2016 New Orleans Rising Star Artisan Graison Gill of Bellegarde Bakery
3609 Toledano Street
New Orleans, LA 70125
Los Angeles native Graison Gill arrived in New Orleans on a Greyhound bus in 2008. He was 20 and had only a basic, home baker’s experience with making bread. But he had three things going for him that would prove immensely helpful to his future career as a baker: a relentless work ethic, deep integrity instilled in him by his mother—a first generation American—and a love of reading.
As his passion and knowledge grew, Gill moved his baking practice out of his home and into the Delicious Cooperative Kitchen, selling breads at the Crescent City Farmers Market. Bolstered by the reception of his initial foray into baking, Gill moved back to California to formalize his bread education at the San Francisco Baking Institute.
In 2012, Gill returned to New Orleans to open Bellegarde Bakery from which he sells hand-shaped, artisan loaves—a prized miche among them—to stores, farmers markets, and restaurants. Working with wheat breaders and with a new granite mill that arrived in 2015 (one of the largest of its kind in the country), Gill mills grains mostly from neighboring states. And his loaves are affordable, because for Gill it’s about getting good bread into people’s hands—not about profit. For Gill, Bread baking is more than chemistry, tradition, innovation, nutrition, and history. It’s a spiritual pursuit.
Interview with New Orleans Rising Star Artisan Graison Gill of Bellegarde Bakery
CH: What distinguishes Bellegarde from other New Orleans bakeries?
GG: We shape everything here. We bake every day except Mondays. Someone is here every day, and we’ve never closed for an extensive period of time. At the end of the day, it’s a commitment. I think I did Thanksgiving last year, someone else did Christmas. We keep things succinct and organized—everything is portioned out. We do three orders and don’t do graveyard so everything is ready at 7, because some people don’t use bread until the evening. We make three doughs, but fold different things in. I’ve worked into many places where they bite off more they can chew in terms of varieties. That’s the issue. There’s also a myth of sourdough, that it has an inception and genesis, but no bearing on flavor. We do our sourdough starter twice a day with a 75% whole wheat starter.
Caroline Hatchett: How did you ultimately launch the bakery? What were the finances?
Graison Gill: Accessibility to money gives you the ability to open a bakery. What you put in is what you’re going to receive, the more you can share. This place isn’t inspiring physically, but I’m comfortable. It cost me $50,000 to get going. Other people pay $250,000. Historically, this was a Gambino’s bakery, famous for Doberge. They moved out to near airport in the ‘80s. The whole place has paradoxical precedent of having bakery.
CH: How have you adapted your craft to a new climate?
GG: We’ve made a few permutations since it’s a subtropical climate and not always perfect. We know quantity and volume, and on busy days we break into 15 minute increments. We have this water chiller in the corner that spits out water at a desired temperature and volume, and that facilitates consistency. It’s knowing craft and knowing formulas, as well as being comfortable and engaging in verbal discussion amongst everyone regarding the dough. It’s a familiarity thing, about exposure to this bakery, confidence, composure, and consistency in ingredients. There’s no secret.
CH: Milling grains is central to your philosophy. Have you tried to use local wheat?
GG: Five years ago, I called Louisiana State University. I met a wheat breeder and tried to grow wheat a mile from here. In Louisiana, we harvest wheat at the end of April, but it’s also the rainy season. I was going harvest wheat but lost the entire crop to rain. I use 10,000 pounds of flour a month. What do you do with a bad crop?
CH: What oven are you using?
GG: A Bakers Best deck oven. Not top of the line, but we make incredible bread working with the bare minimum. We have a few different mixers, an Italian spiral, 35 to 40 years old, and a fork mixer. We’re getting our new mill, one of the biggest in the country, that’s coming at the end of the month. It’s made by Bar Vermont Granite. They own a bakery and make their own mills. Runs slow, but it’s built by people who use it.
CH: So what’s next?
GG: I met someone a few weeks ago who’s a real estate developer, like to buy a building. Even if that happens, it’s two years out. Five years is enough. I’m comfortable with myself, the city, and what I’m doing to own a building. I applied for a Federal Loan and that was that. The goal is identity preserved whether it’s coffee, malt from Cascades, painting, or music.