It was 8:50 a.m., and I was 10 minutes early, standing at a door marked 1909 in large black stencil stickers. To my right, the mid-morning sun hung in a cloudless sky in the distance and perfectly positioned across from my nose, a large ventilation duct wafted the smells of baking bread. I texted Ali I was outside and said a little prayer he would fetch me soon. I came prepared for this visit, and my stomach was already grumbling in protest.
La Parisienne’s bakery is situated in one of North Miami Beach’s strip of warehouses off West Dixie Highway. As of about a year, we have been buying our daily bread for Michael’s Genuine from Paris-born Embarek “Ali” Alibey, specifically, 24 sourdough loaves, 200 raisin baguettes, 6 regular baguettes, 50 brioche buns, 5 brioche loaves, and 60 ciabatta buns, which arrive sometimes with a dozen or so little presents, or beaujolais. These are tender nubs filled with walnuts and raisins and wrapped in just enough dough to encase and let the delicious nutty, sun-kissed sweetness inside speckle through. It was the interception of one such loaded delivery that sparked my curiosity.
I had an inkling standing outside in the crisp morning air that it was the perfect day for my visit. I ask Ali about the weather and if it’s good for baking. “Yes and no,” he responds. “Yes, because it’s not humid and no because it takes longer to bake.” Good things come to those who wait… And sure enough, Ali’s breads have fermented for 72 hours when they are baked.
First things first, we checked out the levain, a mysterious living creature kept in the walk-in, fed and nurtured daily. This little pet is Ali’s three-year-old natural sourdough starter, used in place of (or in some cases with) yeast to leaven his bread, rather than artificial, quick-rising agents like baking soda (“Blasphemy!”) I listen to Ali explain how it is made with fermented raisins. Like wine, he says. It’s all starting to make sense…
I ask about how he achieves that old world flavor, so often fleeting and dilute in the U.S. You know, that buzzkill every American traveler with any sense of taste can relate to, experienced upon return from trips abroad where flavor pops in food.
“If we apply the same recipes we do here, in France, we would have to adapt and change the recipes,” says Ali. “The worst thing here, it’s not even the heat, it’s the humidity. We use more yeast when it’s colder on days like today, but we try not to play it up in yeast. The dough needs time to develop flavor.”
Another treasure in a bucket, the fluffier “sponge,” serves a similar purpose to the levain, but produces a bread that is more milk and wheat tasting.
“I became a baker to leave France,” he explains. The baker he trained under in Paris was M.O.F. Baker of the Year in France’s prestigious competition, Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (Best Craftsmen of France, today with awards by diversity of specialities.) But it was more the M.O.F.’s partner, an old fashioned baker, from whom he learned. “We were so busy,” Ali remembers.
“There was a line wrapping around the corner, across the line of the competition!” He learned beaujolias from him, and stayed there three years, almost four. In 1999 he arrived in New York. “Things really changed after September 11th,” he reflects. “There are more French people in Miami than in France!” So he ended up here.
Ali’s team of four Frenchmen works in shifts, starting to bake at 11:00 p.m., with two drivers dropping to his customers in one morning delivery.
“We are a very small company,” he continues. “These guys they come from France… So many places just find anybody to come and become a baker. To find good professionals here, it is so crazy hard.”
La Parisienne opened three years ago, and Ali fiercely adheres to the baking traditions he learned in France — small batches, mixed with natural ingredients and formed by hand, and kneaded with the help of a lone commercial mixer that just got a companion – an Italian-manufactured Sottoriva dough kneading machine – the stuff a bread baker’s dreams are made of. It only arrived days before I did.
He only sells to restaurateurs who share this same philosophy about cooking and food. He has no retail outfit, so you’ll have to visit Buena Vista Deli, DB Bistro, and MGFD to sample his trade craft. Jean-Gorges came calling, too, for his first foray into the Miami market at the forthcoming J & G Grill in Bal Harbour.
How best to enjoy his bread? “I got some imported delicious French butter from Whole Foods the other day which was really good,” he says. That’s good enough for me.