On a warm Sunday afternoon in September, I am driving along familiar roads from my childhood searching for something new. I am searching for a bakery that is run by a brother-sister team that is apparently doing some of the best work in the East Coast.
Exactly a week before, I ran into Richie Brandenberg of EDENS at the Good Food Award Blind Tasting event in San Francisco and I told him I'd be visiting Richmond for a couple of days. He suggested I look up Sub Rosa Bakery. He was adamant that the brother-sister team of Evrim and Evin Dogu are doing some of the most fantastic work in bakery in the East Coast at the moment. With that kind of recommendation, it was a no-brainer that I reach out.
After a quick search online, I found that Sub Rosa Bakery is located in the Church Hill district of Richmond, just a couple of blocks from where my parents owned their corner grocery store. I emailed them about participating in the Culinaria Portrait project and after a short email exchange, we set a meeting time on Sunday.
Church Hill is most famous for having the church where Patrick Henry gave his "give me liberty, or give me death" speech. From that historic moment, Church Hill saw its fortune go up and down through the years. By the time my parents got there twenty years ago, the area was moving away from its worst days and was seemingly in a delicate balance between reverting back to its old ways or moving towards something better. The residents reflected that; some young professionals, the old timers, low income residents. The area was too far from VCU to have a large student population but you would find students here and there. Couple blocks away were the sketchy areas my parents warned me about.
It's been 18 years since I've been in this neighborhood. Some parts are still clear to me as if I drove down the road yesterday. Some parts of the neighborhood, I'd never been to before. The GPS guides me through both as I navigate the road closures due to the UCI World Cycling races being held that same week. I drive down East Broad Street past the familiar old houses, cut over to Marshall then to Jefferson looking for the bakery where this brother/sister team is supposedly doing fantastic work baking bread and making pastries.
Sub Rosa Bakery is a tastefully designed cafe filled with light. Prominently situated to the left of the counter is the wood fired bread oven. Evin and Evrim both receive me warmly. They take time to hear about the portrait project and look at the prints. Evrim makes an herbal tea for me then they give me samples of their pastries. Oh man! Croissants, pain au chocolate, quiche, a savory pastry with jalapenos. They are all great! The most interesting is a savory pastry made out of corn masa. It has the mild sweetness and the gritty texture that I love in cornmeals. Evrim explains that the fermentation process involved in making masa helps with the digestion of corn. Then there's the bread.
Evrim and Evin's process in baking starts with milling their own grain. This allows them to incorporate grains grown by local and regional farmers. The end result is something quite special; full flavored, moist and chewy. The flavor of the grain is prominent and rich in ways that makes the bread bought at grocery stores seem like mere placeholders for the contents in between.
Despite their busy schedules, Evin and Evrim are generous with their time for the photoshoot. We shoot in front of the wood fired oven, move to the grain mill stored in another building then move to a table in the bakery. During the process of photographing, the personalities of the two become evident. Evin the older sister seems to be the sensible one of the two. Grounded, a bit reticent, with an air of protectiveness developed from a lifetime of watching after the younger brother. Evrim has a boyish charm befitting the baby of the family. He is quick to clown around. Yet, at the same time, he has the intensity and introspective focus befitting the religious studies major he was.
After the shoot, Evrim and I get into a long conversation about the art and aesthetics of baking and doing it in Richmond. It is evident he's spent a long time not only baking but also thinking about baking and its place in our society. I wonder what kind of effect the bakery is having on the neighborhood? And I wonder if the community will sustain an artisan driven business like Sub Rosa bakery?
During the time I lived there, Richmond seemed to lack the ability or the interest to grow and foster new ideas. Now, when I visit, I sense a city changed and energized, as evidenced by the many public works projects and revitalization of different communities. Childhood friends who stayed all tell me the city has changed and isn't like what it was when we were growing up.
I don't know if a craft-focused, artisan-driven business like Sub Rosa Bakery would have thrived in Richmond of old. I think it's chances are better today. I'm heartened that people like Evin and Evrim thinks so. I hope they do. They certainly have the goods.