[Photos: Cal Bingham]
Ten years ago, Area Four chef de cuisine Jeff Pond decided to create a sourdough starter, a mixture of flour, water and spontaneously occurring yeast for use in leavening baked goods the wild way. Not only is Pond's decade-old sourdough starter still alive and kicking; it's the only leavening Area Four uses for all of its pizza. That same starter has traveled with Pond as he's worked in the kitchens of several restaurants, and it has even spawned other starters used by even more restaurants. Soon, it may take over the world. Eater spoke with the proud father about his intimate relationship with the billions of microorganisms responsible for making the Kendall Square restaurant's dough rise every day. After so many years working side by side, he feels it's not just another ingredient.
How did it all start? I started the starter just because I'd never done one before. I've just been carrying it with me from restaurant to restaurant. Once you know how to use them, you can freeze them, you can dry them, and you just have to feed them to bring them back to life. I've used this one now in four or five restaurants, so it's kind of a little child of mine.
What restaurants? Tomasso [Trattoria] in Southborough is where I started it, and I took it with me when Michael Leviton opened Persephone down in the Fort Point area, and we used it there for our daily bread. Then I took it with me to Lumiere, where I think they're actually still currently using it. The pastry chef takes care of that now: you can leave pieces of it here and there. And I took it with me here [Area Four] when we opened.
How do you use it for pizza? We use all starter here, so I don't use any commercial yeast. I like the idea of something a little old school, kind of traditional. It's a three day process for us. We use a mix of barley flour, cake flour and bread flour, then the sourdough, water and salt. That gets mixed, proofed in bulk overnight, then we shape it the following morning for the next day's service, and that gets put the refrigerator for the following day. It needs time to relax and do it's thing.
How do you keep it alive? Just feeding it, basically. Believe it or not, when I feed it and when I make the dough versus when my other guy makes it, it's not that it's any worse or better when I make it or when he makes it, it's just that it's consistent when I make it or when he makes it. I can't really get my head around it. It's the same recipe, we do the same thing, but for some reason it seems different when one guy makes it versus another guy.
Has it ever let you down? Sure. When we first opened we had our trials. Our dough is really finicky. There's a lot of little things that can make the structure of the dough completely break down. There were definitely services when we would just rip holes in our dough, in the beginning, until we really got a handle on it.
You've been together so long. Does it have a name? No, it doesn't actually. I mean, it has its kitchen name. The Spanish guys in the kitchen call it puta.
Do you feel like you have a relationship, or is it just another ingredient? It's definitely something that is special to me. I take a lot of pride in it. I didn't realize it when I started the process back in 2002, and then all of the sudden one day I took it with me to Persephone and I was like, wow, I've had this thing for five years. And then people started asking me if they could get some and I started handing it out to friends and giving pieces of it to people here and there. It's kind of funny, but it's definitely not just another ingredient to me. Because we depend on it. If it's not right, our dough is done, and we sell a lot of pizza.
Who do you think is going to live longer: you or the starter? At the rate I'm going, definitely the starter. Yeah, no doubt. You know, we work a lot of hours and we work hard and we play hard, and all it requires is a little bit of love. As long as I give it to a guy who loves it, after I'm not around, it will be taken care of.
If a customer came in and asked for some of the starter, would you give it to them? Yeah, I would... I would consider it. I'm not one of those guys that says, ah, I'm not going to tell you my secrets. But to be honest with you, the dough is so finicky, it probably would do more damage than good. I would definitely be willing to give it to somebody to use, but I don't think I would just give it to anybody. I would want somebody who knew a little bit about what they were doing, or somebody I might know that could explain it to them. Otherwise it's a waste. Yeah, I wouldn't have an issue giving it to them, but it would require some explanation, and experience working with sourdoughs would help.
You want to give it a good home. Yeah, sure.
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