By: Graison Gill, Owner, Bellegarde Bakery
I’ve been asked to write some notes on the bakery’s anniversary and upcoming relocation. As of January 2, we’ll have been in our current location on Toledano St. for six years. And we will be moving to our new location at 8300 Apple St. in the Spring of 2019.
…Time is always a fun thing to reflect on—we always find ourselves there, somewhere in time. But we don’t always find our stories there. That is, our stories are always harder to locate, to thread forward—the stories we tell ourselves. About why we’re here. About what we’re doing here. Maybe when we plan to leave, or to explain why we left. My favorite poet says that we have to tell ourselves the stories which make sense of our lives. We all need, I think, an alibi for our time spent here on earth.
Bellegarde is nearly six years old. And we’re moving to a new building. We’re doubling our milling and baking capacity by adding another mill and another oven. I opened the bakery when I was 25: I was way too sincere, too serious, too passionate, too generous, too ambitious, too temperamental. I had an $85,000 check from the SBA in my pocket and way too much baggage in my heart. I poured absolutely everything I had inside of me into this old seafood bordello on Toledano St. Eventually, gradually, all the drama and hyperbole of New Orleans eroded me: I was lied, cheated, stolen from, hurt—more than once I wanted to give up. But I held on. Rather, bread held onto me: I never lost or misplaced my passion for bread.
And then time became a spring: we went from one derelict pick up truck to three delivery vans. We now employ 17 people and make about 6,000 loaves of bread each week. We teach more than 140 students each year how to make bread, pizza, pasta and pastries with our freshly stone milled flour. This year, culinary interns spent a total of five months with us. We provide vacation, health+dental care to full time staff; and the bakery is managed by women, before that became a validation and yardstick of inclusivity.
Bellegarde is a real bakery. We know the people who make our olive oil. We buy our salt from where it’s mined. We know the voices and commitments of the people who grow our grain. Our hands touch their hands and their work every time we use their wheat, over 80,000 lbs this year. We know where our pecans and figs and corn come from. This isn’t just a business that buys ingredients made somewhere else, then deconstructs and reconstitutes them to make something “locally.” We’ve created a regional fabric that generates hundreds of thousands of dollars each year: money that stays with the people who create value. We will always source the best, not scour for the cheapest. And we will continue to promote the integrity of flavor: “local food” is not a lifestyle; it’s imperative for Louisiana’s ecology and economy. I believe that if we lose our ingredients, which we’re much too close to doing, when we lose our seeds and our farmers and the cuisine they build, we’ll lose our identity.
This is why Bellegarde knows who it is. And this is a testament to the secular gravity of bread—when I began baking ten years ago, I couldn’t stop. Bread became a tether that held me to this earth. It became that alibi, my alibi, the one I told myself through all sorts of distracting chemical and emotional hazes. No matter what or where or when or how bread was always there, in my life, not holding me down but pushing me up: it was a gravity that made me buoyant. “The obligation to endure” in my passion always beat back the jungle—great bread will always be my compass because it keeps me honest. I may not always trust the truth, but I’ll always be honest. My favorite author says that people don’t change. We’re merely revealed. Bread revealed my identity to me.
I haven’t changed. Bellegarde hasn’t changed. It will never change. It will simply, merely, be revealed in the fullness of its time. And I’m blessed because I’m surrounded by people who care, people who laugh; I’m surrounded by the people who make your bread. People who never change, but instead reveal the infinite grace of their passion each day they’re at work—I don’t bake as much as I’d like to these days, but when they bake I know our story is in better hands. It’s in more hands, each pressing their own fingerprints into the story of Bellegarde. Six years in and I’ve learned how to better learn. Six years on and I know more about myself and less about bread. Six years on and I still fall in love with bread everyday. Six years on and instead of telling this story alone, I now have 17 other wonderful people who tell it better than me. Six years on and the voice only gets clearer. The grammar gets stronger. And the quilt gets warmer. Six degrees warmer.
Bellegarde has created community by committing to our values. And we’ve been successful because we’ve always made the bread we wanted to make, not the bread that people wanted us to make. I’ve always been afraid of people who are afraid: afraid of expectations, afraid of self-expression, afraid of vulnerability. The courage to be who we are—to live our values, not just talk about them—is the distinguishing aspect of Bellegarde. It’s the “secret” to our success: the terroir of wheat is as important as the terroir of passion. Vulnerability and time are the most important ingredients in any loaf. My life—and the life of Bellegarde—is defined by not by the pursuit of success, but of pleasure. The pleasure of a job well done; the pleasure of sharing, the pleasure of telling a story through bread, the pleasure of baking and sourcing and milling living wheat. In the words of one hero, Steven Spurrier, the goal of our craft is to express, not impress: this what we do each and every day at Bellegarde.
And finally, I still love how permeable New Orleans is: you can crawl like a worm through its body and soul, reaching through it like the core of an apple. It’s a city which continues to remind me how to be vulnerable: no matter how strong the urge to exit, to close up, to camouflage, or to give up…there’s more courage in staying put. Not as much glory, but more weight. Bread and New Orleans taught me this, each time I wanted to run, or to quit. I stayed put. And I learned more by staying than running. In a time when too many people spend too much time in a manicured “reality”—where we present ourselves on the Internet not for who we are, but what we are—I think it’s more important than ever to be vulnerable. To leave the door to our hearts ajar, to leave a loaf of bread on the threshold so someone knows you’re home. So the door may close, but will not shut. So that the story we tell, so that our alibi, is healthy. And delicious. And loud. And tragic. And as desperately beautiful as New Orleans. New Orleans doesn’t make anything easy, but it does make everything beautiful.
Six years on and the only truth is that well, the truth is subjective. But honesty it’s not. And bread, in my life, has always been honest and has never shown me mercy or immunity: it’s always held me accountable, forced me to be vulnerable. Bread made me accountable: to the earth, to the soil, to my craft, to my community. To myself, firstly and lastly. At least, that’s the story I tell myself. That’s my alibi: bread held me back while I tried to run away. And I take each day like a piece of sourdough, holding back a clutch of fermented dough to leaven tomorrow’s story.