As they prepared to move to a bigger space, Auckland artisan bakers Fort Greene paused to reflect on the glorious potential held within two pieces of bread.
Springing out of bed to start work before the birds start singing is probably a sign you’ve found your calling in life. Liam Fox, who owns Auckland cafe Fort Greene with his wife Andrea Mulhausen, says it wasn’t until he started baking bread that he found something he’d be happy to do until he hangs up his apron for good one day.
“For a number of years, as a chef, I’ve sort of been going through the motions. Although I’ve always loved cooking, enjoying cooking and enjoying being in a commercial kitchen are not necessarily the same thing. I’ve always enjoyed cooking more than being a chef. When I started actively making bread for the business, I realised that was the thing that I wanted to do until I stopped working. It’s the first time that I’d ever done anything where I felt like ‘this is what I am supposed to be doing’.”
Fort Greene has been “on a mission to create the perfect sandwich” since 2015. Driven by the mantra that the perfect sandwich starts with the perfect bread, they make whatever they possibly can in-house using seasonal and ethically sourced ingredients. They want to change perceptions about what a sandwich can be, proving they can be a meal in their own right. Fox says people tend to categorise sandwiches as a cheap, quick lunch option. They will gladly go and sit at a café and spend $30 on a flat white and a simple plate of eggs, bacon and toast, but put those same ingredients in between two slices of bread and call it a sandwich and people are outraged if they have to pay more than $6.
But nobody wants a lecture on tight margins and food costs while they chow down on their Cubano, so the couple have had to get used to some people walking in, whispering to each other when they see the price tag (the sandwiches range from $14.50 to $19.50), and walking out. But the ones that are willing to hear them out are the best, in Fox’s opinion. “You see their mind change — you see them realise that a sandwich is not just two pieces of Tip-Top white bread with some leftover shredded chicken from the night before. There can be more to it than that.”
And there’s more to it than that at Fort Greene. It takes a week to make the corned beef and the sauerkraut for their soul-soothingly good Reuben, arguably the best in Auckland. Their fish finger sandwich is made using line-caught kahawai (if they can’t get any, the sandwich is temporarily off the menu, resulting in public outrage). It’s cured and smoked before being shredded, crumbed and turned in to the most bougie fish fingers you’ve ever seen, then served between slices of rye sourdough with mashed peas, tartare and snow pea feathers for a sandwich that delights both the child and gourmand inside you.
While the cosy wee shop in St Kevin’s arcade on Karangahape Rd, with its mezzanine and petite kitchen under the stairs, where Liam’s head grazed the ceiling, was the ideal starting point for their business, after three years they felt like they had to adapt or die. The size of the shop meant that hiring staff amounted only to enough extra business to cover the staff’s wages. So the two of them worked largely alone, sometimes seven days a week. “One day we came back from a break, and we started doing the same thing we’d been doing every day for the past two and a bit years,” Mulhausen recalls. “And I said to Liam, ‘I can’t be doing this forever. I just can’t. It’s driving me crazy’.”
The couple have always been risk-averse when it comes to business, doing the best they possibly can with minimal financial input. But with their daughter Olivia now five years old, Liam says the move to a bigger shop, where having staff will allow them to have a couple of days off a week, is an investment in quality of life. Staying on K Rd was high on their list of priorities, so when a space became available only a few blocks down the street, it was time to take the risk and move. The new shop opened last weekend at 327 K Rd.
In the beginning, they’ll continue to make the breads they’ve already perfected before adding more to the repertoire. “A lot of businesses go too big too fast,” says Fox. “They go ‘this is what we want to be, so we are going to become that on launch day’. They take on too much. It’s better to have quality than quantity. When you get the quality going and the consistency, then you build on the quantity.”
With a skilled baker from Britomart’s Amano coming on board, they will also be offering some patisserie, and after so long in solitude in the kitchen under the stairs, Fox is looking forward to having somebody to bounce ideas off.
Being largely self-taught in the art of bread making, Fox recalls how in the beginning, he persevered through six months of failure until he eventually nailed it. Through social media, he connected with some big-time local and international bakers who gave him tips; his bread books are dog-eared and bookmarked from endless study; and he geeks out on analysing the crumb structure of each loaf, always striving to improve.
For something with only three ingredients – flour, water and salt – there is a complexity and sense of adventure in making sourdough that makes the quest to perfect it quite addictive, says Liam. “Until you’ve tried making sourdough, it’s very difficult to explain. There are so many variables, and when you conquer all those variables for the first time and you have your first big success, it gets under your skin. You’ll either try it a couple of times, realise it’s too hard and give up, or you’ll do it until you get it right, and when you get it right you’ll be doing it forever.”
In their new space, bread will be churned out all day, so those of us who are keen on hitting snooze can swan in any time and be treated to a hot, fresh loaf – leaving the early rising to the people, like Fox, who love it. “It’s really nice,” he says. “It’s almost meditative, in a way, because there’s no one around, there’s no traffic, no noise, the world is asleep. It’s like you own the world until everyone else comes out of the woodwork. It kind of filters out all the noise, for a couple of hours at least.”