Texas native Chad Robertson didn’t set out to be a maverick of the baking world when he enrolled in The Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park. “I figured if I learned how to cook, I’d always be able to find a job,” he recalls. It was there he met his future wife, Elizabeth Prueitt. Initially both were interested in the culinary arts but once they experienced the baking and pastry course taught by Certified Master Baker George Higgins ’78, they were hooked.
Securing an externship at Berkshire Mountain Bakery, owner Richard Bourdon became a mentor to Chad and passed on a key lesson. “I was taught the importance of making bread that is easy to digest. This is a lesson brought close to home by my wife’s intolerance to gluten,” he says. “What interests me is how to make native and ancient grains more easily digestible for all of us, gluten-intolerant or not.”
After graduation the couple worked in bakeries in Provence and Savoie, France then returned and settle in Point Reyes Station, CA where they opened Bay Village Bakery. For the next six years using nothing but flour, water, French sea salt, and wild yeast, Chad made hundreds of loaves of bread in a wood-fired oven. Selling their wares at farmers markets, the Robertson’s developed a loyal following. In 2002, they made the move to San Francisco and opened Tartine Bakery on Guerrero and 18th Street in the Mission district. “We wanted a bread bakery, pastry shop, and café that would vibrate with the same youthful energy as our clientele,” says Elisabeth.
Success, accolades, and a near zealous fan base quickly followed. The bakery turns out 240 fresh loaves daily—some of which are reserved in advance—and within an hour they’re sold out. The couple released their first cookbook, Tartine in 2006, followed by Tartine Bread in 2010, and Tartine Book No. 3 in 2013. Robertson’s recipe for his Basic Country Bread, from Tartine, runs 38 pages long and has reached cult status among passionate bakers—and for good reason—as bread recipes go, it’s nearly perfect.
In November 2005 the couple opened Bar Tartine with fellow alumnus Nicolaus Balla ’02 serving as co-executive chef alongside Cortney Burns. In August 2012, the Robertsons opened Tartine Sandwich Shop next door to Bar Tartine. In 2014, the Robertsons sold Bar Tartine restaurant to Nicolaus and Cortney.
Chad is much sought-after as a guest speaker at industry events and as a collaborator with fellow chefs. He helped develop the buns for Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi’s healthy fast-food chain LocoL, and the pizza dough for Danny Bowien’s revamped Mission Chinese Food.
In the spring of 2015, the Robertsons began the next phase of their culinary journey by opening The Manufactory. Located in the Heath Ceramics building in San Francisco, the 5,000-square-foot space is more than double the size of Tartine Bakery and includes an all-day café, bakery, R&D kitchen, and evening restaurant. Installed in the kitchen is a massive custom oven by German manufacturer Heuft. “There is not another like it in the world,” Chad says. “The technology is completely insane.” The Manufactory kitchen will also serve as laboratory, idea incubator, and specialty venue for collaborative dinners with acclaimed international chefs.
Nominated for numerous awards, together Chad and Elisabeth won the 2008 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. In 2015, Nicolaus and Cortney won the James Beard Foundation Book Award for Cooking From a Professional Point of View for their cookbook Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes.
Chad is grateful for his team. “Every one of my bakers is as good or better than I am,” he says. “There is an artistry when working with dough. Bread should go through a transformation where its textures and flavors become much more than an embodiment of its parts. The mixing, fermentation, and baking, all of those things should work in balance so you end up with something that transcends the simplicity of its ingredients.”