The Baker Who No One Saw Coming

And wound up defining a critical arm of a very famous restaurant. Here, a snapshot of Avery Ruzicka's day.

December 24, 2017 ‚óŹ 4 min read

By Michelle Matvey | Photographs by Aubrie Pick and Stephanie McKinnie

Inside Manresa Bread’s commissary kitchen in Los Gatos, head baker Avery Ruzicka trudges around methodically, a pitcher of water in one hand and a thermometer in the other.  

With blonde hair tied in a quickly-fashioned knot and apron heavily dusted with faint traces of handprints, Ruzicka is deep in the process of troubleshooting leavening temperature for chocolate Panettone, a new holiday special. Rare is the creative mind that relishes the temperamental subtleties of baking, since it’s what you might call a humbling pursuit—but racks upon racks of fragrant bread and perfect pastries are whisked off to retail stores, farmers markets, and coffee shops throughout the South Bay from this kitchen. At the center of it all is Ruzicka.

Her unflagging devotion to her army of loaves and viennoiserie is the result of a phase of personal trial and error; after staging at both Per Se and Bouchon in New York, Ruzicka turned down an offer for an overnight baking position, determined to first strengthen her cooking chops. Around that time, she ran into Manresa's Chef David Kinch and plied him for an opening, but they were fully staffed (as a famous restaurant is wont to be) with no room even for stages. Diverted, she went on to help open a pizza restaurant in New York, and had all but moved on when a friend reached out and told her Manresa was finally hiring—for a food runner.  

Ruzicka flew out to California from her native North Carolina on a Saturday; she interviewed and was offered the job on Sunday afternoon, then dined at Manresa that night. Come Monday morning, she had accepted the position, and by Friday, she had a room in Santa Cruz. “It was pretty wild,” she says. “And it’s been like that [ever] since.”  

After six months ferrying food from the kitchen to the tables, a sous chef noticed her eagerness to get her hands dirty and playfully asked when she’d be joining them in the kitchen. Ruzicka missed the joke and showed up with all the interns for work the next morning. The chef de cuisine thought she had snuck in and was prepared to boot her, but let her stay when he realized she was a natural—especially with the bread. Turns out, that was all the space she needed to prove herself invaluable.

Ruzicka now has two storefronts to complement the bread and pastry service at the restaurant — one in Los Gatos, and one in Los Altos — marked by long weekend lines and a slightly anxious following of repeat customers who reserve early morning hours for snagging their favorite loaf. It’s a constant battle to keep up with it all. “I definitely burnt myself out in the last couple of years. I mean I used to sleep here. I have a cot,” she says. “We just didn't have enough people, and we bit off a lot. We deliver ourselves, and we have our own vans. We make a fair amount of pastries, a fair amount of bread, and everything is naturally leavened. It’s an undertaking.”   

In her quest to battle cloying sweetness, Ruzicka dissects and composes flavor profiles, balancing ingredients, seasonality, textures, and technique. Sweetness is cut with high-fat, French butter, tartness with notes of brown sugar, and moist interiors with crisped, flaky crust. Here, she explains a few of the bakery’s top hits:  

Damn, But That Kouign-Amann

“The kouign-amann is all about the butter.”  

For most living in San Francisco, there’s one player in the kouign-amann game— b.patisserie in Pacific Heights, whose delicate creations shatter into airy crystalline flakes once touched. But once you try Ruzicka’s, you’re forced to consider that perhaps the world can indeed host two perfect specimens. The famed Breton pastry is traditionally made with bread dough, but it’s become fashionable to make them from croissant dough, with butter and sugar layered within; Ruzicka’s is unique on two counts: no croissant dough, and no sugar until the end. The result is a caramelized exterior with a light, elastic chew that protects perfectly stacked layers of soft dough inside.  

“We wanted a stronger dough to start with, so that’s one of the reasons we choose not to do it that way,” she says. “There are little differences, but we get a product we like better with that change.”  

The Apple Caramel Galette

The secret? Spelt.  

“A little spelt in our dough gives it [a nuttier] flavor, and more depth. We put a layer of our apple butter down”— made with brown sugar, vanilla, and Pippin apples, which break down quickly— “[and] on top of that, we put our caramelized apples, made with a Fuji or a Granny Smith. We want something that’s going to hold its texture. You have this deep, amber apple butter that’s super rich, and then tart apples on top. That balances really nicely.” It’s like the Caramel Apple pops of your youth, but 100 times swankier.  

About That Panettone

Easily the Mariah Carey of the holiday pastry season, Panettone is one of those perennial favorites that either inspires a fierce, raisin-studded traditionalism or creative whimsy from the baker set. It’s fluffy, it’s fruity (but not cloying), and it’s sweet (but not sugary). Ruzicka falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. “The Panettone is made with candied orange from Italy and Valrhona chocolate,” she says. “I think it’s nice with that little bit of acidity. From the flavor perspective, it was really important to me to use natural flavorings. I’d rather use fresh lemon zest or just candied orange than an oil.”          

“Everyday, we come in and we do more or less the same process. It’s a perfect incubator for observing, testing, and trying,” she says, doubled over at the industrial-sized mixer, arching her body to extend maximum surface area over the gaping metal bowl, refolding bits of seed and apricot from the mixer's walls into the heaping mass of dough. “What did you do today, what do you do tomorrow? I want every person who works here to be really living those values. Don’t want to half-ass anything. [It's] easier said than done.”