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Omnivorous: The Bread and Water Business

Arkady Kats built homes on the North Shore for 15 years. Then he built a Georgian oven.

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Arkady Kats saw it coming. He'd been building and selling big houses on the North Shore for 15 years when, last summer, he decided he'd better get out of real estate. "We kind of had a feeling that the bull market is going to hell," he says. "Numbers really did not work last year already, so around last summer this is when we decided that we gonna have a Great Depression."

His plan? To ride it out on bread and water. Or, more precisely, bread and soup, which in Kats's view is just value-added water. "This is, like, real important part," he says in a deadpan disguised by his thick Ukrainian accent. "Water makes money in this country. You have to make money on water. Soups consists of water. This is the concept for the soup. Since we are from former Soviet Union and the situation of the country is people are consuming half of the whole world's soup production, so we figure out we know something." (Actually, according to Campbell's, which obviously has reason to care, Russia and China together consume half of the world's soup, most of it homemade.)

Kats and his wife, Rita, opened Bread 'n' Bowl Company in a Niles strip mall in late July, offering 16 soups—all natural, never frozen—at the ridiculously low price of $3 for 16 ounces, $5 for 32. While they're tasty and include some unusual varieties (beef tomato and apricot, spinach lemon and turkey meatballs), they're enhanced immeasurably by a piece of the Georgian flatbread—the round puri or the cocoon-shaped shoti—baked daily behind the counter in a massive barrel-like brick oven called a toné.

The toné is a cousin of the Punjabi tandoor and a descendant of ancient nomadic Egyptian Berber cooking technology (dough goes in jar, jar goes in fire). It is the essential appliance in traditional Georgian cuisine, which draws on both European and Asian influences and is popular all over the former Soviet Union. It's "kind of treated as treasure," says Kats.

Kats, who came to the U.S. from Kiev via Rome in 1989, also offers a few eastern European cakes, and handmade dumplings (pierogi and pelmeni) and puff pastries (pirozhki). Specific Georgian varieties include the cheese-filled puff pastries known as khachapuri. Traditionally these are filled with a cheese called suluguni, but in this case it's a frozen, ground mixture of mozzarella and several fetas. (He recommends calling in orders ten minutes ahead to get these hot from the oven.)

Khinkali are Georgian dumplings that resemble fat, indelicate Chinese soup dumplings. Like xiao long bao, they're filled with juices that render from the lightly spiced beef-and-pork filling (or sometimes just beef and occasionally lamb) during boiling. You eat them by hand, from the bottom up, discarding the doughy topknot. Like almost everything Georgians eat, they're accompanied by a sour plum sauce, tkemali. Kats offers two varieties, which differ according to when the plums have been harvested: there's a strong piquant version made of young fruit and a sweet variant he says Georgians refer to as "girl-tkemali." Some people like to mix them together.

Kats says his toné is one of only a half dozen in the country (another resides at the Argo Bakery on Devon). He and his baker, a taciturn fireplug of man named George Gelashvili, built it over a period of a few weeks, laying a concrete foundation three and a half feet below the floor and layering individually measured and cut vertical firebricks in diminishing circles until they had a giant beehive with a hole in the top. "They have to be really tight or they all fall," Kats says. "Kind of like Egyptian pyramids." They insulated the oven with lava-rock wool and covered it with tiles. The finished product weighs several tons, and its top reaches Gelashvili's pecs—there's a built-in step so he can get above it to reach in. It's heated by electric coils on the floor of the oven and takes hours to reach the proper temperature. But once it does, it can stay hot for days. "It's like stone age," says Kats. "There is no technology, no thermostat. You really have to feel things. It takes years to figure out."

Gelashvili has it figured out. Kats says he's been a baker for 30 years, getting his start on ovens just like this at a well-known outdoor bakery in Tbilisi before moving on to Israel, Brooklyn, and here, where he spent some time working at Argo. Kats says Gelashvili also built ovens in Detroit and Saint Louis, which would mean he's behind half the toné ovens said to be in use in the United States.

It's hypnotic to watch him work. For each LP-size puri, he rapidly flattens a ball of dough, slapping it with his hands on alternate sides, places it on a convex cloth-covered paddle, pokes the dough in the center with his thumbs, swipes the surface with a smear of water, and then, going in through the top of the toné with the paddle, slaps it to the wall. He does this again and again, much of the time with a cell phone pinched between his ear and shoulder.

The toné can handle about 40 puris at a time. When it's reached capacity, the first are puffed and blistered. Gelashvili grips a long pole in each arm—one with a hook on the end, and the other with a spatula—and plucks the loaves from the oven. He can do hundreds each day, and does so when the bakery has orders from a half dozen or so supermarkets and restaurants. But nothing beats the hot, chewy, stretchy bread pulled straight from the oven.

"I'm pretty sure that the bread that I have became kind of irresistible for many people," says Kats. "You might just call it a drug. I'm really into the drug business. I want people to feel when they eat this bread that they want more."v

Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com. And for video of baker George Gelashvili at work, see our blog the Food Chain.

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