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How One Milwaukee Restaurant is Working to Preserve French Artisanal Baking

The growing shortness of attention spans affects more areas of society than you might think. The food industry has seemed to play into this as well, but there are some chefs that still take the time and care in their cooking. Milwaukee chef Gene Webb of North Shore Boulangerie explains the changes he’s noticed in the food industry and what he’s doing to preserve what he learned while studying in France.

Webb shares that “before opening the store on Oakland (Avenue), I saw that there was a trend in baking, factory baking… it’s very hard to start with poor quality industrial ingredients and come up with anything that is a real food product.

“Most of the big food industry is [to] make the food look right to get you to buy it. But once you get it, the flavors aren’t right, the textures aren’t right, it lasts for two weeks on the counter…there’s something not right going on there,” he observes.

Credit Edyn Herbert
Chef Gene Webb of North Shore Boulangerie speaks with Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski at the Bastille Day grounds.

Despite where the big food industry has shifted, Webb believes there is still a market for artisan baking. “The big thing in French baking and French cuisine in general is making sure the flavors are layered in, I thought that there would still be a market for [that],” he says on his decision to open up North Shore Boulangerie in 2014.

His restaurant is based around much of what he learned while studying French cuisine, which of course includes the classic full-body European coffee. “We’ve managed to do that. We put together custom recipes to get there,” says Webb.

Outside of their custom coffee recipe, North Shore Boulangerie just became the first store in Wisconsin to sell coffee fromCafés Richard - the premiere coffee roaster in Paris, France. "Whereas American coffees have gone a little lighter in flavor...(this) is classic, full-bodied European coffee," Webb explains.

Credit Edyn Herbert
North Shore Boulangerie's classic full-body European style coffee

Another specialty Webb features at his shop is levain style breads. He notes that this standard in French baking utilizes wild French yeast - Webb's yeast culture specifically comes from Bordeaux, France. "One of the challenges for a bread baker is you only have usually four ingredients, and with those four ingredients you have to come up with various flavor profiles, and levain is a great way to do it," he says.

Credit Edyn Herbert
Tarte flambées are made on-site for the Bastille Day celebration. The most traditional French toppings include a white cheese sauce with onions and bacon.

North Shore Boulangerie will also be serving tarte flambée (wood fired savory tarts) made with a white cheese sauce and various toppings at Bastille Days. The special order wood stoves will be set up on the grounds - a special occasion for Webb since he hasn't been able to offer this dish at his storefront.

No matter what drink, pastry, bread or dish Webb prepares, he says the most important aspect of French culinary tradition is that it's "less about quantity and more about quality." He notes that it's a great time in American cuisine because people are more mindful about the ingredients they use and what they are eating.

Webb also recognizes that he’s not the only one in Milwaukee putting together a quality dining experience. “For a mid-sized American city, we have an incredible cuisine culture," he says. "The variety and quality of food – we’re an agricultural state after all."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.