by Holly Fann
Alex Carlson IS Red Guitar Bread. The one-man show researches techniques and developments in bread baking and fermentation, runs marketing, sources his local grain, sells in-person to a fast-growing loyal fan base at The Webster Groves Farmers' Market (Big Bend Boulevard and South Old Orchard Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-963-5696) and of course, he bakes the bread. Bread that is amazingly good, remarkably flavorful and as sound, solid and simple as the four basic ingredients he works with. "Generally speaking, I bake breads that keep the focus on the grain and fermentation technique," Carlson says. "I just don't like to work with more than flour, water, salt and yeast, preferably wild yeast."
For the market goer, that means a selection of breads including ciabatta, his with "a high proportion of preferment for a nice balance of sour with a clean white dough flavor"; pan bigio, "an Italian country wheat made from local Cape Girardeau whole wheat flour"; a white sourdough he calls "St. Louis Sourdough in response to San Francisco Sourdough since both are made from wild yeast cultures that are strictly unique to their areas of origin"; pain au levain, "a classic french loaf derived from a wild yeast starter" and pain a l'ancienne, "which utilizes a new development in dough fermentation and treatment." A unique and aromatic smoked whole wheat gets its flavor from six hours of smoke before being mixed into dough. "I've taken to using the analogy that eating it smells like someone's cooking bacon in the next room," explains Carlson.
A native of Eureka, Carlson moved to Chicago to attend culinary school and worked in a bakery in Hyde Park, Illinois. A job working at the Washington Hotel on Washington Island, Wisconsin, under Leah Caplan was a culinary revelation. "I knew nothing of this place," Carlson says. "Hell, I didn't even know Wisconsin had islands! My first duty was to walk 300 miles into the woods behind the hotel and forge for ramps. Everything was local, and that set the tone for my entire experience. I also worked with a wood-fired brick oven, a physical element of the hotel that changed my life." After moving back to St. Louis, serendipity brought him to Five Bistro (5100 Daggett Avenue; 314-773-5553) and the now-defunct Newstead Tower Public House, when he found out about their desires to bring a bread program in house.
These days Carlson is a busy man. Providing Five Bistro (the home base for Red Guitar Bread), The Mud House (2101 Cherokee Street; 314-776-6599), Salume Beddu (3467 Hampton Avenue; 314-353-3100), Big Sky Cafe (47 South Old Orchard Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-962-5757), Cyrano's (603 East Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-963-3232) and the occasional Entre Underground event with his bread as well as the bread for the Webster Market, one wonders when Carlson sleeps. It's doubtful that he does. "I get busier every week, and there are no signs of slowing down," Carlson says. "It's a damn good thing I like this work and I have a supportive and understanding little lady at home who doesn't mind my weird hours."
The extra work Carlson picked up to sell face-to-face this year at the farmers' market has been fantastic. "This is my first opportunity to sell directly to customers, and I've found them knowledgeable, enthusiastic and appreciative," Carlson says. "Really gratifying for someone who flies solo for 90 percent of his day. Totally worth the overnight shift I work to get the bread baked fresh for sale."
Carlson and his breads can be found at The Webster Groves Farmers' Market, which runs every Thursday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Big Bend Boulevard and South Old Orchard Avenue, Webster Groves, 63119.