It's hard to say which part of bakery life burrowed deepest into Naomi Harris' soul. There's the bit about being an integral part of a community, a kind of indispensable gathering place. There's the opportunity, particularly in the industrial-food era, to give people something unlike anything else they've tasted. Then, of course, there's the bread itself.
This December, the soft-spoken 27-year-old hopes to bring all three together when she opens Madruga Bakery, situated on the Coral Gables street of the same name near South Dixie Highway and the University of Miami.
Harris was born in Miami and into restaurant royalty. Her father Larry and his brother Stuart founded Miami's beloved chicken chain Pollo Tropical in 1988 and took it public in 1993. In 1998 a hulking Burger King franchisee purchased the company for $90 million, making it private yet again.
Harris, meanwhile, didn't plan for a life in restaurants, never mind one of marathon, overnight baking shifts. She went to Northwestern University to study political and environmental science, with plans to attend law school in hopes of becoming a kind of food-policy wonk. "I always loved baking, but mostly on the side," she says.
One summer, she interned with the pastry chef at Coral Gables' now-shuttered Cacao. After college, she enrolled in World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a group of organizations that places volunteers on farms around the globe. The program took her from Washington state's Dog Mountain Farm to a resort on Orcas Island that sits in the bay bordering Vancouver and Seattle.
Later she ended up in Alaska, where she spent an unexpected year and a half in Anchorage's Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop. "That's where I fell in love with working in a bakery," Harris says.
Back in Miami, she worked for a short time with Zak Stern before the opening of his Wynwood bakery, as well as in the kitchen at Coral Gables' Cafe Curuba.
"Bread is a process," she adds, "and it's extremely simple. Your basic sourdough country loaf is literally just flour, water, salt, with part of that flour fermented into a culture."
Despite the ascetic recipe, there are endless variables. Time and temperature are two equally important ingredients. So too is Miami's humidity, which can add extra moisture to flour, thus changing the ingredient ratio. Then there's the intuitive knowledge of whoever is working the dough.
"You're using all of your senses to get the best product you can, and you're working with dough that's alive, so if it’s a really hot day, you're going to have to work fast, and if it's a cold day, you have to go slower," Harris explains. "You want it to be consistent, and you’re constantly playing with the dough and learning all of these factors and all the nuances."
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Ahead of the opening, Harris is awaiting a flour mill from Raleigh, North Carolina's Boulted Bread and is in the midst of reaching out to bakeries and mills across the nation in hopes of sourcing wheat berries she'll grind herself. At the beginning, she says, the bakery will offer a baseline of whole-grain country loaves in a variety of grains and seeds that will cost in the $6-to-$8 range. There are also plans for baguettes, ciabattas, an array of herb-crusted focaccia, croissants, cookies, muffins, and scones. Harris also says she's toying with a bagel recipe, but that's for later.
In the meantime, Madruga will open with a brief menu of sandwiches and salads in hopes of making the place a must-stop for the thousands who traverse the traffic-logged thoroughfare just outside.
"It's as much about being service-oriented as it is about the bread," Harris says. "We'll learn customers' names and orders."