like, we gotta figure out who is going to be in charge of the program.
And I was just like, well, we need to use Jose somehow because he was our prep. We only had one prep a night at that time, which was Jose. He was just like a machine. And I was like, Jose is more than capable, he needs something else. So then we tried him on pizzas. It just felt like he had more to offer than that.
So the first loaf of bread was baked in a Gjelina wood oven?
It wasn't a wood oven. We got the two deck ovens. Initially we weren't using the wood ovens for pizzas, we were using the deck oven.
What?! For pizzas?
For pizzas. In the beginning, we were not using that oven. That oven was actually a gas oven, it wasn't just built to work with wood. It had the burners in the back, so we had to make some adjustments. And so we were doing the ciabatta experiment in the deck ovens.
Oh, so it was only ciabatta that you were doing in the deck oven?
But you weren't doing sourdough?
We started feeding our starter for sourdough, and once we got that ready, then we got the sourdough going, and then later on came the olive loaf, and then the brioche, and all that.
When you later on introduced the olive loaf and the brioche, was that still at Gjelina or had Gjelina Takeaway opened at that point?
It was at Gjelina. Takeaway wasn't open yet.
Okay, so then the bread in the group — let's just say the breads then were sourdough, ciabatta, olive, and brioche?
What was the brioche used for? Burgers? Oh, and I suppose the egg sandwich.
At first we were cutting squares out of the ciabatta to make the hamburger.
But wait, what's the bread with the lamb burger right now?
It's a brioche.
Back in the day, the hamburgers were getting served on baguette, we were cutting them into squares.
Chef, you know what I don't know? You know, we have GTA and then we had the bread room — the little side room that we called the bread room. Did that happen at the same time as GTA or did we add that on afterwards?
And that really became the sort of bread and pastry workshop, right? So that was like, that was Jose and maybe Valeriano?
I worked with Jose for about six months on the bread, like in the very beginning — starting there and then later moving to GTA once GTA opened. I was getting to GTA at 2am, moving to Gjelina at seven, and then would leave around six or seven at night.
That's such a crazy day!
Yeah, I only made it for like four months. Slowly dropping my shifts, and then that's really when Jose took over. But at that time the bread room wasn't even introduced, that was a little later on when they acquired that space. Then yeah, they started using it, and we just kept growing more and more. The production was just insane.
So when you came in at two o'clock in the morning, you would be shaping?
I would be mixing and shaping, and Jose would mainly be baking the bread.
Am I imagining that I remember something correctly: coming in and seeing bread in a cast iron pot in the wood oven? Is that right or wrong? Do I remember correctly?
Yes. That was olive, sourdough, and wheat.
So at that point you'd introduced wheat bread as well.
Yes. It didn't take long once we got sourdough and olive.
It's so interesting because so much of the sort of inception of Gjusta and like those first few months pre-opening, it felt like we were engaging something entirely new, right? And I would imagine, of course, they were using an entirely new oven — that bread oven at Gjusta is completely different to cooking and baking in a wood oven, yeah, but the reality is the roots really go back. It didn't just start at Gjusta, the roots go really far back.
When did you realize you were allergic to gluten?
Oh, that was a year before I moved to MTN. So like around 2016.
Yeah, because we opened MTN July 18 of 2017. So while you were working on the bread program, you were actually allergic to the item that you were working with?
Oh, yes. Slowly, slowly I started getting a reaction to it and I didn't know what it was. Like my eyes were getting itchy, my voice was just getting rough, and I got sore throats in the morning, and I didn't know what it was. I worked for like a solid six months, or maybe even more, with that type of feeling. And then, somehow when I was going to help the guys stretch the pizza dough, I was getting worse and worse, and I was like, I might be allergic to flour. So I stopped eating bread, and that helped a lot. But when I was going to help the guys with the pizza, then I would get it at that time. So it was every time I was working with dough, and then I went and did an allergy test and yeah, they told me that I was getting a reaction.
Oh my god, the person who helped shape the bread program is the person who can't eat it at the moment.
But yeah, not only that, it's just like I had worked with it for so long because I started with the pizza dough, made the pizza dough, and all the desserts, and I was like really working with flour a lot, like every single day making pasta, shaping the pizza dough, because our pizza dough was being made here at Gjelina.
When you were making pizza dough here at Gjelina, you were making for Gjelina and GTA at the same time?
Wow. That's a large volume. It's a very silly question, but when you were eating bread, of the breads that we make, what was your favorite?
Actually now that you mention it, I love the sprouted rye.
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You know, when we did we did that Gjelina pop up in Paris, that was the one product we took with us because it lasts like a solid three days. It's great, and then you have to start toasting it, of course. We had these breads like vacuum-sealed in our bag — they looked like bricks of heroin going through customs. We just had so much sprouted rye with us because it's so durable, it's amazing.
I forgot you went to Paris and did a pop-up.
Yeah, three restaurants in one building.
Do you have any memories of touching food the way you've touched food here, whether it's dough or pastry, or just cooking at home in Tlapazola? Apart from ingredients, do you have any memory of actually handling food, or was that traditionally done by certain people in the family?
Back in Oaxaca, I used to pick wild herbs or chepil to make tamales with chepil. Yeah, I would help my mom take the leaves off that, because for that, you really just use the leaves. Fresh garbanzos, shelling beans, yeah, all of that — I remember all of that. Actually, I tried to make a tortilla with my mom, but my mom would be like, "Why? What are you doing?" I was like, "I just like to do it."
You're like, "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm a sous chef at the best pizza restaurant in the world. But I don't want to make tortillas."
When I went with my oldest two kids to Oaxaca in 2016, I was really helping with tortillas — it’s not easy. You'll see them flipping tortillas, and it just doesn't stick to their hands. It seems so easy, but I tried it, and just...yeah.
Even though you'd worked with dough.
Yeah, even though I've worked with dough, it takes some time to develop that skill.
How has your own process of baking changed over the years since you started? I know that you're not working with bread as much anymore, but I remember during the pandemic, when MTN was closed, you came in for something to bake with your kids — I feel like it was either a starter or flour.
Oh, I grabbed some flour. I was going to make bread, I think, for the kids. And my daughter just likes to make cake and cookies.
When I watch the bread bakers at Gjusta, it feels like it's so intuitive - it doesn't feel very formulaic. It feels like it's coming from the body. Does baking bread feel more instinctual to you?
Yes. That was the one thing that always helped me a lot, especially in this kitchen, is when I met Chef Travis here back in the day, he used to tell me just to trust my instinct. And that helped me a lot with pizza.
When I came here, the pizza dough was not consistent at all. You'd come in and it would be so wet and you wouldn’t be able to bend it, or other days it was just so stiff, so tough. At that time, I was just observing. And then I don't remember what happened, but then the chef asked me, do you want to take that over? I'm like, “Yeah, I'll give it a try.” So I started making it, and I learned a lot about flour — hydration, and just flour itself. To me, that's really the key. Because you can work with numbers, but you have to actually know the ingredient itself — the freshness of it, and how long it's been sitting on a shelf. Even when we're talking about fresh flour, they all just take different ratios of water.
And the weather as well, like if it's really damp, if it's humid, it affects it differently than when it's really dry. But it's really interesting to talk about the freshness of the flour affecting it.
I was making pizza dough, and that's how I would learn to work with flour because I was making it, and I would see it would be consistent for a week or two weeks. It would change, but I was always aware of it because I always like to feel it and make sure that it's the right consistency, or you know, that it has the right amount of water. I was observing by looking, by touching,... even one time, Chef Travis came in and was like, "What are you doing?" because he saw me just chewing on the raw dough.
Because it had a certain texture to it?
Yes. And I told him, “I'm just testing it and making sure it's got the right hydration.” But for sure, it's made me better when it comes to handling any type of dough.
Yeah, I would imagine it really layers in a confidence when you get into a rhythm and you're already trusting your instinct and the results are there, you know what I mean? Like because of the rhythm of your hands and, as you say, that sensation of the texture and whatever it is that's creating, you're like, oh, yeah, you've got your instincts really coming through for you.
You've spent many hours making bread and baking in the early morning hours before the rest of the world wakes up. Does this time of day hold any personal connection or memory for you? Was it natural for you to get up at that time?
It was. I think I've always been very energetic. These days, it's a little different, but I definitely enjoyed it at that time, though.
There was no early waking in Oaxaca?
Oh, yes. Going out in the fields once it's time to cut the dry milpa, which I don't actually know the word for that, but yeah, you would go and cut it with a special tool that they use there. And it had to be early. You have to be up by two, or usually by three.
How old were you when you were doing that?
I was probably nine years old? Yeah. My dad's brother was in charge of us. Like just as far as teaching us how to work. And back at home, you're working when you're nine. I was going up the mountains getting wood for my mom to burn, and that was always at early times. Some people really love working the land, and my uncle was one of those.
You always caught the sunrise then?
Oh yeah, always.
That's incredible. In terms of culture, is tortilla your bread? Is tortilla your pizza dough?
It is. That's everything for us. Like, every time you're eating, it's a tortilla on the table — breakfast, lunch, dinner.
We just got the perfect sized tortilla holder for Valle, and then we closed. We're going to get back in production.
All right Chef, anything else that you want to remember from that time, acknowledge from that time? I always want to make sure that we don't leave out anybody who was important to us then. Anything that you can think of?
Oh, just, I mean, there's so much more — it will take so much time.
We'll make it a little series.
Yes, there's a lot of memories.