For Matt Kreutz, baking is quite literally the bread of life. Being in kitchens and baking are what he’s always done and what he’s always wanted to do since a chef who taught a culinary arts program at his high school in Northern Virginia pushed him to make bread when “no one else would do it.”
That program and a series of restaurant jobs led Matt to the famed Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York after high school, where he discovered that pastry and sugar were not the kind of baking he wanted to do. After doing an externship in the Bay Area, he decided to stay in California rather than finish the program.
“The second year was all chocolate and sugar. I knew I didn’t want to do that. I knew I loved bread and loved living here. I was 19 and having a good time,” he said.
His externship—at Della Fattoria in Petaluma—turned into a job. It also gave him exposure to working with baking in wood fired ovens. As he gained more and more experience with these ovens at places like Brick Maiden Breads in Point Reyes and Good Earth in Fairfax, he realized he was starting to get restless. He didn’t want to just manage or run someone else’s place, he wanted to start his own business and he wanted to do it by the time he was 25.
Matt says the subsequent start of his Firebrand Artisan Breads was “roughly on time” for the schedule he’d set himself. He wanted to stay in the Bay Area but he took a cross-country road trip to investigate other potential locations for his business before settling on Oakland.
“I’d been watching what was happening to Oakland, and my life hadn’t synced up with moving. It seemed like a good place to be at the time, a place that would be receptive. That’s why I chose Oakland,” he said.
So he started building a wood oven, enlisting the help of Malcolm Chase, a mason known for his brick ovens. Matt performed the majority of the labor for the oven himself, laying the tile and brick.
Wood ovens are, of course, far more temperamental than gas or electric ovens, which poses all sorts of challenges for a baker, particularly for baking bread. But those challenges are exactly what Matt relishes about working with fire.
“I just really like working with wood ovens. It’s really fun. It’s not like it’s easy, it’s insanely hard. When I say ‘fun,’ I mean ‘challenging.’ It’s a mental challenge to work on that oven. Everything—it’s just a big Tetris puzzle. I worked with a deck oven once and it’s fine, but it’s just kind of boring and it definitely has a huge amount of benefits, but I always felt like I was really comfortable working in a wood fired oven,” he said.
Consistency is also more difficult when wood-firing, Matt says. Communicating with the fire and being very attentive to it are key, he says. After working with fire and wood for so long, he and his fellow bakers at Firebrand “just have the feel of it,” he says.
“Some days it’s a total mess and sometimes you go in there and it’s amazing. You have to figure it out. If it’s too hot, you do this, if it’s too cold, you do this. Each oven is different in the way they react and the bread will be different than what you’ve done before. Each one is a different thing,” Matt said.
Wood firing ultimately creates a more unique product that becomes the signature of the baker, Matt says.
“Your ability to create a unique loaf of bread is much higher in a wood-fired oven. And your potential to screw up is a lot higher!”
The act of balancing the fire while still creating a relatively consistent product that holds up to client standards is part of what makes Firebrand Artisan Bread unique. It’s also what keeps their clients coming back. Unlike many more well-known bakers in the Bay Area, Firebrand has mostly sold its bread wholesale to restaurants and caterers in the area, which is why Bay Area foodies may not be as familiar with Firebrand as with other local breads even though Matt’s been in business for more than five years. But if you’ve eaten at places such as A16, Flour and Water, Michael Mina, Piccino, SPQR or State Bird Provisions, chances are you’ve had Firebrand bread. Matt also sources the bread at Pixar, sells through Good Eggs and Bi-Rite and recently began selling at Whole Foods in Oakland.
“I’ve always worked on the wholesale side of things for a really long time. It’s a world I’m comfortable with, and I like working with chefs. It’s just something I really enjoy,” Matt says.
Each loaf of Firebrand bread takes between 24-74 hours from fermentation to baking. One of the things Firebrand is known for is its pretzels, which are uniquely shaped and dipped in lye to crisp the outsides before baking. (Don’t worry, the lye evaporates in the oven, Matt says.) And Firebrand’s rye, for instance, is one of their more unique products, according to Matt, in part because the whole process takes 72 hours and includes three or four different feeds and hydrations for the dough as it is being formed.
Because Matt enjoys a challenge, he’s always looking for new ways to experiment or new products to try. They’ve been experimenting with a fougasse, which Matt describes as being “like a French focaccia.” They’re also beginning to work more with pastries, in part because he has a very talented baker on staff who needs a new challenge and loves doing pastries. They use the Kensington Farmer’s Market as their testing ground for new items. The pastries are not wood fired. They are building a new kitchen with regular ovens for the expansion into pastry, Matt said, because it’s too dusty and hot with the wood oven for those kind of products. Plus, his oven is already firing on all cylinders all day and all night.
“There’s no dead time on this oven—it’s going 24 hours a day.”
What drew you to food?
Well, I always liked making things. I liked being in the kitchen since I was a kid. My mom passed away seven years ago, and I was looking through photos and nine-tenths of them were me in the kitchen with a bowl on my head. I was always in the kitchen with her—I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her. She was Italian…I have fond memories of going to Jersey and sitting around a table—food was just a really big thing with my mom and my family and I spent time with her in the kitchen and love working with my hands. Those two things are just ingrained in my brain, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I don’t really want to—I don’t feel qualified and I’m not really interested. I like everything about it. When I was 14 or 15 on the line, it was the most exciting thing in the world, so fun, a really fun experience. I like the camaraderie of it and the spirit of it. The kind of people who were in the kitchen, they were just really fun to be around. The people in that class in high school, a lot of us were freaks. I just didn’t want to go to college. There was a certain kind of aesthetic, most of us drawn to the kitchen were a certain kind of breed of misfits. It was exciting for me as a teenager who didn’t fit it and didn’t want to fit in, it was fun to have this group of people who were really weird that you see once a day. They all had problems. I have problems…no one was trying to be perfect, [they were] good being weird and being themselves. The chef was totally cool with that, he recognized that about the industry and the people in the class and he fostered that. It was a fun and exciting place to be.
I think bread is a lot more methodical. Working in the kitchen as a cook, it’s kind of like just banging it out, a lot more like boom, boom, boom, go. Bread is more methodical and takes a lot more mental energy to do bread. More planning, direct hands-on, intuitive senses. It’s more of a sensory experience for me. It’s been much more tactile and hands-on.
Pastries –I appreciate people who can make amazing pastries. People who make bread, pastries, cooks—all three of those people, it’s a different mental framework. It takes a different kind of person to do what they do—different way of doing things, going about your work, etc., three different frameworks.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
I just really like to challenge myself—I like to think I’m challenging myself all the time. I’m really a restless person. I want to do something and make something and have people eat something that is unique and that they’ve never tasted before. I want to create something for a person that’s easy for them. I have a lot of drive to create something different, I’m never really satisfied ever. I have so many ideas in my brain about what I want to do. Getting to bring something to fruition, that’s been really fun.
What’s been the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
A lot of people are going to give you advice—some of it’s good and some of it, it’s best that you listen to it and take what you want. Everyone’s got advice. People give advice based on how they see you, and you’re the only person who has your vision and can play it up. You need to develop your vision. That can develop over time, but you need to see that through yourself. Some people take advice and it’s amazing and it’s so spot on. Take what fits your vision—sometimes it doesn’t fit your vision and it’s amazing and it can change what you’re going to do. Keep an open mind. Listen respectfully. You gotta keep and open mind and listen.
I think just be clear about what you want. If you start a business and it’s any good, people are going to want more and more of you and a lot more from you, so you have to be clear about what you want to do. You can’t be so loosey goosey about things sometimes – you feel like you really have to think about it.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve face thus far?
Maybe just managing time. There’s a lot to do. Not just in my day, but as a baker and a business owner. What am I going to devote my time to? There’s only so much time in the day. I generally sleep less than most people I know, but I have a business, two dogs, a girlfriend—I’d like to spend time with those. How do you cut loose and have free time? It also goes to managing yourself—it’s a huge challenge. You have to be the leader, the one with the vision, laying everything out for people. Do that on two hours of sleep, seven days a week, that’s not good. Trying to figure out mental space for yourself—the business is a beast—it’s gotta be tended to all the time. Balance and space is a big challenge, which goes to managing yourself and your time.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Just being creative…the ability to be creative all day is really nice. I can really exercise a lot of ideas, and I have an audience with chefs who trust me and clients who trust me that whatever comes out is going to be delicious, which should not be abused, but it allows me a certain latitude to play around a bit. Being creative—I just really like making bread—being able to do something I’m good at and that I love is really rewarding. I am a bread baker, that’s what I do and that’s what I am. I get to do this everyday—I get to try to create something special. It’s an ever-evolving goal, but it’s like a big driver to try to create something special.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
I really like our ryes—they’re what I’m most proud of.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
Greg Mindel from Neighbor pastry—they’re a small company in terms of scale. He does pastries, laminated doughs. We have similar backgrounds. He’s just a really talented human being and is doing something unique on a small scale. He has these tarts with like 10 components…just insane attention to detail that is really special. His pistachio croissants are a special product—it’s not dainty in a museum—no one is doing croissant like he does. He’s crazy good. He’s devoted to his craft, and he’s really good.
James Syhabout from Commis and Hawker Fare. He’s really cool. I got to meet him through Firebrand. He’s insanely talented. Again, a keen attention to detail and perfection without making it feel stuffy and precious. The guy has a prix fixe $75 meal, and it’s the best meal I’ve ever had.
Same thing with Greg—really attentive, really devoted to craft, but also just really good cooks, really sweet people you can’t imagine them doing something else. Really nice human beings—just really devoted to what they’re doing. I think it’s really admirable.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
If I had the ability, given time and no restrictions, to have my mom’s lasagna—if I had that before I died, I’d be happy. No one could make lasagna like that.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
Thomas Keller is a huge presence in our household for sure—someone who is so dedicated to craft. I think I admire people who are really dedicated to the craft. The Grant Achatz’s, Thomas Kellers, James Shyabouts of the world, just really dedicated. Jacques Pepin was also big at my house—we’d watch Jacques and Julia re-runs all the time. Julia Child’s huge.
Firebrand Artisan Breads