Featured photo: Ingrid Chen McCarthy and Jeff McCarthy are the owners of Breadservice, a microbakery in Greensboro. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
Last year, as the unprecedented pandemic descended upon us all, thousands of people turned to an old pastime to assuage their fears and uncertainty: baking bread. In the span of just a few weeks, flour disappeared from the shelves of grocery stores as quickly as toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The problem became so widespread that King Arthur Flour, one of the most popular brands, instituted a two-bag maximum for all online orders. And while many in the general public broke out their dusty rolling pins and swept cobwebs off of their Kitchenaid mixers last year, a handful of chefs in the area have been perfecting the art of baking bread longer. This week, we spoke to them about their process, their favorite kinds of bread and tips for those who want to get started.
‘Bread requires a certain amount of respect of the ingredients’
A few months ago, Caitlyn Ryan broke the burners on her kitchen stove. She had been cooking soup and baking bread for months to sell and give away during the pandemic and as it turns out, her home kitchen wasn’t cut out for creating meals in 150-quart pots.
“I broke the burners on the stove because the pot was so heavy,” Ryan remembers.
Ryan has since opened a brick-and-mortar location off of Yanceyville Street in Greensboro in a strip mall next to a coin laundromat and an Asian supermarket. The shop, called Little Light Bread and Soup Co., is an extension of Ryan’s COVID business, which she started out of her home in September. The idea, she says, was to sell soup and bread so people could have easy meals throughout the pandemic. Whatever she didn’t sell, she would give away. Now in her restaurant, Ryan continues the tradition of creating soups every week but has also expanded to offering sandwiches on the lunch menu and provincial Italian meals during dinner service. She still gives away the leftover food. And at the heart of it all is the bread.
“It’s really easy to make an edible loaf of bread and it’s really difficult to make a really good loaf of bread,” Ryan says.
Ryan, who grew up in Philadelphia, says she cut her teeth in Irish pubs and restaurants in the city. And while she’s mostly had experience cooking, she’s been practicing making bread for about a decade, she says. At Little Light, every soup comes with bread and the sandwiches are made with house-made bread. Almost all of it is created by Ryan, who is the main cook in the kitchen.
To start, she says she practiced making a white focaccia. Now, she offers honey sunflower, focaccia, rye and white bread depending on what soups she’s making that week.
“Cooking is like a forward process, where you can always change things up until the end,” Ryan says. “And baking is really a backwards process where you need to look at what you want and work backwards to get there. And bread kind of goes from both directions.”
She says that she’s gotten a lot better at baking bread than when she started, but she knows that there’s always room to grow.
“Bread requires a certain amount of respect of the ingredients,” she says.
“I think a lot of people get deterred when their first loaf or first loaves don’t come out right and it’s just, people devote their whole lives to baking; it’s one of those ten-thousand-hour type deals,” she continues. “When you learn how to paint, they tell you you’re going to have to throw away some paint…It sucks to throw away food but that’s how you learn. You’re going to burn some of it, you’re going to overproof some of it. You’re not going to be able to eat everything that you mess up but that’s ok.”
Learn more about Little Light Bread and Soup Co. at littlelighttriad.com and on Facebook and Instagram. Visit at 3205 Yanceyville St. in Greensboro.
‘I don’t make a living out of this; I get a lifestyle out of it’
Up until a few years ago, Jeff McCarthy was miserable. He loved his job as a pastry chef for a high-end restaurant, but the hours were killing him.
“I realized that being an executive pastry chef and working 80 hours a week was never going to let me be the kind of dad and husband that I wanted to be,” McCarthy says.
“It was his dream job,” says Ingrid Chen McCarthy, Jeff’s wife and business partner. “And he was miserable while he was doing it.”
Shortly afterwards, while McCarthy was working part-time as a pastry chef, he began messing around with sourdough starter and experimenting with making bread. Then, in 2017, the couple moved to Greensboro with their newborn and started Breadservice, a home-based microbakery soon after. They initially began selling their products at the Corner Market in Greensboro but then the pandemic hit, and they switched to selling out of their home.
McCarthy says that coming from an exacting pastry background, the flexibility of baking bread was refreshing.
“I find the process addictive because it’s an organic, dynamic experience,” McCarthy says. “Every day I come to make bread, it’s a little different than the last and I call it the ‘conversation.’ You have to be in tune with not only the ingredients but also the environment.”
Initially, McCarthy was making about eight loaves at a time using Ingrid’s mother’s oven. Now, out of their home in College Hill, the baker is making 100 loaves per week.
The business model is pretty simple. Because of the couple’s commitment to a work-life balance, they are sticking to a subscription model in which customers can pre-order loaves for pick up from their home every week. They’ve also recently started to partner with some restaurants like Rascals Tavern. And just this week, they signed a partnership to sell their bread in Deep Roots Market starting on Friday. But for now, that’s as much as they want to grow.
“We don’t offer delivery,” Ingrid says, jokingly. “There’s a lot of things we’ve put firm boundaries on to keep it as sustainable for our family as possible.”
“I don’t make a living out of this,” McCarthy adds. “I get a lifestyle out of it. It’s always been super important to us that that is maintained throughout everything we do.”
He notes that he’s only able to fulfill his passion because of Ingrid’s support as the full-time breadwinner. And despite McCarthy’s assertion that he’s doing it for the love of it rather than for the money, many in the community view his bread as the best in town. For example, Tal Blevins, owner of Machete, is a Breadservice subscriber. And that’s a testament to McCarthy’s talent for baking, it seems.
“The main difference between pastry and bread is the exactitude of it,” he says. “I think I brought a meticulousness to the breadmaking process from pastry that I think as really paid off.”
The science of the fermentation process is one of McCarthy’s favorite parts of baking, he says.
“It will never not be magic to me to basically make this paste of flour and water that turns into something that has strength and vitality and increasingly complex flavor and is literally alive and then you murder it; it’s so fucking metal,” he says.
Their most popular product is the house sourdough. They also added a public pan bread, perfect for sandwiches, which may look more familiar to those who aren’t accustomed to a round loaf. Then there’s the Baker’s Choice, which changes week to week, and their immensely popular sourdough cookies. And even though he had decades of experience in the kitchen prior to taking up making bread, McCarthy says it’s still a learning process and for those just starting out, to be patient.
“Regardless of how many times I make bread, and I’m making it day in and day out, there’s always a bit of a leap of faith and a bit of trusting in the process,” McCarthy says. “And that aspect of it, it appeals to the skateboarder, snowboarder, adrenaline junkie in me.”
‘At the end of the day, it’s about having fun’
For Machete’s executive chef Kevin Cottrell, making bread is just another way for him to push the boundaries of food and experiment.
“We always kind of go in our own direction a little bit with things too,” Cottrell says. “So, still following the process and respecting it but doing things a little different.”
And that in essence, is the motto by which the chef creates dishes at Machete. The fine-dining restaurant, which opened in February of last year, has gained popularity for its well-crafted small plates that push the boundaries of food by bringing a playfulness and levity to each dish. And that’s how Cottrell approaches breadmaking too. On every menu, which Cottrell helps create, there is a bread dish. This season, it’s a milk bread — a type of fluffy bread that’s popular in Japan and China. It’s something that Cottrell, who has been in the restaurant industry for 12 years, tried a few years ago and has had his eye ever since.
Cottrell says he began making bread about five years ago. He started with focaccia, which to date is still his favorite kind of bread. Since then, he’s made focaccia, sourdough, rolls and now milk bread for Machete’s menu. In the fall, he’ll roll out something new again.
To create the milk bread, Cottrell said he did extensive research and it took about three batches before he ended up with a product he was happy with. The difference from other breads, Cottrell says, is that it uses a technique known as tangzhong which involves cooking a mixture of flour and water to create a kind of roux that gets added to the bread dough, creating a softer, fluffier bread. But as a chef who is constantly thinking of new ways to try making food, Cottrell says that his milk bread isn’t necessarily a strictly traditional rendition.
“We have a thing where we have to break the rules a little bit,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s about having fun. I’m 100 percent sure it’s not a 100 percent perfect Hokkaido milk bread…. We brush the top of our bread with sweetened condensed milk and it just gives it a shinier, crunchier, sweeter texture.”
The end product, he says, reminds him a little bit of a King’s Hawaiian roll because of its sweeter flavor.
His favorite part of the breadmaking process is the fermentation, he says.
“I love science projects, so I love any sort of fermentation,” Cottrell says. “Anything that’s just active by itself like a living organism is super cool to me. Especially being able to hydrate flour and then all of a sudden, an hour later, it’s bubbling and talking to you; it’s super cool.”
And while the bread isn’t necessarily the star of Machete’s menu, Cottrell says he views it as an important part of a meal because it adds substance and allows the chefs to showcase their different skills. In the future, he jokes about wanting to do a take on the rolls from Outback Steakhouse.
“I love baking because I don’t know nearly as much about it,” he says. “I love getting into stuff that I just know nothing about, but then it’s super satisfying when you learn a technique or learn how to make something that if you never tried, you never would have been there.”
Learn more about Machete at machetegso.com or follow them on Facebook and Instagram. Visit at 600C Battleground Ave. in Greensboro.