For six years, Embarek Alibay has toiled away in a nondescript North Miami Beach warehouse pumping out baguettes, brioche, and sourdoughs in the dead of night. His wares can be found at Michael Schwartz's restaurants as well as Blue Collar, DB Bistro Moderne, and Buena Vista Bistro.
Yet early next year, the towering Paris-born baker, a Berber of North African descent, will open a small café adjacent to his La Parisienne Bakery (1909 NE 154th St., North Miami Beach; 305-948-9979), sandwiched between West Dixie Highway and Biscayne Boulevard. Expect traditional French pastries (think mille-feuille and éclairs) alongside croissants with delicate crusts and buttery, flaky interiors. Alibay, Zak Stern, and James Beard Award-winning Jim Lahey, who'll soon open a Little Haiti shop, seem to be establishing a triumvirate of better bakeries.
The 41-year-old began training at age 24 after serving in the French military. He studied under Jean-Yves Guignard, a legendary Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, awarded the title by the French Ministry of Labor after a grueling cooking competition held once every four years. They're the ones wearing blue, white, and red stripes on the collars of their kitchen whites: the special forces of French cookery. Alibay went on to work in a handful of Parisian bakeries before relocating to Florida, where he worked his way up to head baker for the café chain La Provence. But as the company began expanding and running a large commercial operation to supply a growing number of stores, he realized it was time to step away.
"I didn't want an industrial place," he says, standing in his bakery while a pair of employees pull sourdough loaves from the oven. "I want quality more than quantity."
In doing so, he's also creating a café that offers a look at the full process. Glass windows show off the existing operation, where up to five bakers rotate throughout the day and night, turning out his crackly baguettes and sturdy ciabattas. The forthcoming café has huge windows providing a glimpse into each station. "When you go someplace to eat, you have to see something; they shouldn't be hiding it away," he says.
Yet even more intriguing is the double-paned window guarding Alibay's hulking wood flour mill. As the bakery gets up and running, he'll begin grinding organic wheatberries brought in, for the moment, from a Utah farm. Alibay claims he's the first bakery in Florida to do so. And in undertaking the time-consuming process, he joins a growing number of bakeries across the nation, the most famous of which at the moment is San Francisco's Tartine, adding the extra, Old-World step back into the craft.
The inspiration came a year ago during a visit to Cucugnan, a dot of a town in southeast France. A former engineer he met through a friend had cashed out of his business and dedicated his life to baking. "He built his own stone oven; he built his own flour mill. It was incredible," Alibay says.
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But all of that work adds another level of complexity, cost, and risk. Freshly milled flour needs to sit for a day to allow it to dry. After two or three days, it begins to ferment, far different from the commercial stuff that remains shelf-stable up to a year thanks to preservatives. Still, it's worth it. "You actually taste the bread, the wheat, the field," Alibay says. "And it doesn't fill you up at all."