In Montreal, baker makes breads for city’s celebrated chefs – The Boston Globe

MONTREAL — If you dine in some of this city’s best-known restaurants, it becomes apparent that going from place to place is a subtle, unexpected trail of breadcrumbs that leads to Hof Kelsten Bakery.

The creation of Montreal native Jeffrey Finkelstein, 36, Hof Kelsten is a bread bakery and cafe selling specialty breads, pastries, and sandwiches. What began as a small wholesale operation in the kitchen of his mother’s apartment has grown into a full-scale bakery serving restaurants across the city.

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Finkelstein’s career in food began at the French Culinary Institute in New York. He worked at Per Se in Manhattan when it first opened, then did an apprenticeship at The French Laundry in California, and across the pond to a 2-star Michelin restaurant in England. He then made the switch from savory to pastry, spending time at elBulli in Spain and finishing his tour with a stint at Noma in Denmark (now considered one of the finest restaurants in the world). Finkelstein still wears the apron he got (read: stole) during his time there.

In 2009, the chef found himself back home in Montreal and began baking breads for friends in the city’s restaurant industry. Thanks to some connections he already had, the business grew quickly. “It grew very organically, by word of mouth,” he says. There was always a demand.

Finkelstein moved the business out of his mother’s kitchen to a secret rented space. It was a makeshift setup he pieced together with old equipment, and he was reluctant for people to know he was producing “world-class bread out of a hole in the wall,” he says. It was a one-man enterprise, where he continued to develop breads that are now in about 30 Montreal restaurants, including Lemeac, Toque!, and Le Club Chasse et Peche.

27travmontreal - ***warning: image lo res, do not use for more than 2.25 columns *** - Cranberry coconut brioche. (Bethany Graber for The Boston Globe)

Bethany Graber for The Boston Globe

Cranberry coconut brioche.

In the summer of 2013, he opened Boulangerie Hof Kelsten, a retail and wholesale bakery. The name is a derivative of his given name; Hof is a nickname he earned from Spanish-speaking colleagues who couldn’t pronounce Jeff. Kelsten is the end of his surname with some letters missing. Located in the Mile-End neighborhood, the place is bright and industrial with unmistakable scents of yeast, flour, and butter. A long counter showcases the day’s goods. Through a couple of small, fogged windows, the large workspace is just visible. The staff easily navigates between French- and English-speaking customers while pulling espressos and helping to determine which bread it was that someone had eaten the night before at dinner and now wants to buy. Finkelstein is right in the mix, helping customers and popping into and out of the kitchen.

“For the first time in 4½ years, people can buy all the breads they’ve had in all these restaurants in Montreal,” he says. And people were hungry for a chance to do just that.

27travmontreal - 9 grain and seeded challah loaves. (Bethany Graber for The Boston Globe)

Bethany Graber for The Boston Globe

Nine-grain and seeded challah loaves.

Most of the products are a co-mingling of Finkelstein’s Jewish heritage and his European training. There are croissants stacked next to a display of chocolate babka (a traditional Jewish yeast cake). There are rugelach, assorted cookies, savory Danish pastries, and pain au chocolat.

Sandwiches and soups have a distinctly Jewish bent, like beef brisket sandwich with Thousand Island sauce, sliced apples, and pickled cabbage, or the gravlax (cured on site) and dill cream-cheese sandwich topped with a fennel, cucumber, and caper slaw. And, of course, matzo ball soup. The chef makes latkes inspired by the ones he ate every Friday night at his grandmother’s house; here he serves them with a roasted apple and creme fraiche sauce.

The vast array of breads are the true stars. You might find ciabatta, or the rye and caraway loaves Finkelstein created for the Joe Beef restaurant, inspired by his upbringing. On Friday you can buy a challah the size of your arm.

Bethany Graber for The Boston Globe

Plain croissants.

Hof Kelsten loaves were all developed by catering to clients’ needs. Finkelstein explains: “Every bread came from some chef coming to me and saying ‘This is what I want.’ ” Formulas change to accommodate the chef’s demands. So the public is buying exactly what is served in the city’s restaurants, breads that are a collaborative effort between Finkelstein and the chefs.

The baker explains his straightforward approach. “We try not to put bad stuff in our bread.” He openly shirks the trend of adding too many ingredients to something that he feels is already best in a pure form. To that end, he wants to “retrain people to eat bread that tastes like bread.” A noble goal, at which he seems to be succeeding.

Finkelstein’s Old World-inspired creations are making waves in modern Montreal. His dedication to technique and quality make his products desirable in a city that values the intermingling of old and new. The next time you’re in Montreal, follow the breadcrumbs to Hof Kelsten.

BOULANGERIE HOF KELSTEN

4524 Blvd St. Laurent, Montreal, Quebec, 1-514-649-7991, www.hofkelsten.com

Bethany Graber can be reached at [email protected].

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