Hunting For Secret Ovens

Eric and Bruce Bromberg, the brothers behind New York restaurant Blue Ribbon Brasserie and its various spin offs, were in town last week promoting the launch of their new cookbook Bromberg Bros. Blue Ribbon Cookbook. They served some of their greatest hits, including “Northern fried chicken” with matzoh coating and bone marrow with oxtail marmalade, at a party at the Stanford Court Renaissance Hotel on Nob Hill. An interesting moment in the party came when the Brombergs led a tour down to the basement of the hotel.

Tucked away was a beautiful formerly-wood burning oven decorated with hand-painted tile. Now converted to gas, the oven was created in the 70s for the hotel’s then-restaurant, Fournos Oven. The Brombergs cooked a couple of ducks in it (pictured) for the party, and raved about its even cooking.

Wood burning ovens, particularly those constructed by master oven builders, like Fournos', are like holy grails for chefs. Generally you think of them as being for pizzas, but they’re good for cooking everything from meat to bread because they cook very efficiently and can get much hotter than a normal oven. Then there is just the awesome physicality of shoveling wood and moving things around inside the giant chambers.

At one time, many large apartment buildings in high density cities like New York had wood fired ovens, in which the residents baked their bread. And though most have been removed during remodels, a few remain. The Brombergs, for instance, found one serendipitously when looking for a space for their second restaurant Blue Ribbon Bakery.

“The person showing it to us pointed to the oven and said, ‘I think that’s an old boiler or something,’” says Bruce Bromberg. “But we knew what it was, and we got really excited. It sold us on the space.” Needless to say, they fixed the oven up and baked bread in it.

A similar thing happened to Sarah Klein, an Oakland-based artist whose performance piece, the “Bread Project," has her baking bread in public spaces like office building foyers. Klein heard about a bread oven at the Marin French Cheese Company that was in disuse. "They were using it as a kind of storage room," she says. She got permission to fire it up and bake sourdough bread in it for an art exhibit on the theme of terroir.

Beautiful and/or historic wood fired ovens are the source of much obsessive archiving and recreating, and there is a plethora of online resources. For instance, you can read of one man’s project where he recreated the wood fired ovens at Pompeii. The Brombergs believe that most of the "secret" ovens have been discovered in NYC, but I'm not convinced that there aren't still a few undiscovered ones in San Francisco. It might be worth a little trip to the San Francisco Public Library's historical records room. There just may be a former bakery whose current tenants always wondered what that really weird, built in bookshelf thing was.

Image of Eric and Bruce Bromberg courtesy of Galen Krumel.