Ehsan Ganji had some tough breaks as a teenager. After fleeing the oncoming Iranian Revolution in 1978, he arrived in the United States only to be almost immediately assaulted and robbed by a cabdriver. Later, after he'd graduated from high school in Normal, Illinois, an anticipated engineering scholarship didn't materialize. His shot at higher education gone, he moved to Dallas, Texas, to work in his uncle's bakery.
All that aside, the thing that really pissed him off was working nights. "My uncle wanted me to work at night making the bread" so the loaves would be fresh for morning customers, says Ganji, now 48. "I was like 19. Everybody else was at parties, and I'm making croissants and French baguettes."
So as soon as he could, he switched specialties as well as jobs, spending the next several years as a pastry chef at hotels in Texas, Arizona, and New York. Then, in 1992, he discovered artisanal bread—full-flavored, thick-crusted, made with fermentation starters instead of yeast—and suddenly a pastry chef's hours didn't seem so sweet: "Making bread with starters—I wanted to learn that so bad."
So bad that since then, he's been bouncing around the country perfecting his craft at big-name bread places such as New York's Tom Cat, Bouley, Balthazar, and Sullivan Street bakeries, as well as at San Francisco's 54 Mint restaurant. When he moved to Chicago last February to be with his fiancee (now wife), Kate Koss, he wasn't sure how he'd make a living in a town with a less vibrant bread-baking scene. Thinking he might be able to sell his loaves at farmers' markets, he went to Edgewater's Flourish Bakery Cafe to inquire about renting kitchen space. As it happened, the bakery was about to be purchased by new owners, Allison and Ed Madel, who tried his wares and promptly hired him as chief bread baker.
Now Ganji starts work between 2 and 3:30 AM. "I couldn't sleep more even if I wanted to," he says. But he's not just another passionate bread baker with learned insomnia. He's also an under-the-radar artisan who, as far as I've been able to discover, is the only commercial baker in Chicago making no-knead bread. As everyone with a gluten fetish knows by now, no-knead bread has revolutionized home baking, thanks to a 2006 New York Times piece in which columnist Mark Bittman touted its wonders to the world.
Invented—or at least popularized—by Jim Lahey of New York's Sullivan Street Bakery (which produces it commercially), no-knead bread is made by gently mixing a very wet dough and letting it rise at a cool temperature for a long time, without any of the vigorous kneading and shaping required by traditional bread recipes. The idea is to build flavor, rather than force it out, by letting the dough ferment very, very slowly—Lahey's recipe calls for a 12-to-18-hour period.
That's far too long to be practical for most bakeries, which is why the no-knead revolution has been almost exclusively among home bakers. "Commercial bakeries that are slamming out bread don't have that time," says Red Hen CEO and president Robert Picchietti (who adds that his company's doughs do rest, but for a shorter period—about eight to 12 hours). "They'd have to have a warehouse full of dough, just sitting. What's the point of it?"
The point, says Fox & Obel executive baker Pamela Fitzpatrick, is that "the more you mix bread, the more you oxygenate it, which kind of bleaches out the color and also leaches out flavor." In addition, "the less you knead dough, the more flavor you get out of it, and by that, I mean the flavor of the wheat berry. So there's kind of a sweetness, not from sugar per se, but from the actual berry." How much of a difference in flavor does that make? "To those of us who make bread every day, it's quite a large difference," she says. The average person, she guesses, "would taste the difference, but might not be able to identify it: 'I don't know what it is about this, but I can't stop eating it.'"
At the same time, she agrees that no-knead bread's lengthy fermentation process makes it impractical for mass production. "We have a similar bread called the 'slow-mix bread' that we mix the least possible amount," she says. "But otherwise, I just make no-knead at my house."
Certainly Ganji's one-man, intensely hands-on operation seems impossible to replicate on a large scale. He makes an estimated 140 to 150 loaves a day, of which about 30 are of the no-knead variety, which he makes with semolina. Among the other, traditionally kneaded varieties on offer are French baguettes, sourdough, rye, multigrain, bacon-cheddar, and a truly killer jalapeño-cheddar loaf. They're all available for delivery (though you must be within a one-mile radius of the bakery or be able to convince a few neighbors to sign up with you), and they're all made with fermentation starters, which Ganji tends every eight hours around the clock.
"That's why I live two blocks down," he says, grinning. The Sivananda Yoga Vendanta Center, where he and his wife both teach, is right across the street as well. "All I do is my yoga, my hiking, and my bread," Ganji says. "When I'm making the bread, I don't think about anything else"—including how things might have turned out if his early life had been easier. "I'm happy I became a baker," he says. "I'm not making bullets or bombs or plastics that are going to cover the whole ocean. I'm making bread."