I used to think an apple pie was just an apple pie. Then I met René Becker, founder of the Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For Becker, pie is anything but simple. Every other week, from August to January, he drives to the western end of his state and scours the orchards. In late summer, he buys Greenings, Ginger Golds and underripe Macs; in early fall, Cortlands, Gravensteins and Empires; and so on with other varieties until the season is over. Yet even this oversimplifies his process: each week he changes the mix until he hits on the right union of juicy sweetness and crisp tartness. Whenever they're made, Becker's pies are so full of apple flavor it's hard to believe the fruit exists for any other purpose.
By all accounts, including his own, Becker is one of the most single-minded and obsessive bakers in the business. Michael Leviton, who serves Hi-Rise breads at Lumière, his acclaimed restaurant in the Boston suburb of West Newton, says, "The guy is fanatical. You get the feeling that most people are trying to be good. Not René. I think René is really trying to be the best." George Germon, co-owner of Al Forno restaurant in Providence, believes that Becker's passion and dedication separate him from the competition. "A lot of bakers have good days and bad days.René always seems to have a good day."
Becker began baking as a child and was inventing recipes by his teens. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he spent Friday nights making more than a hundred loaves of bread to be delivered to the famous Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor the next morning. ("People still come in and ask for some of those breads," Zingerman's co-founder, Ari Weinzweig, says.) But after graduation, Becker turned down offers to open a bakery of his own and indulged his wanderlust instead, living on a farm in Brittany and studying Russian in Moscow. He didn't return to food until almost a decade later, in 1986, as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. Finally, in 1994, Becker opened Hi-Rise and began baking again. Today it's hard to believe he ever did anything else.
Hi-Rise is a thoughtful reworking of the modern American bakery, equal parts country store, coffeehouse, fine-foods purveyor and wine shop. A stone floor, a high ceiling and a communal wooden table give the place the feel of a retreat in the Berkshires. In the back of the store, Becker and his team bake thick-crusted breads, like sourdough-wheat, and sweets, like the whimsical chocolate-cookie sandwich that resembles a square Oreo. For a baker, he has a decidedly cheflike approach. Local produce, seasonal cooking and attention to detail are the things he values most. To deepen the flavor of his breads, he sometimes slows the rising to a near halt, allowing the breadmaking process to take as long as three days. Even in his most decadent confections, he achieves rich layers of tastes where other bakers might settle for mere sweetness: fresh, candied and ground dried ginger give his spicy gingerbread a delicious and unusual complexity.
First-rate ingredients are the bedrock of Becker's success, and he searches for them with the intensity of a hunter-gatherer. He finds flour in places as far-flung as Italy and as close to home as Rhode Island, where a 200-year-old gristmill grinds corn, rye and wheat to Becker's specifications. The pecans he prefers come from Texas; he brings cherries and blueberries in from Michigan.
While many of his peers look to the bakeshops of Europe for inspiration, Becker mines the traditions of the United States as well. Almost all of his signature items have a patriotic tale to tell. His earthy and delicate potato bread was inspired by early settlers who used the water potatoes had been cooked in as a yeast starter. Another Hi-Rise standby, New England brown bread, is the age-old accompaniment to Boston baked beans. "René tries to do American things using Old World techniques," Michael Leviton says. "In a way, that is what sets him apart."
One other thing that sets him apart, of course, is the time he spent as a critic, which he says shaped his approach to baking: "I had a pretty strong reaction to all the contrived food I ate while I was a restaurant reviewer. I learned to think about food in a way that most people don't. It's really an emphasis on a simpler approach. What do I want to eat? What tastes good?" For his many fans, the relevant question is even simpler: "What's René baking today?"
Rob McKeown lives in Boston and writes about food and travel for digitalcity and The Boston Phoenix.