I first suspected that something strange was happening to Ottawa’s food scene upon my initial visit to Art-Is-In Bakery.
I first suspected that something strange was happening to Ottawa’s food scene upon my initial visit to Art-Is-In Bakery. For starters, I had never been to a bakery with a huge lineup stretching down the stairs, into the parking lot, with the exception of the inevitable short lineup in front of the rather tiny St-Viateur Bagel shop in Montreal.
|Kevin Mathieson’s career has spanned apprencticing at Paris’ Ladurée bakery and serving as head pastry chef to former prime minister Paul Martin.
Here in Ottawa’s inauspicious City Centre Avenue industrial park, only 10 minutes from Parliament Hill, once I got in, I felt like I was inside the bakery itself. I felt like I was really walking into something special, the like of which I had never seen before.
Delicious aromas filled the air, there was lots of noise, and then I noticed people seated at an assortment of ordinary tables and chairs, some looking like picnic tables.
A good half of the people waiting in line were coming only to buy a favourite pastry or a favourite bread. The other half were planning to order, and eat in, at a restaurant spot that could only be called unconventional. The service for ordering was prompt and friendly. A small army of other employees brought breakfast or lunch orders to customers waiting at tables, and just as efficiently whisked away the empty plates.
In the back, and off to the side, other employees could be seen kneading dough and transporting supplies back and forth. Near the cash register was an oversized colour picture of a man, not unlike what you might see at the entrance of a public building in an Arabic Sultanate. And out of the corner of my eye, I thought I glimpsed a tall fellow in a baker’s cap who vaguely resembled the man in the picture.
Unbeknownst to me, I had happened upon one of the biggest current success stories in Ottawa’s baking history, Kevin Mathieson’s unique creation, Art-Is-In Bakery.
How an unknown chef from Winnipeg ended up owning and running (hands-on), one of Ottawa’s coolest eating places revolves around an otherwise uneventful trip to New York City.
Mathieson’s fateful trip to New York City started innocently enough. Along with other buddies, he was going to the Big Apple to celebrate a friend’s birthday in 1998. Very innocently he decided to visit the well-known François Payard Bakery in New York City.
It was “love at first bite” for him. And, he got along so well with the owner, and asked so many good questions, that he was asked to return the next day at four in the morning to try his hand at working at the bakery. Remember, Mathieson was on his holiday. He returned the next day at four in the morning, and the day after. At the end of his second “shift” he was taken aback by the boss’ proposition: would he be interested in working full-time starting the following week?
Mathieson flew back to Winnipeg, put all his belongings in his car, and drove back to New York City. There began his real apprenticeship, one that would see him being sent across Europe to nourish and broaden his baking experience.
Of course, he did have previous experience. Back in Winnipeg, while working as a cook at the Fort Garry Hotel, his entry at a local pastry competition allowed him to beat the hotel’s pastry chef. But as we all know, a baker is not made overnight, and to quote Mathieson, “you’re only as good as your last loaf of bread.”
|Before he became well known, Kevin Mathieson would
go around Ottawa armed with a cutting board and loaves of his most
Image courtesy art-is-in bakery
François Payard eventually promoted Kevin to head pastry chef and sent him on a lengthy set of stages that saw him apprentice at Pâtisserie Canet in Monaco, Steiner Bakery in Zurich and Paris’ Ladurée, famous for its macarons. Many of the technical things he needed to know were gleaned from those experiences. Yet, when I asked him what makes a good baker he answered in a flash: “You have to have a lot of endurance, to be a kind of chemist, meaning you have to know how long dough needs to ferment to create different flavours.”
When I interviewed Mathieson, I noticed he looked like he’d been up early. I don’t know if he still gets up every day in the early morning hours, forcing himself to sleep next to his dough while it rises. But I do know that in the basements and kitchens of other bakers and restaurateurs who believed in him, Mathieson got into the habit of snoozing while his dough was rising. And, as he stated often during my interview, everything depends on the temperature outside and the humidity. For this reason he is very proud of his new custom-designed proofing room, which he says will come in very handy for winter days in Ottawa when he’s preparing sourdough.
Before he became well known, Mathieson would go around Ottawa armed with a cutting board and loaves of his most popular bread. He usually chose two baguettes: his Dynamite baguette and his twelve-grain fennel one.
This technique eventually made him the top supplier of bread to the city’s best restaurants, including Parliament Hill, the posh Rideau Tennis Club, Rideau Hall, top hotel restaurants, and various supermarkets. He was former prime minister Paul Martin’s head pastry chef. Mathieson likes to make a bread as one would a fine wine, with differing aftertastes. Using the preferment allows him this opportunity and he stresses that doing everything in house adds to the refinement of his product.
“We could cut corners, but we never cut corners. For example, we buy our own onions. We slice them, we caramelize them. We roast our own garlic. We must go through 25 cases of fresh rosemary a week – everything we use is fresh. We want to give you as good as what you could make at home.”
Lately, they’re doing less delivery of bread and more work for the restaurant, as wife Stephanie says that “now the energy is coming in, we can show off a bit what Kevin’s all about.” It seems to be working – the crowds are as big as ever, and Art-Is-In Bakery has taken over another unit at Ottawa’s City Centre Avenue location.
“We don’t see the wholesale growing without machines, and [without machines] is how we built our business. I just think about all of our loyal customers – it’s the romantic part that’s breaking our hearts.”
The Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here recently filmed a segment, letting people from outside of Ottawa visit the place, at least virtually.
“It’s such a crazy journey…I’ve always loved food, I’ve always known I wanted to be a chef. I have to do it right, otherwise I’d rather not have the business.”
And it shows in every piece of bread, every piece of pastry. Art is in each and every one of them, courtesy of one of Ottawa’s finest artisan bakers.
Bruce Sach is a freelance writer based in Ottawa and contributor to Bakers Journal.
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