The best baguette in Chicago is made by a 33-year-old woman who has been in business about six years. Her name is Nancy Carey, and her company is called Red Hen Bread. When she started, in 1997, she imagined it as a retail bakery, a little store in Wicker Park with some display cases and a counter and a cash register to sell the breads and light pastries she’d make in back. But before long–when the bills started coming in–she realized that she’d have to sell wholesale to keep the business going. Her first restaurant customer was Gordon, the seminal contemporary American restaurant in River North, a famous training ground for Chicago chefs. As the young cooks dispersed from Gordon Sinclair’s kitchen, Carey’s reputation and client list grew. Today she supplies most of the best restaurants in town–the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton and Tru, Spiaggia, Les Nomades, and dozens of others.

It’s been a learning experience. One afternoon in the early days, for example, she learned to duck flying sheet pans. It was 1 or 2 PM, and the first production cycle of the day was winding down. Carey has always encouraged her restaurant customers to take two deliveries a day instead of one; she makes her bread without preservatives and she wants it served fresh. With the evening’s baguettes in the oven, she and her small crew were turning to the overnight bake–the pastries and breads that would be delivered early the next morning. She doesn’t recall exactly what happened, but there was a confrontation between two workers; Carey tried to mediate, and before long one of them was lofting sheet pans at her from across the kitchen. “I said, ‘You cannot throw sheet pans at me! That is not appropriate. You need to leave.’ So she goes, ‘I’m outta here. You outta here Julian?’ And Julian says, ‘I’m outta here. Stephen, you outta here?'” Four of them walked off the shift and never came back. Carey and the three employees who stayed–two of whom were probably a little confused, having just started at the bakery the day before–were left to mix, shape, and bake about 1,800 pounds of bread and another 400 or 500 pounds of croissants, muffins, and cookies. They worked until 2 AM, caught a little sleep, and came back at 4 to start over the next day.

Looking back on it, Carey blames herself. No doubt the fracas started in an atmosphere made tense by her insistence that something or other hadn’t been done just right. That’s the kind of shop she ran. “If you screwed up the muffins, you stayed and you made the muffins again. And if we had orders one day for 700 baguettes as opposed to 500 baguettes, you either worked harder in the eight hours or you spent more time at work.” These were just the facts of the business, understood by food people everywhere. But Carey hadn’t hired food people. She didn’t want workers who had learned bad habits in other kitchens. And she didn’t want a staff of all immigrants, like she’d seen in so many other places–that seemed somehow unfair or demeaning. She wanted a multicolored staff from a variety of backgrounds; she wanted to give a chance to people who might not ordinarily get one; she wanted people who were as committed to making bread as she was; she wanted a big, happy family and a picnic table in back where everyone would eat lunch together, a place where her numerous brothers and sisters would stop by and bring their kids. The vision of her bakery was so clear in her mind that she had it all written down before she went into business–an employee handbook describing the work environment and how the staff would treat each other with consideration and respect. “I spent months writing it,” she recalls. “It was a beautiful thing. And now I look at it and I think, Oh my gosh, was I crazy?”

Carey grew up in Riverside, the seventh child of nine in a family of Irish Catholic achievers. It wasn’t really a culinary household. “I shouldn’t say this because my mom would kill me, but she knows: in a way, I couldn’t stand the way we ate. She did a really good job of making very basic meals–roasted meat and canned vegetables, every night, and a baked potato. It got to the point where I couldn’t eat anymore.” At the library she would gravitate toward the cookbooks and gourmet magazines. She doesn’t know where the interest came from. But she does remember that her mother baked cinnamon raisin bread every Christmas–“We’d go around in our pajamas and bring bread to everybody in the neighborhood. We used to love that.” She also remembers the magic cookies that one of her sisters baked. “They were just a very basic, common meringue. They were green though; she’d put food coloring in them, and creme de menthe, and chocolate chips. And she’d put them in the oven and say, OK now, we have to just forget about them or else they won’t cook. You know, all night. So all night long I’d be lying there going, Forget the cookies! Don’t remember the cookies!”

Wherever it came from, an interest in food has been one of the two constants in her life, Carey says. The other is art. She started taking classes at the Art Institute when she was 12, and after high school and a year at Loyola she earned a bachelor’s degree from the School of the Art Institute. She met her husband, Frank Spidale, a painter (and now a baker), in the process of opening a community gallery in Riverside. “He says, ‘It’s always the good ones that quit, Nancy. You’re just one of the good painters that quit.’ I guess if I could have reasoned with myself to keep doing it, I probably would have been good. If I could figure out a way to make money at it, I probably would have done it. But it came down to one field or the other. I thought, If I go the art route, the realistic perspective is I’ll always have to have a side job. I’ll always be in food anyway, so why not just really focus on food?”

She’s worked in the food business since she was a kid. “My first job was Mazzone’s Italian Ice, which was in this mall. My whole family came. I had this terrible uniform and I sold frozen pizza that I heated up and pretzels and Italian ice. I spent a lot of time working at Hawthorne racetrack, as the ice cream person, the hot dog person, and I worked at Soldier Field for a while selling beer, and I did a stint at Starbucks for two years while I was working weekends at another place. While I was at Loyola I worked at a place called Papa Dee’s, which was this pretty famous hot dog stand on Sheridan, a little hole-in-the-wall. I kept going to these hot dog stands. I don’t know what my affinity was, because I never even ate hot dogs. But I liked the environment, I suppose.”

The Hawthorne jobs came through a family connection: the track is owned by the extended family on her father’s side. “It started with my great-grandfather; he won it in a poker match, supposedly.” Her uncle was president of the company, and her father managed the backstretch until he passed away last summer. Carey’s jobs there included a stint at the track’s sit-down restaurant; the concessionaire, ARA (now Aramark), also owned the 95th in the John Hancock building, and eventually they asked Carey to move there.

At the 95th she was a line cook, and again she liked the environment. “It was really fun. It was like being a caged animal in a way, when service started–the energy and the drive and the push and all that stuff.” But she was looking longingly over her shoulder at the pastry kitchen. “I felt like pastry was much more where I could use the artistic stuff, and it could be like a social art form. I started to get all philosophical about it–it’s just like theater, all this crazy stuff. But nobody would ever quit, so I couldn’t ever get into the pastry department. Finally I decided I needed to go to school for pastry.”

She enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where she found that what she really loved was baking bread. Before completing her degree she left to work for a former CIA instructor who ran the baking operation attached to the Atticus Bookstore Cafe in New Haven, Connecticut. There, in addition to learning techniques of high-volume commercial baking, she picked up lessons that would help her–and hold her back–when she went into business for herself.

“I really liked the owner, Charlie Negaro. He was very up-front and honest. In retrospect I wish I had spent a lot more time talking to him. Because I’ll never forget, he had this meeting where he called us all in, the key production people, and he was so honest about where we were financially. We were really not profiting at all. It was kind of bad. And he was just trying to express that to us. You know, like, Look guys, we’re all in this together, and yes this is a company and hopefully someday we’ll make money from this, but we’re not at that place yet. And I remember sitting there thinking to myself, This doesn’t make any sense at all! This is amazing! As an employee you don’t really think about what goes into owning a company. You just think that companies have money, that’s how it works. I thought to myself, This is a lot different than I thought.”

When she first took the job in New Haven, Carey was hedging her bets; she figured if the baking thing didn’t work out she could go to art school at Yale. But now she was committed to baking and planning her next step. She had her eye on New York City and was commuting there on weekends to work as a stagiaire, or unpaid apprentice, with Amy Scherber, founder of a well-known bakery and chain of cafes. When Amy’s Bread expanded into a new bake house, Scherber asked if she wanted to come on board. “I really wanted that opportunity,” Carey recalls. But just then she learned that her mother had breast cancer. Of the nine siblings, Carey was in the best position to care for her. “I was the only one without a real job; everybody said OK, you’re the one who should do it. And I also felt like I really missed my family; I’m such a homebody when it comes to my brothers and sisters. So I said good-bye to the east coast and came back home.”

Though she’d learned a lot since leaving Chicago, she couldn’t find a job that suited her when she came back. She was interested in a small bakery in Lincoln Park and willing to work the counter for $6 an hour if the owner would offer her some hope of moving into the back someday. But he wouldn’t. She wanted to work at the Whole Foods bake house, but they needed somebody with more pastry experience. She was offered a plum job as head bread baker for the Berghoff, but for reasons she still can’t fathom she didn’t want to do it.

“That’s when my oldest brother said, You’re just going to have to figure out how to start your own thing.” Another brother, an entrepreneur who started the Chicago Trolley Company, took her out for a beer and filled her head with warm capitalist dreams. “Once you get that bug, once somebody inoculates you with that, there’s no going back. You know, when they say it’s possible, you can do your own stuff, you can be your own boss, you can run the company the way you have these grand visions of running it, being so fair and honest and all this stuff. I was thinking I can have employees that I really like, and like to be around, and I can have a really good relationship with them. So I thought OK, I’m doing it.”

She bought herself a computer and for a year, while caring for her mother, she worked up recipes in her parents’ kitchen and put together a business plan with the help of her siblings. She investigated Small Business Administration financing but wound up getting conventional bank loans with a lot of personal guarantees from family members. She found a space on Milwaukee near North Avenue–“I knew I wanted Wicker Park. I don’t know what made me think that, but I had to have it there”–and undertook the cleanup and buildout, a considerable task because the building had formerly been a machine shop. She hunted down ovens, mixers, and other equipment at auction. And with memories of New Haven fresh in her mind–a bake house staff full of slumming PhDs and academic refugees–she hired the first five in a long line of employees who didn’t work out.

Part of the problem, she knows now, was that her expectations were too high. “I expected unbending commitment to this thing, which was totally unfair. I was really hard on people in retrospect. Not because I wanted to be hard on them, but because I wanted to achieve something, and because I had this commitment to do the best product, and we were going to do it come hell or high water. And if that means making the baguettes over five times, that means we make them over five times. But there are very few people who feel that passionately about baking. So I think in the beginning I was pretty out of control with that stuff.”

Another problem was that her agenda was too broad. “I was hiring the wrong people, I think. I wasn’t looking for the right things.” For example, she thought hiring ex-cons would be a good thing to do. “I had a driver once, the cops come and say, We need to arrest this guy. I said, Oh please, he’s got to finish his shift. I’m not even going to tell you he’s here unless you promise you won’t arrest him till after his shift. Because I have nobody else, you know? And the cops say OK, we promise, we won’t arrest him until after his shift–but we’re going to sit here. So what do they do? I walk out the back to drop off a delivery, they put handcuffs on the guy and take him away. I was so mad.” When he got out of jail Carey hired him back. Then she says he disappeared for a couple of weeks and she had to let him go. “Then the guy sues me for discrimination!”

Another employee, a free spirit from the neighborhood, would pack his hash pipe in the front of the store. “He’s washing dishes one day, totally on an acid trip. I’m in the office and I’m watching him and he’s sitting there washing dishes without any water or any dishes or anything, and he’s laughing so hard. I brought him in the office and I just sat there and laughed. I said, What are we going to do with you? You’re supposed to be a slicer, you could cut your arm off! You can’t slice anything tonight, I have to send you home. And this is like the fourth time I had to send you home. And he thought it was so funny, and we were both sitting there laughing, and I was thinking, What am I supposed to do with this? How am I supposed to be running a business with people like this?

“Then this guy Miguel came to work for me, and he could work circles around everybody. He was like an angel. No complaints, he did his job, he went home, he had his family. When he felt he wasn’t getting paid enough he would come to me and he’d say, Look, I want to make this much money, how can I do that? It was very up-front, as opposed to the mind games I had with the local slackers.”

Carey had always encouraged her workers to recommend their friends and relatives when she had job openings, and slowly the ranks of the immigrant workers grew. “There was one guy, one day he couldn’t show up so his brother came for him. And I said, What do you mean you’re working for your brother? What’s wrong with your brother? And the guy said, He can’t come in to work. And I said, How do you know how to do any of this stuff? And he said, My brother taught me, at home. This is in broken Spanish, we’re trying to figure this whole thing out. So I said fine, try it, see if it works. And he was great! So after that I’m thinking, What am I doing? I’m struggling to keep this diverse group of people, they don’t even want to be here, they don’t want to work. This is crazy.

“I used to say I’m never going to have a Mexican clan in my kitchen. You know, because I grew up with it, I saw it, it was everywhere. I would make a delivery somewhere and I’d be saying, Look at that kitchen, they have all Mexicans in that kitchen, and it’s so unfair, they should have a diverse group of people and blah blah blah. You know, me on my high horse. But over time I’ve learned. These people have a great culture, in the sense that they understand how to work and how to enjoy their lives. And they’re so reliable, as a group. I’m saying as a group because there are exceptions, of course, just like in any other group. But they have a great family life and social life, so their whole life isn’t work. I don’t know, I have such mixed feelings about the whole thing. I think about it a lot, because it’s such a huge issue in the food industry. But I think without them the food business in the city would shut down. We would have nobody to do these jobs. Because people don’t know how to work like these people know how to work.”

After about two years in business, Carey decided she needed some help with the management. She found an experienced food-service guy who was great, she says, but he had a large family and he couldn’t match her pace. “At that point everything was on overdrive, my expectations were really high and out of control. So it ended up that he left. He was really good at what he did, but I was just…I was crazy!” One of her brothers put her in touch with an old friend, Robert Picchietti, who had a degree in finance and experience on the manufacturing end of the candy business. Picchietti left a job running a pharmaceutical company in the east to come back to Chicago and get involved in an equity situation.

“He was very different because he wasn’t necessarily going to put up with the stuff that I was serving out. He had his own ideas about how things should run. Of course we butted heads a lot. He’s very educated in the business and I’m not; you know, my education was all lived-out business. So he had a very different approach.”

Over the course of about a year, Picchietti gradually took over the day-to-day management of the company. The transition was completed abruptly last summer, after Carey’s father fell from a roof. “It seems like the two really big decisions in my life have been punctuated by family illness. With my mom, her illness made me shift my whole sensibility from New York to Chicago.” Her mother recovered and is still “rockin’ and rollin’,” Carey says. Her father suffered a traumatic brain injury and died about a year after his accident. “That led essentially to me saying I need a life, I need to move on to something else.” So at age 33 Carey has stepped back and slowed down. She’s still Red Hen’s public face and has the last word on quality issues, but she’s done with the payroll and the production schedule and the myriad headaches of running the business. Her main role now is developing new products and techniques. In May she gave birth to a son; before that she was teaching bread and pastry courses at the Culinary and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, where she finally reached an approximation of the collegial vision she started with. “I love it,” she says. “It’s so fun to be able to teach people who are not your employees. These people all want to be there, so for the most part they’re very engaged, which is awesome. All you have to do then is convey what you love, and talk about what you love to do.”

She doesn’t admit to any bread-making secrets. To hear her tell it, any talented baker with the right mixing machines and ovens could produce a baguette as good as Red Hen’s. Or almost. The keys, she says, are using the best ingredients, allowing the dough to rise slowly, and hand forming the loaves. Slow rising is important because it’s during the rise, or fermentation–as the yeast converts sugars in the flour into alcohol–that the dough develops flavor. Red Hen baguettes are typically floor proofed, meaning they rise at room temperature for a total of about eight hours; a mass-produced commercial bread might rise for less than half that time in a heated and humidified proof box. During fermentation, gas bubbles form in the dough, and they are what gives a fine French bread its uneven, hole-riddled texture. Hand shaping the loaf is important because forming machines tend to press the gas out of the dough. Even excessive hand shaping can expel too much gas. Carey teaches her employees to handle each loaf as little as possible; the shape of the loaf is less important to her than those gas bubbles. “Don’t manipulate it too much,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how ugly it is.”

In May 2000 Red Hen moved its bake house to a building on Western Avenue, the former home of a Korean bakery. The retail store remains on Milwaukee; Carey will use the space in back as a test kitchen.

Though the company is a smashing success in the eyes of local foodies and restaurateurs, Carey says it is only breaking even. She and Picchietti believe the bake house is now operating about as efficiently as it can. To go to the next level, they need to increase their volume. “Volume is the key in bread production. Because you can buy your ingredients by the truckload, as opposed to buying them by the skid. And that comes with a huge savings.”

The challenge, as Carey sees it, is finding ways to increase volume without changing the quality of the bread. One thing they’ll do for sure, she says, is open new retail stores. Their second store will open on Diversey near Broadway sometime this summer. She’d also like to have some higher-volume restaurant customers, maybe one or two of the city’s many steak houses. Grocery stores would be nice too, but they have special challenges. Red Hen has been approached by a couple of national retailers with outlets in Chicago, but Carey hasn’t been able to take the business because the bread can’t be delivered directly to the stores. “They need to be able to bring it to Minnesota or somewhere and then bring it back to Chicago. It’s a distribution chain, a commissary. They bring it all in, it sits on the dock, it’s cold. So it has to be able to last 72 hours.” Exploring this market is one of Carey’s key product-development challenges. “Will our product ever be able to last 72 hours? Given how we produce our bread, is there some way that we could use sourdough or levain to do that? [Levain is a natural leavening agent similar to sourdough. The acid in sourdough tends to extend shelf life, but Carey does not like too much sour flavor in her baguettes.] We have a lot of issues like that we have to work through.”

Also high on her list is a new croissant. “I’ve been obsessed with the croissant because it’s like the marrying of both worlds, the pastry and the bread, and I just think it’s one of the ultimate skills, a very hard thing to produce well. I want a croissant that I had in France. I love when they just crumble all over the table on you, and they’re just so nice and light, not dense. And our croissant is not that. But to achieve that you have to really figure it all out, it takes a lot of time and effort.”

Couldn’t she just ask an accomplished croissant maker? “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about asking. Unfortunately, I think, bakers, all they’ve got is their craft. Most of them don’t make a lot of money, so they’re not going to give away what they worked so hard at. It’s different for pastry chefs. Pastry chefs are more willing to share, it seems. But bakers, from what I know here, are a little more mouth-shut. I could be totally wrong about that. Maybe if I went to Bernard [Bernard Runo, the chef-owner of Sweet Thang on North Avenue, whose croissants Carey admires] and said, OK, could you show me how you make a croissant, maybe he’d say, Sure, come on in back, I’ll show you. Then I’d be saying, Why did I just spend six months trying to figure this out?

“But it’s also kind of fun to try and figure it out. I think that’s what makes me interested in it. When you do croissants you’re folding the butter in, incorporating it through, and what happens is the water in the butter creates steam, and that’s what gives it that rise. Puff pastry is the same thing. After watching students mess up, I decided that less folding is better than more folding. Because temperature is so important with croissants. The more you handle the dough, the warmer it gets. And if the butter gets too warm it seeps into the dough, and you don’t want that–you want the butter and the dough to be separate layers. You can read all these books, some people mix their doughs four minutes, some people eight minutes, some people do two book folds and one three-fold, and some people do something else. You’ve got all these different variables, and now you have to say, OK, there’s a hundred different ways of making croissants, where am I going to start? You’ve got the basic formula, you understand the basic ratios and how it works, but how do you get that flake? How do you get that thing to just crumble all over?

“I’m thinking about it. I’ve been thinking a lot about our butter. We use a really high-fat butter–it’s like 83 percent butterfat. For a while I was thinking that was wrong. I thought I needed to use a lower percentage of butterfat, a higher percentage of water, to give it more lift. But that didn’t work. Now I’m looking for a butter with high butterfat and lower moisture, which is more like what the Europeans use. I also think a lot about temperature and times and stuff. How can we make the dough faster so you get a colder dough, so you get a dough that’s shocked when it hits the heat, so it goes pouf, you know?”

Sometimes Carey thinks about Nancy Silverton, who founded the LaBrea Bakery in California. She built her business into a national phenomenon by applying artisanal standards to the technique of parbaking–partially baking and then freezing the bread, which is finished in a store or restaurant’s own ovens just before serving. (If you’re in a good restaurant and get a crusty baguette that seems to have come right out of the oven, it’s probably from LaBrea.) Silverton’s company has become so successful, Carey says, that “she can hire people to do all this stuff for her, so she can just dream and have it happen. That would be an awesome thing. Because you could do a hundred test croissants–the same day! You know, really tweak it and push the limits.”

But then sometimes she thinks about a different kind of baker. “There’s a guy in Kansas City I was just reading about. And he’s just him, he’s alone. He only does bread, he only does four types, he’s only open three days a week. And I bet those four breads are really awesome. That is my ultimate dream. Just to be alone with an oven. That’s total freedom. It’s like going on a road trip alone.

“Being a baker and being a boss, those are very different skills. I think my skills lie in baking.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eric Futran.