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.