The search for a tasty loaf has preoccupied Americans since the Pilgrims staggered ashore with the remains of bread they called ship biscuits – precious last vestiges of their former lives – now hard as Plymouth Rock and ridden with maggots and weevils. One account says the bread was so foul the colonists ate in the dark to avoid seeing it. In the Europe they had left, bread had been their heritage and staple, two-thirds of their daily diet.
For the Mayflower colonists facing starvation in the inhospitable New England climate with few seeds and scant implements, salvation came in the form of a Patuxet native named Squanto. He had learned English, and in 1619 served as a guide and interpreter for an expedition that ran into mayhem on the Isle of Capawack – Martha’s Vineyard. Two years later Squanto taught the colonists how to mound-plant maize – the pre-Columbian grain we call corn – and fertilize each hillock with alewife fish. He taught them to harvest the ears, soak the kernels in ash, grind them into a paste, and bake a flat corn bread. Wheat, rye, oats, and barley were still a distant dream, but corn was a beginning and the colonists survived.
Fast-forward nearly four hundred years and the search for tasty bread is just as keen. After decades in the wilderness with seekers enduring everything from soft and gummy bromide-laced loaves to odd health food concoctions, the artisan bread movement arose with structured crumb beneath caramelized, toothsome crust. Over the past two decades, pioneered by professionals hoping to produce a distinguished product, cheered on by home bakers who avidly seek their secrets, snatched up by foodies scouring the shelves for flavor, bread is having a renaissance.
On Martha’s Vineyard, good bread – great bread – has come home. Yes, determined shoppers could buy a flavorful, substantial loaf here and there from the Island’s boutique bakers, often only seasonally. But baking exceptional bread on an industrial scale, maintaining the highest standards, and keeping it consistently available takes special skills and dedication.
Enter Gates and Kate Rickard, a young couple who started with two ingredients as necessary as flour and water: knowledge and experience. They mixed in energy, business acumen, innovation, and ambition. They leavened their enterprise with romance, community support, and a talented staff. Working out of a voluminous steel building in Vineyard Haven that could double as an airplane hanger, they make bread with enough variety and depth to please the entire Island: from a naturally fermented miche (a large pan loaf that takes twenty-four hours to develop) to a bread that satisfies the growing market for gluten-free products.
The Rickards’ adventure began at the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, where they met and studied under the master bread maker, teacher, and theologian Peter Reinhart. Author of several award-winning books, Reinhart approaches bread as a spiritual calling as well as a technical enterprise, a point of view that Gates, who relishes the meditative aspect of baking, especially appreciates. They also studied with Swiss-born Ciril Hitz, a master baker and Johnson & Wales teacher who enriches bread making with an artistic approach honed at the Rhode Island School of Design.
After culinary school the couple began a baker’s sojourn in Europe, finishing their pastry education in Belgium. As a freshly minted chef at Lucerne’s fabled Confiserie Bachmann, Gates began with the not-so-fun task of making tuna fish sandwiches at five a.m., but more to his taste, he also worked with large orders of cookies and small sweets. They both quickly advanced, Kate into chocolate, and Gates into bread. In London, at the historic Savoy, he moved up the ranks to be in charge of pastry for private dining, and the couple continued to gain experience at several other restaurants in London and Belgium.
When they returned to the United States, Boston looked as though it might offer a home for the newlyweds. Gates found a job as a pastry chef but the restaurant soon closed – just as they lost their apartment and confirmed that their first baby was on his way. They moved to the Vineyard in 2004 with their two-week-old son, Alex.
As pastry chef for Lure in Edgartown, Gates added expediter to his repertoire, coordinating kitchen and wait staff. He has also worked as a dishwasher, filled in as a line cook, and done payroll. He became the pastry chef for the popular Oak Bluffs restaurants Slice of Life Cafe and Sweet Life Cafe, but the family needed more income. Energetic and creative, Kate made pastries and chocolates from their home and waited tables at Sweet Life. Two years later money was even tighter after the birth of their second child, Charlie, and reluctantly they prepared to sell their house. Still, they hesitated.
As bakers they were “well versed in all pastry and breads,” Gates relates. “But when I went to the grocery store, I couldn’t find a decent loaf to buy.” He put those two things together. He continued to work at Slice of Life, but after evening customers had left the cafe and the doors had closed, Gates baked bread to sell on his own.
Working through the night in the kitchen his boss had generously loaned him, he had a great deal of solitary time to contemplate the transformative, metaphorical nature of bread and the “flow and balance of mixing, the beauty and forms of the dough.” He likes feeling dough in his hands, shaping it with his palms, and says the process produces “a respect for where you are and what you’re doing.” While the long nights separated him from his family, they brought him closer to the philosophical principles of his mentor, master bread maker Peter Reinhart. And he used the skills he’d learned line cooking to get his loaves in and out of the oven before the restaurant opened for breakfast.
Gates took his baguettes and sourdough bread to Cronig’s Market, which agreed to carry them. The couple says this was their big break. Inquiries from supermarkets, restaurants, and caterers followed. Two weeks later they had fourteen accounts. The Rickards decided to stay put and look for a place to open a bakery.
This would be a wholesale business, they decided, so they would need a generous space. After a year of searching they found a building down a short dirt road, on the appropriately named Cook Street in Vineyard Haven. At the time, the warehouse was full of tent poles and housed a truck. It needed major rehab.
“I was a twenty-eight-year-old contractor in heels,” Kate says with a laugh, looking back on the days in 2008 when she super-vised plumbers, electricians, masons, and carpenters. Her years in Europe still show in the understated, stylish way she dresses, but it’s easy to imagine her assuming managerial authority in the very un-pastry-like setting of a construction site. The couple had a Bongard oven – considered the Rolls Royce of baking ovens – shipped from France and assembled on-site.
They outfitted the bakery with floor mixers, walk-in refrigeration, a hydraulic oven-feeding lift, proofing racks, butcher block counters, slender ovens for croissants and scones and pastries, bun pan racks, burners and pots, and more – a great deal more, all efficiently arranged and scrupulously clean. Storage shelves and bins held the finest flours and baking ingredients.
They managed the bakery alone the first year, working thirty-six-hour shifts while the kids played in the office. “We had sleepovers in the bakery, trying to persuade the kids this was fun,” Kate remembers. Because they worked nights, instead of family dinners they instituted family breakfasts.
A year and a half later, they had staff and “more work than we could handle,” Kate says. “Home bakers applied for jobs, but they don’t understand how hard the work will be. And the hours are totally different from normal daytime hours.” But they found qualified and enthusiastic helpers, and trained new ones.
Today as then, a good team makes the enterprise successful. Manager Eliedson Ribeiro runs the bakery with quiet competence and good cheer. “He’s an amazing manager,” Gates says, “has a great work ethic, and takes no offense if I tell him something isn’t good enough. Kate and I always tell our employees there is no ego in a kitchen. It’s either right or it’s not, and the employees that don’t last are the ones that don’t understand that. It’s not about us; it’s about the customer and we have to do our best to make sure they’re getting a consistently high-quality product.”
Technology eases some of the intense work of bakery production. A computer program forecasts the approximate amount of bread and pastry that will sell during a day, based on data from the past three weeks, and it also prints accurately measured recipes for specific orders. “It’s pretty spot-on,” Gates says. “We use about a metric ton of bread flour a week, not including the others such as whole wheat, rye, and all-purpose flour.” During the summer he estimates bread production at nine to eleven hundred loaves per day.
In addition to the wholesale business, the Rickards built a retail store on-site, carving out a portion of the warehouse for bins and a glass pastry case, and adding an Italian, Belle Époque copper-and-brass cappuccino maker to welcome customers who want coffee with their fresh, buttery croissants – considered by many to be the best this side of the Atlantic. The retail shop ambiance is loft-like, with long chains dangling delicate chandeliers from the high and rugged commercial ceiling, a charming and ironic juxtaposition. A visit in early morning can make a customer swoon as the intense smells of just-baked pain au levain, seeded rye, pugliese, pretzel rolls, and ciabatta swirl among the sweet overtones of chocolate croissants, sugar buns, and macaroons fresh from the pastry oven.
While most bakeries begin as retail and evolve to wholesale, Kate says, “We did it backwards.” Last spring they expanded to Edgartown, opening a shop on North Summer Street that seems airlifted from Paris. The tiny jewel sells baked goods at street level, and below is a kitchen that produces scones, croissants, and sweets. Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs continues to carry their breads, as do a few smaller outlets and many caterers and restaurants.
Retail has been a great success for the Rickards: Gates oversees production, while Kate handles the look and administration of the retail outlets. “I really enjoy talking to the customers,” she says. But Gates is quick to point out the depth of her responsibilities: She does all of the accounting and paperwork, and has “full creative license with products and routinely takes full advantage of that. She has an amazing palate and nothing slips her notice. She is our quality bloodhound.” Now that they have a third child, Ava, they’ve become a family with “two businesses, three kids, two dogs, and a rabbit.”
With their fervor for creative expansion, it seems unlikely that the Rickards will rest on their accomplishments. They continue to look to Europe for ideas and new tastes, as they did when they began baking. The family’s two-week exploration last summer of Italy’s Umbrian hill towns – and the memory of fabulous gnocchi – has them thinking about Italian pastry and pastas and breads. Whatever their next direction, gourmets, nibblers, and foodies will be in luck.
The following recipes from the Rickards were originally published with this article: