Bread Furst owner nominated for James Beard Award
The Van Ness Bakery cafe is a favorite among locals
The smell of yeast bread and sugar envelops you the moment you walk through the door of Bread Furst Bakery. As bakers knead fresh dough behind transparent windows and cashiers serve bowls of fresh salads to eager customers, owner Mark Furstenberg chats with the regulars about their families. Locals flock to Bread Furst to pick up a loaf of fresh, crusty bread, a specialty cake for a celebration or even just a bowl of mixed market salads to enjoy on the patio during their lunch break.
Past the open kitchen, you’ll find tables of hungry Washingtonians nibbling on baguette sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies and kale salads. Customers can select from a wide variety of seasonally inspired daily dishes, many of which are vegetarian friendly and vegetable focused, and pile them high in a bowl or container to take home as a side dish for later. Cashiers slice up massive loaves of dark, fresh European breads and the counter is filled with fresh croissants, cookies, brownies and other American baked goods. The opposite wall is a specialty market, full of Furstenberg approved items from outside vendors.
He is truly the king of breads and baked goods. At almost 79 years old, Furstenberg was recently nominated for a James Beard Award in the category of outstanding baker. He was nominated for this same award in 2015 and 2016, and was nominated in the category of best chef mid-Atlantic in 2005 and 2006. Furstenberg is overwhelmingly humble about the honor, and says that he doesn’t even want to win. The nomination is enough.
“Being called one of the five best bakers is fine with me,” Furstenberg said. “There are so many good bakers in America. I’m going to be a little embarrassed to be named that.”
What makes Furstenberg’s success so inspiring is his entrepreneurial spirit and totally self taught culinary skills. Furstenberg worked as a Washington Post reporter, and in the late 80’s he decided to leave and open a food business. After surveying the community for what the town was missing, locals said the city desperately needed quality bread.
“I really liked making a product,” Furstenberg said. “That’s what I really missed at the Post.”
With experience as a home baker and some exposure to cooking at a camp in Vermont, Furstenberg decided he would open a bakery serving traditional European style breads. And the locals were right. It was an absolute hit, Furstenberg said.
The next step was to expand the bakery to more than just breads. During a trip to Italy sponsored by the International Olive Oil Council, Furstenberg was inspired by the varieties of breads and the realization that more and more Americans were sourcing their food outside of the home. This prompted him to look at traditional grab and go foods, to create a fast food restaurant that didn’t serve the American burger and fries.
He imagined an eatery inspired by the world’s traditional takeaway foods like stuffed breads, flatbreads, empanadas, knishes and samosas, he said. Slowly Furstenberg started introducing house made soups and salads along with baked goods, and thus began the cafe bakery. But Furstenberg is seemingly surprised by his own success.
“In a way, it’s kind of arrogant for someone who has never done anything to do that,” he said.
Furstenberg didn’t stop there. He started to incorporate the world cuisine that he loves into his foods. All of his breads are traditional European breads, his pastries are all American pastries, because he finds French pastries to be too sweet and his market meals are international, but mostly Mediterranean inspired.
Furstenberg has been so successful, he spent time as a consultant to many other chefs and worked as an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley campus. He attributes his culinary expertise to his experiences cooking, eating, tasting and reading about food. He aims to make food that he enjoys, with twists on traditional, fresh dishes. He enjoys and sells under sweetened baked goods with lots of texture and contrast, he said.
“The most important thing to me about this bakery is I set out to do a neighborhood bakery,” he said. “We did it. We have a neighborhood bakery.”
The 2017 James Beard Awards Gala will by hosted by Jesse Tyler Ferguson of “Modern Family” on May 1 in Chicago, according to the James Beard Foundation website.
Bread Furst is located at 4434 Connecticut Avenue. It is a 15 minute walk from the Tenleytown/AU Metro station and a five minute walk from the Van Ness/UDC Metro station.