About six years ago, at the age of 21, Aaron Hall began baking bread. He was inspired by the work of his brother, Austin Hall, and the fact that, in his opinion, there wasn’t any good bread around. He currently makes pizza at the Lincoln Wine Bar in Mount Vernon, where he uses the oven to bake bread for the restaurant and also Salt Fork Kitchen in Solon. He also helped start the Full Moon Cafe and recently began selling his bread two days a week at the Wine Bar.
Little Village: When and why did you start baking bread?
Aaron Hall: My brother bakes in Brooklyn. I started shortly after he did I guess. He works for a collection of restaurants. He just opened up a place called She Wolf Bakery. He bakes with a community kitchen.
Why ‘She Wolf’?
It’s an Italian reference … A lot of what this has to do with is sustenance. I mean I thought She Wolf was kind of weird, and so does my brother, but the other businesses that [Andrew Tarlow] owns, which my brother works for, are named things like Achilles’ Heel, and there’s a place called Roman’s. So it sort of fits in with that.
Did you or your brother go to culinary school?
No, he didn’t. I didn’t either. My mom was a baker actually, when she was pregnant with my brother. I probably just think my brother’s really cool. I want to be like him … or something. The other day my mom sent me a picture of a pizza she made.
Why did you decided to start baking seriously?
I started mostly because there wasn’t any good bread available. I felt like I had to make my own.
I waited tables for Matt [Steigerwald] at the [Lincoln] Cafe. I guess about the same time I started baking and at one point he just asked me. He said, “If I buy a pizza oven will you make pizzas for me?” And this was during service, in passing, and I said, “Yeah sure, sounds great.” I think I said, “I don’t know anything about that,” and he goes, “Me neither.”
Then how did you learn?
We went to Chicago. It was this idea of what we wanted to do, [which was] to make great pizzas. There was this thing where we knew the style of pizza we wanted and we were trying to create that early, before we had opened. And then right before we opened we went out to Chicago and visited a couple places just to get an idea of those things we liked or didn’t like. To sort of remind ourselves what it is that we were interested in.
Do you think you hit your goal?
Yeah, I think we’re always trying to improve, especially with consistency I guess. But all that’s based on 20 different variables that are happening every night: working with fire, working with dough and flour … flour changes all the time.
How does flour change?
Just the moisture content.
How do you bake differently based on the climate here?
I don’t think a lot [about that] necessarily … A lot of what I do down at the wine bar is sourdough related, so it’s all pretty slow and I can put it in the fridge and it’s fine. A lot of commercial yeasted breads sort of “go,” but sourdough’s much slower.
That’s just the yeast that you get in those little packets. Each one of those tiny beads contains billions of little [microorganisms].
So how do you make sourdough with no yeast?
So you’ve heard of a starter? It’s just a naturally leavened. The way you get one is just by mixing up some flour and water and letting it sit. … You can use regular flour, but I often start with rye because rye has a little bit of sugar in it, more sugars than whole wheat would, and that helps give the bacteria food. So they talk about there being different starters from different areas.
Of the world?
Yeah because there’s different bacterias in different places.
And they taste different?
Yeah. I got some starters from Italy, and that one’s really interesting — something that I was baking baguettes with because I felt like it was a little sweeter and it almost smells like coconut. And they talk about sourdough starters from San Francisco, but that’s a style of bread even — you can make a San Francisco-style sourdough.
So is sourdough your favorite or just what you make the most?
It’s what I make the most, but I think it’s probably my favorite. It’s hearty if it’s made well.
Can you take me through a typical baking day?
My baking days are so random. My schedule is not set and it really depends on what day it is. Baking in the brick oven [at the Lincoln Wine Bar], all I’m using is retained heat. So I’m not showing up and turning the oven on, I’m showing up to check to see what temperature the oven is. So the way that service works at the wine bar, and the way that oven holds heat, since we’re closed for two days, Sunday, Monday, I have a fire Tuesday, the oven usually is about where I want it at maybe 6 a.m. on Wednesday. But on Saturday, or Sunday, when the oven’s been running all week sometimes I don’t bake until 9:30 or 10 a.m. And usually the way I make bread is I’ll mix it up the day before and then throw it in the fridge and when I pull it out it’s ready to go. So I’m not really running a normal bake schedule. But when I make brioche, that is something that I’ll mix up at 2 a.m. sometimes.
Is brioche the hardest thing you make?
No. Brioche is really easy. It’s enriched with butter and it’s really forgiving. It’s also delicious.
Have you had any disasters in the kitchen?
Sometimes I do use commercial yeast, and that can go bad and then it won’t rise, and that sucks because I make multiple batches of dough at a time and I have to remake it. I dropped a pizza the other day. That was sad.
How many loaves do you make a week?
Since the [Lincoln] Cafe closed, I’m baking less. Now I’m just baking for Salt Fork. And there’s a handful of people who will stop me on the street and ask me if I’m baking. It’s obviously not a business plan. I mean, it is, but it’s just not a good one. I bake, but I don’t tell people what I’m baking and I don’t advertise.
Do you ever think about having your own bread business?
Yeah, I talk about it as a CSA, but I guess it would be more like a buyer’s club.
Like The Cheese of the Month?
Yeah. Call it the BBC, Bread Buyers Club. So then I would have a collection of people who I would be baking for consistently and on a schedule. It’s a commitment.
You’re involved with Full Moon Cafe, how did that all start?
Jaime [Gowans] talked about it a lot and I said, “Jaimie, do it.” I mean I had dreams of other things, but they were, in a way, a similar idea. I don’t think that Full Moon Cafe was in any way my idea, but I think I helped instigate its going. Pushed the rock down the hill or whatever.
Is Full Moon Cafe only you and Jaime and Emily Qual?
In terms of organizational group yeah, but there’s multiple other people who have been important factors in its happening.
Do you have plans to continue doing it this year?
Yeah. We sort of go month-by-month I guess. We all have things that keep us busy so it’s just an extra little activity that we do. We have to make sure it fits in and that it doesn’t disrupt other things that we’re trying to get done.
Are you trying to open it up to the public more?
There are attempts at trying to reach others. I think we’ve done that. I think that the first dinner was sort of a collection of friends and that was great and now the last dinner we had there were some people there that we didn’t even know who heard about it from somebody that they didn’t know who we weren’t even sure who that was. So of this chain that broke away from our collection of people.
What are you doing today?
There’s bread things happening in my world that I have to figure out. It sort of takes over my thought process. Bread isn’t a quick thing so you have to plan days ahead. One thing I think about still is the bread that I bake for Salt Fork and I feel like I should be baking more for the city of Mount Vernon. I have an opportunity there and haven’t done anything about it.
Do you have any secret tips or tricks?
Patience. Everybody underestimates patience. And repeated trials.
That’s good advice.
For all things in life I imagine that’s true. But I think for bread specifically. I guess there’s a lot of times that I’ll do something and I’ll know it’s not going to turn out. I know it won’t because I’m not patient enough. Because I’m trying to rush.