The secret’s out. Maxwell Leonard, who once ran an “underground bakery” from his Hamtramck home, now bakes fresh bread daily at Detroit’s Ochre Bakery. “It didn’t exist,” he says coyly of the secret bakery where he tested recipes for his coveted baked goods, which made people “want it more.”
Leonard, who grew up in Birmingham and graduated from Seaholm High School, didn’t always intend on pursuing a career as a professional baker. He grew up with “a strong food culture of quality and reverence for sitting down and having meals as a family,” making items like pickles with his father growing up, but baking was not on his radar. He studied business administration at the University of Colorado, taught in France, and worked in Chicago before making his way to the west coast. It was there, he says, that he got “really into fermented foods like sauerkraut and kombucha,” which he says provide more nutrition than raw foods.
After spending two years learning about wine production in northern California, he made his way back to Michigan, where he transitioned what he had learned about fermented grapes towards bread making.
“I had so much prior experience in other realms of the fermentation arts,” Leonard describes, that even though he has no formal training when it comes to bread, the “parallels and concepts hold over.” Derived from a sourdough starter, the bread “starts to bubble with activity.”
As he continued to tinker with his recipes, sharing loaves with family and friends and setting up shop at local farmer’s markets, he noted a desire for his product.
“Unlike wine, which you can preserve in a bottle and ship around the world, you really need to be close to where [bread] is made if you’re going to truly taste it at its freshest point, which is the day it’s made. … It needs to be made close to you.”
And it’s not just locals who are taking note. This past September, Bon Appetit magazine named Ochre number four in it’s “The Hot 10: America’s Best New Restaurants 2019.” Acknowledging it’s slightly out of the way location in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood, Leonard calls it an “honor” to be recognized, and is bringing additional awareness to the spot. While he is still figuring out production levels with this uptick in traffic, visitors can find three staple breads: the country bread, a baguette, and the fougasse, a flatbread stuffed with olives that he says “kept the lights on over the summer.”
Expect more unique flavors to come from his kitchen soon.
“There’s an infinite number of forms that bread can take by applying different techniques and baking or shaping it in a certain way. Look at any culture. With the same dough, we can make pizza, baguettes, pita, focaccia.”
It’s also an appreciation for local purveyors and a deep understanding of flavors that demonstrates Leonard’s holistic approach, yielding bread with a “complex flavor and nutritional value” that many don’t associate with carbohydrates.
“Ultimately it’s about giving people good food so that they feel good, stuff that they can share with people they love.”
Photo: Laurie Tennent