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3-course interview: Kate Heller of Leo’s Bread 

The self-taught baker opens Echo’s, a pizza place in Mid-City

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Kate Heller runs Leo's Bread (www.leosbread.com), a small-batch wholesale and pop-up bakery operation. This summer, Heller and the owners of 1000 Figs will open Echo's, a bakery and pizzeria at 3200 Banks St. Heller spoke to Gambit about dough and the new Mid-City spot.

What got you into baking?

Heller: I was in Maine one summer working on a farm in this really small town, and they happened to be hosting the first-ever bread and oven-building conference. No one came, so they gave us free tickets. We learned how to build ovens. I went back to (school) in Michigan and started building ovens with my friends. I started making pizzas and baked bread for fun at home.

  When I graduated ... a friend said he wanted to open a bakery in this really small town in California called Lompoc. When I got there, it was just an empty warehouse. We hired a couple of masons from Vermont to build the oven.

  We knew we couldn't sell enough bread in Lompoc, so we figured we'd sell at the farmers markets. But the rules at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market state that you have to be a producer, so we started growing wheat. We became wheat farmers. Lompoc happened to have a seed-cleaning facility, which was very lucky. So we grew wheat on 20 acres to start, bought a mill and milled all the grains, had a wood-fired oven and baked bread. The whole thing was a learning process. I baked really bad bread for about a year. It was just trial and error, but it was good to learn about all parts of the process.

  I moved to New Orleans in 2014 and started baking again, first just one day a week, selling out of my trunk. Eventually I started adding days and now do (only) that. The (owners) at 1000 Figs, they were my first real customers. We became really good friends, and as I got busier and Leo's was growing, I knew I needed to figure out what I was going to do next. At the same time, Figs was starting to think of doing something more ... and it just sort of came together.

What's your baking style for bread and pizza?

H: I bake two types of bread. I do a durum wheat yeasted bread, which is more of a traditional Italian-style bread. I also make a darker soughdough. The (durum) is naturally a little sweeter. There is still a really long fermentation and a lot of water. People usually just write off yeasted breads, but I think yeasted breads can still be really good and flavorful, with a good crust — and they last a really long time. ...

  What I can make is dictated by the equipment I can get. Right now I'm just baking out of a gas oven. I don't bake baguettes because you really need some sort of steam-injected bread oven. I make mostly sandwich loaves now, because it's easier to cover them with foil to get some steam. Steam is really important.

  At (Echo's), we're going to have a wood-fired pizza oven, and we'll do pizzas and all sorts of [appetizers] out of there. We'll bake bread every morning, so we'll have loaves for sale, and we'll use the bread on the menu. There will be a full kitchen too, so we'll do salads, sandwiches and there will be a bar and a patio.

How do the methods for wood-fired oven breads and pizza differ?

H: The thing about baking bread versus baking pizza is that with bread, you fire the oven about 24 hours in advance, and it's all stored heat. It's really hard, because you have to calculate how hot you're firing the oven. When you start baking, you can't do anything. If it's too hot, you can try to cool it down with little tricks, but if it's too cold, you're screwed. You can't re-fire it. ... It's fired 24 hours in advance for a full eight hours, and then it rests overnight and the heat sort of spreads out through the oven. ... The heat, when you're firing it, is at a thousand degrees, and you want it to get down to around 600. Pizza is different because it's a live fire, so you're just keeping the fire going while you're baking the pizza.

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