On The Line: Dean Kim of OC Baking Company, Part One

“I kinda like being the guy who does bread, but nobody knows who I really am.”

Oh, Dean. You shouldn't have let us into your office. It seems as though every third chef we interview name drops you. While you might not have your own restaurant, you do provide the goods to 70+ establishments in the Orange County area (plus you mentioned working with a chain on a high-end burger line). That's enough qualification for us.

Do you only sell at the Orange Farmers Market?
I've been offered numerous farmers markets, but my problem is that it's an artisan product. It should be fresh, you know? I like the whole concept of being sustainable. I see bakeries from all the way down in San Diego come to L.A.'s farmers market. That doesn't make sense to me.

I only do the Orange Home Grown because it's local. Secondly, they kind of give me total carte blanche as to how I want to represent my bread. One thing we do is try to educate everyone. (Someone says) “Dean, I bought one of your baguettes and it cut my mouth.” (I say) “Well, good. That's what bread does.” We don't use any preservatives and we make everything natural.


Biggest mistake people make when baking.
I tell a lot of home bakers to “let it go“. Don't get nervous. Even some chefs get scared. Each bread is different. Ultimately, it's really important to tell me what you want to achieve. Do you want a nice, airy bread? Do you want a dense bread? What do you envision having that bread with? Baking is not a direct science.

What's your take on gluten-free baking?
I only know a little bit of it, but what concerns me is a lot of bakeries state they're gluten-free, but they're really not. I don't do anything gluten-free. I have a nephew, and a little bit of gluten could kill him, so I'm really hesitant on that. I go to bakeries, and they're like, “This is our gluten-free line.” But they're mixing their bread product out of the same mixer as their gluten-free product. Doesn't that counter-contaminate each other? Because a little bit of flour could really hurt a kid who is really allergic. That kind of scares me a little. 

Do you have a favorite?
I prefer a really hydrated, Italian, plain bread. Like a ciabatta. My favorite is probably one that we started doing in the Bay Area. It has a little bit of cracked wheat and rye in it. It's like the denim of bread. It matches well with anything.

If someone wants to do a grilled cheese, what would you recommend?
I would tell them to use a more fermented loaf. Something like a pain au levain. The grilled cheese at Shuck Oyster Bar is a pain au levain [Editor's Note: And it is soooo good!]. The crunch from the grill marks is what sets off your saliva glands.

How many places do you bake for?
About 70 to 80. Now I'm in a position where I'm trying to pick and choose my customers a little more carefully. The whole thing is that if I can't get to your account within a half-hour, there's no reason for me to even do your bread for you.

Customer service is a huge part of the culinary business, especially as a vendor. I like the fact that all my customers know my cell phone. If you're in the weeds, there's a 90% chance I can get you out of the weeds, if it's a bread problem. I think that's what we're lacking in the culinary world. Even places in L.A. county call me, even though they're not my customer.

Last place you ate at. What did you have?
Break of Dawn. I always get the same thing, but this time I changed. Dee (the owner) gave it to me. It was some lamb tongue that was stewed. I love Dee's food; it just feels like I'm eating at home. I'm so not Asian, but it feels like my grandmother's cooking.

We LOVE your wagon wheel bread at THE RANCH, and chef Michael Rossi can't say enough good things about you.
When Michael and I met, we were both struggling culinary guys. When he saw me, half the time I hadn't taken a shower for a week because I was in the bakery all day. My apron could stand because of all the flour and dough. As a friend, I'm super proud of Mike. He achieved so much with that Zagat rating. He's one of the most humble guys you're ever going to meet.

As much as I love Food Network and everything like that, it gives the perception to people that this is an easy industry to be in. I could have 10 bread consultations, but more than half of those people have no culinary experience, just graduated culinary school and have rich relatives or whoever wanted to invest with them.

Tell us about some of those people.
I remember when I first opened, chef asked me to give a tour because nobody wanted to give students a tour of their bakery. She had 25 students here, all young kids. I don't think half of them listened to a word I said. I showed them all the bread and ovens and why we do things.

Not til after were the students like, “Hey, we wanna stage with you.” I told them to all huddle around me, and I said, “Okay, I'm gonna tell you one thing. I haven't had an apprentice in over 10 years because I think there's a certain prerequisite that I have to see to show that I'm not wasting my time to train you. Half of you guys were chit chatting, and the rest were texting, not even paying attention to what I said. I wouldn't take any of you guys to stage with me. I'm sorry, there's no way”

And there's one Korean kid, with his hair all crazy, who said, “You know, you're Korean, and I'm Korean. So I thought maybe we could work with each other.” I said, “First off, I don't believe in that. Secondly, I want you to think this one thing: you're gonna have to shave your head, because I would not let you in my bakery with that type of hair.” I don't know what they're thinking half the time.

Where did you learn to bake; and why baking?
I was working for a bakery doing office work in the Bay Area, and I found myself fascinated. (I was) Always going back to the bakery watching the guys doing mixes and productions, and looking at their starters and stuff like that. I ended up going there a lot and having a really good friendship with the executive baker there– my mentor named Glen Hess. He said he saw something in me. Really, he didn't see anything in me. I didn't have hair on my arms, and I had good sized baking hands. When you're dealing with starters, stuff sticks to your hair, and he didn't like that. He encouraged everyone to wax their arms.

A lot of employees left because they had INS problems, but I was born in the states, so they put me in there and gave me a pay raise. I put it to heart, and moved up really quick in that bakery. Worked at a couple of other bakeries part-time. I always wanted to see different dynamics. I went to the culinary academy up in Napa for their bread program. I went to the AIB (American Institute of Baking) and the San Francisco Baking Institute, just trying to gain knowledge. I loved it. I loved the whole aspect of baking.

The thing I did was use a lot of book study. If you talk to anyone
in culinary, there has to be a serious mad scientist. You have to use
your practical training with your book study and blend them together.
That's why I tell a lot of bakers to go to culinary school; it's a good
foundation of studying. Till this day, I go through every single
magazine review I can and where there's a restaurant I like, I go
through their whole menu and see why I like it. What Glen did was show
me the foundation. He put the passion in there.

OC Baking Company can be found at www.ocbakingco.com.

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