7 mars 2017

Jeff Finkelstein - Baker/Owner Hof Kelsten

Theo Diamantis
Co-Fondateur d'Oenopole

The Artisan Series: A random installment of nice people who make great things

Jeff Finkelstein: Baker-Owner Hof Kelsten

I first met Jeff about five, maybe six years ago. I was eating oysters and drinking assyrtico at the counter of Liverpool House, when in comes this handsome man with a mischievous smile and a bag of warm bread. “ Who’s the dude?“ I asked Ryan who was busy popping another round of Lucky Limes. “ That’s Jeff, he makes bread for a few restaurants. Good stuff. “

I lean into the bag and catch a whiff of an earthy, comforting smell that I call “the smell of home”, that warm and reassuring feeling of being safe and sound, knowing a good meal was around the corner. “What’s that? I ask, pointing to the bag.” He breaks a grin, shoots back a scotch and says “Rye bread. Good ole Jewish-style rye bread.” He splits the restaurant, leaving that warm smell behind him. I tore a chunk off a loaf and tasted the first of many bites of Jeff’s amazing baked goods. The city definitely needs more of this bread I thought…

Jeff’s background is in fine-ding, having gone to school in NYC at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Institute) where the likes of David Chang and Wylie Dufresne also schooled themselves. Internships and gigs took him to prestigious places like Toqué! In Montreal, Per Se in NYC and The French Laundry in Napa Valley. “I did a bit of everything,” he tells me, “butchering, gardening, you name it, as well as an overseas gig in London at the 2-Michelin starred Hibiscus working as a junior sous-chef.”

He got his whiff of pastry working for Oriol Balaguer, owner of a world-class chocolate and pastry joint in Barcelona. “Man, that was a great stint,” reminiscing about his time in Europe. “I went on to do an internship at El Bulli in 2009 working in pastry for over a year,” he continues. “That was at the beginning of a craze: the year-long wait to get a table. The restaurant was open for six months a year, and they would receive one million requests in one day. Insane!”

With such an incredible background and experience in high-end wining and dining, I asked him why he decided to open a bakery.

“High-end restaurants are too stressful for me. I should know, I did it for many years,” he says without the slightest trace of rancor. “I wanted to open up a place that could be casual, and also serve a few restaurant clients.”

Jeff had been the main bread guy for some of the best restos in the city, including Joe Beef, Nora Gray, Toqué, Leméac, Le Club Chasse et Pêche and Le Filet, and wanted to continue supplying them. In 2013, he opened Hof Kelsten (the name is a weird riff on his own name) with a retail front, as well as ample space to bake for a number of restaurants. Dropping in on a typical morning run, one will find crusty breads of all kinds, including one of the best baguette around, lots of whole-grain stuff, and some of the most delicious pastry and croissants this side of the Seine. He also serves a great lunch and brunch on weekends, serving up lots of Jewish –inspired food.

“I have worked in some great restaurants, but my biggest influences are probably my mom and grandma.”

Jeff Finkelstein

Eastern European soul food. Indeed. A quick glance of his lunch menu and one sees the Ashkenazi in his blood: Chopped liver, brisket, Challah bread, Babkas, smoked salmon. And, to represent a more diverse Jewish cuisine, Eggs Shaksouka is de rigueur.

When I asked Jeff what he liked most about baking, he says “It’s a simple process, yet it needs lots of TLC and time. You must have patience to get it right. I have found great flour to work with, and use a starter dough that suits me very well. And you know, is there anything more satisfying than really good bread?” No Jeff, there isn’t.

When I asked what he likes least, he says “Sleep deprivation is a bitch.” On that note, he adds, “Gotta run, I have a shitload of Panetonne to make.”

Rust never sleeps.