In Brooklyn, Baking After Midnight

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Photo by Tejal Rao


I'm doing alright, but I duck out of the poker game at 1 a.m. to meet Matthew Tilden at Toby's Public House on 6th Avenue in Brooklyn. The restaurant's completely dark, the chairs are piled up on the tables, and Tilden's working alone at the marble counter by the pizza oven. He's wearing a black beanie, and there's a Sharpie dangling from the thick gold chain around his neck.

His business' name, Scratchbread, was tattooed on his left forearm six months ago. A ballsy move considering Tilden hadn't even started the company yet. I ask if that's a bit like tattooing a girl's name on your arm before she's agreed to go on first date. A bit crazy.

"I'm not offended by that," he laughs. "Everyone thinks I'm crazy."

Tilden cooked with Daniel Eardley at Chestnut, in Brooklyn, helped reopen the Russian Tea Room, held the chef position at 360 in Red Hook--which has since closed--and finally went off to Cape Cod to resurrect what he called a "food factory resort."

Tilden was convinced he should leave Cape Cod, move back to Brooklyn, and start his own bread company. So convinced, he got that tattoo.

"What's gross about Cape Cod," says Tilden "is that a Sysco truck stops at almost every restaurant." He saw a few good restaurants open in his time there, but on a day when he was feeling particularly cynical about the food world, he came across a Craigslist ad that spoke to him. It read:

I have amazing brick oven. You bake bread.

Tilden answered the ad and spoke to Tim Judge at Toby's Public House, a soulful little pub in Brooklyn. Judge was looking to make the most of the restaurant's pizza oven after hours. Tilden was convinced he should leave Cape Cod, move back to Brooklyn, and start his own bread company. So convinced, he got that tattoo.

A few weeks later, Tilden received a key to Toby's night kitchen and began experimenting with baking. He'd implemented a bread program at Chestnut, but it's taken Tilden four months to get his sourdoughs right where he wants them.

Now, every night after the crowds go home and the restaurant's oven is turned off, Tilden bakes his range of artisanal breads using the residual pizza oven heat (he bakes some pastries in a separate oven in Toby's basement). The goods are served at Toby's but also at Bklyn Larder and Get Fresh Table and Market, where Chef Juventino Avila uses Tilden's chai sticky buns to make French toast.

And the one-man company is growing faster than he anticipated. "I need to pass this bread operation on to people who are more talented than me, some real bread people," says Tilden, "so I can develop all my other ideas." He's referring to the ice creams, which he currently sells only at Toby's, and the catering company. For now though, Tilden works all night alone to shape and bake the breads then loads up his Saturn to start deliveries at 6:45 a.m.

When I arrive Tilden is folding scone dough using a wooden paddle. There are shards of bitter Valrhona and dried cherries in the crumbles, barely sticking together. Every so often Tilden adds a little whipped-cream-and-egg mixture. I immediately wonder how many scones he'll get from this small batch that he's so carefully working (it's about 20).

Tilden grew up in Southern California on fast food. "My family was really low-income," he says. "They didn't know how to give me the tools to eat well. Also, they weren't home." Tilden was a professional choir singer, touring California with his barber shop quartet, before he enrolled in culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America. "That's where I learned to really love and respect food."

At 2 a.m. Tilden runs downstairs and returns with 12 baskets of tiny sourdoughs swaddled in flour-coated cloth. "These are my two-day-olds," he says tenderly, unwrapping them, working off the extra flour with his fingers. He means the raw dough's been allowed to develop for two days before being baked.

"Nine degrees to go before I throw in my sours!" He says, and I feel like the bus is picking them up for kindergarten.

Tilden clamps a caged light to the front of the oven and points it inward so he can see inside. The oven hits the mark and Tilden slides in the sourdoughs. He wraps his arm in a towel, sticks it in the 650 degree oven, and spritzes water into its hot walls to moisten the bread. He does this 10 times while the sourdoughs are in there.

Greenwood Cemetery is one very quiet block away, and I know that the night kitchen can be a spooky place. I ask Tilden about working alone here.

"I love working alone," he says simply. But two weeks ago the restaurant speakers, attached to a laptop that was turned off, went on full blast. "I got crazy chills," says Tilden, "and honestly I was a little shaken. That's weird."

He turned off the speakers and got back to work. A few minutes later, music came from the basement speakers. This time Tilden laughed, "it was Third Eye Blind so I was like, how menacing can this fucking ghost be?"

Did he tell anyone about the paranormal activity in the basement? "Oh yeah," says Tilden, smiling, "everyone just thinks I'm crazy."

He gives me another loaf to try. This one he aged for nine days and baked two days ago. This bread is heavy, with a medieval armor-type crust that protects the dense beery middle. Its malty flavor sticks around long after you've swallowed. It's really something.

With a thick layer of salty butter and a pickle, I tell Tilden, this is my idea of a perfect meal. "That is the way to rock my bread," he beams. After a couple of thwacks on the counter, he breaks the loaf and sends me home with half. A week later, I'm still enjoying it.

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Tejal Rao

Tejal Rao is a writer and translator from Northwest London, living in
Brooklyn. She is a restaurant critic for the Village Voice. Follow her on Twitter or learn more at www.tejalrao.com.

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