Some of the most creative forces in the food world have had previous lives. Most people don't realize Alice Waters was a Montessori teacher before she led the revolution toward seasonal, organic produce in California. As for Pamela Fitzpatrick, let's just be thankful she lost her job in film advertising in the 1980s.‚ If she hadn't, we might never have had the pleasure of eating her bread.
Fitzpatrick has been in charge of the bakery at Fox & Obel since the store opened, almost ten years ago. Since then, names like Red Hen and Labriola have come to dominate the local, artisanal bread scene. But over the last few years, regular shoppers in the River East gourmet store haven't been the only beneficiaries of her skills. Some of the best restaurants in Chicago have discovered her as well.
"When I was 16, I went to France with my family. I was staying with my mother's friends. I ate whole baguettes every day, afraid to try much more than that," said Jason Hammel, the co-owner of Lula Cafe in Logan Square and Nightwood in Pilsen. "Every time I hold one of Pamela's baguettes and feel that perfect Old World crust, and taste the tangy dough, I'm reminded of that discovery. There is no one who is as dedicated and as geeked-out about baking; no one as hard-working, and no one quite as nice as Pamela. Her whole team expresses that same craftsmanship and ambition."
some of Pamela Fitzpatrick's creations at Fox & Obel
Hammel is one of about a dozen local chefs who rely on Fitzpatrick's creative force everyday, and like her, shares a background in the fine arts.
Fitzpatrick worked in L.A.'s film advertising business in the 1980s. When her firm was acquired and she lost her job, she enrolled in school to get a Fine Arts degree.
"After six months, I really missed working, but I didn't want to go back to that corporate environment," Fitzpatrick said.‚ "I wanted to use my hands."
On her way home one day, she stopped by a new bakery on La Brea Blvd., where she saw some people sitting around, and asked the lady in charge if she could have a job.
"It was Nancy [Silverton] and Mark [Peel] of course, and I didn't even realize it. I had their cookbook at home," she said. I told my mom they're not going to be paying me anything, I'm working the graveyard shift [11 p.m. to 9 a.m.], and I'll be making bread at La Brea Bakery."
Fitzpatrick spent the first month pitting olives 10 hours a day. The next couple of months she cleaned bannetons -- the reed baskets that dough proofs in before it bakes. "Then they let me start shaping. It was brutal. I had never had any experience like this. It was rigorous, physical work. It's in the middle of the night, you see the sunrise when you're two-thirds into your shift; I didn't know what time of day it was," she says with a laugh. Fitzpatrick says she was extremely lucky to have been able to work with Silverton in the early 90s. Campanile was still in the process of opening, and Silverton often worked the graveyard shift right alongside her.
"She was so incredibly generous. She told me I could work as much as I wanted to, use her ingredients, practice stuff," Fitzpatrick said. "She was a perfectionist, and that has stayed with me for the past 20 years. I really try to pass that on to my staff -- the idea of what it means to be 100 percent."
After five years at La Brea, Fitzpatrick got a call from Rich Melman, who was looking for a baker to come to Chicago and help expand and build more Corner Bakeries. That project introduced her to chefs like Jean Joho at Everest, who would later become one of her first clients.
In 2000, Fitzpatrick was one of the first employees hired at Fox & Obel, and for the first time, she had total control, which meant creative freedom. "I have a really privileged position. They've given me complete latitude," she said.
"I believe I've helped build the reputation of the bakery, so they've given me the freedom to better express myself as a baker, and not just churn out what the status quo might be in our industry."
Almost from the beginning, Joho was one of her first supporters. She started doing breads for the Everest Room and Brasserie Jo, in addition to the regular, daily orders at Fox & Obel's retail bakery. She took as many restaurant accounts as she could, which was about five.
The bread assortment at Fox & Obel (photo by Steve Dolinsky)
One way that freedom has manifested itself is with Fitzpatrick's super-dark breads. She asks her staff not to pull them out of the oven until the crust has turned orange. "A lot of people don't like that, especially in the Midwest," she says. But plenty of fellow chefs liked what she was doing, and as they schmoozed with her at charity events and other foodie gatherings, they would nibble on samples, and it would make their heads spin. One of those chefs was Jimmy Bannos, who was looking for something unique for his latest restaurant, The Purple Pig.
"We did two custom breads for The Purple Pig," said Fitzpatrick. "Jimmy brought me one from the Sullivan St. Bakery in New York, and it had a black crust, a very rustic sourdough; the dough was wet, with an open structure.‚ He wanted that bread exactly. And then there was another French dough, you know, he would tell me 'the holes can't be this big, because the schmear could drip through,' so we had to recreate that for him."
Bannos is quick to offer praise. "Pamela is an Old World Bread Goddess," he said. "What I mean by Old World is she makes bread like the old grandmas used to."
Today, the store has added a 3rd shift, which allows Fitzpatrick the ability to service up to 13 restaurants. She does zero marketing; it's all word-of-mouth. Imagine getting calls from Naha, Prairie Fire and Graham Elliot, and having to tell them you're too busy and you just can't produce enough for them. Part of the problem may be solved sometime in the next few months, as Fox & Obel continues searching for a second location, which would mandate they create a centralized commissary for all baking, and give Fitzpatrick the chance to sell to even more restaurants.
"For the most part, chefs come to us because they want our style of breads," she said.‚ "We have a very particular style that's recognizable."
Pamela Fitzpatrick's super-dark crusted breads (photo by Steve Dolinsky)