The Jiro of Challah

We visit a master baker tucked away inside a suburban strip mall.

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I stumbled onto Mama's Bakery because that is the only way to find it. 

We were on our way to visit friends in the Santa Cruz mountains and were passing right through Los Gatos, a small wealthy Silicon Valley town. We were running late and desperate to find something to bring as a gift. We'd heard a rumor that Manresa, which has two Michelin stars and is considered one of the best restaurants in the country, sold bread. 

But when we arrived at the establishment, we discovered that the Manresa Bread Project did exist, but the actual product was only sold at the Campbell Farmer's Market on Sundays. This did not help us. 

Defeated, baby squalling, we sat in the parking lot Yelping for some way out of our predicament. 

Things were not working out, so I set off on foot to see if I can find anything along Santa Cruz Ave, which passes for the main drag of the town. 

I passed a sports bar, some chain coffee joints, title companies, dry cleaners, caterers, but nothing that could sell me just a little something to bring to our friends who had just had a baby and who shows up empty handed to a good friend's house anyway?

When I spotted the Safeway, I was going to give up and buy something that could be rapidly unboxed and repackaged, when I saw the name, "Mama's Bakery," across the street, in an anonymous strip mall. 

You never know, I thought to myself, as I walked past the toy store and nail salon back to the tiny storefront that seemed — contra most retail principles — designed to foster anonymity.

In the relative darkness of the bakery, my eyes gradually began to resolve stacks and stacks of cooling challah.

I'd stumbled into a challah store. And I. Love. Challah. The only sign of a menu was an ancient handwritten sign that said, "Challah $5." 

Behind the counter, working on more bread as I surveyed his finished products, was Abraham Shemirani, an Iranian Jew who came to this country 40 years ago, having learned to bake from his father

I watched his hands tie dough into knots for the thousands of challah rolls he makes each week. He sometimes looked, but it was clear he did it by feel. 

"You're the Jiro of challah," I said to him, but it was hard to explain without a lot of context.

So, by the time I'd paid for my bread, I'd resolved to come back and shoot some footage of this remarkable craftsman, so everyone could see what I meant. 

He's the Jiro of challah. And he works in a tiny storefront in Los Gatos, California. This is our world and I love it, sometimes.

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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