Benjamin Baker

By MM Pack
Photography by Eric Von Lehmden

When chefs travel, they typically carry with them their recipes, their skills, their creativity and their knives. But when Chef Benjamin Baker relocated to Austin, he brought all these elements plus one more: sourdough starter from the gold-rush days of San Francisco. Baker is the executive chef at Travaasa Austin, a serene resort and spa on the western edge of Austin. With his small staff, he prepares three menus each day—baking his signature sourdough bread and rolls daily.

“Is it spa food? Not really,” he says. “I make the most delicious food I can, using herbs and vegetables grown on-site and with as many locally sourced ingredients as I can get my hands on. For the guests, it’s all about choices—some of my dishes are super-healthy and some are a little decadent. We provide the nutritional and calorie information for everything we serve. And yeah, I do love my sourdough.”

How did Baker and his San Francisco sourdough end up in the Texas Hill Country? The tale begins in California. “I’m a seventh-generation San Franciscan,” he says. “My mom made bread at home, and I cooked for my younger siblings at an early age. I realized that’s what I wanted to do with my life. At seventeen, I started cooking in professional kitchens in San Jose. By the time I was nineteen, I was cooking at the Greenwood Pier Inn in Mendocino County. It was amazing to be working with fresh ingredients and edible flowers from the garden.”

But Baker’s days in Mendocino County were numbered. “The chef I worked with, Andrew Waterhouse, had cooked in Hawaii and he encouraged me to go there,” Baker says. “He liked my work ethic and thought I’d be a success. So, what the heck, I was twenty years old…I went.”

Baker spent the next 13 years cooking (and playing in rock bands) on Maui. “I cooked at the Paia Fish Market restaurant, where I developed an appreciation for the flavors of the ocean,” he says. He honed his baking skills with Casey Logsdon—pastry chef for the first Roy’s restaurant in Honolulu—and became head baker and then executive chef at Longhi’s fine-dining establishment on Maui. In a significant turn, Baker befriended Scott Hessler, a renowned baker who’d retired to Maui and baked sourdough bread in a solar oven.

Sourdough is bread made with wild yeast and bacteria that impart a slightly tangy, sour flavor. Sourdough starter is a small amount of fermented dough saved from a previous batch that contains the yeast and bacteria culture. As long as the starter culture is regularly fed flour and water, it remains a living organism and will last indefinitely. Sourdough was the principal bread made in Northern California during the gold rush and remains a big part of San Francisco food culture today.

Hessler’s sourdough starter came from Larraburu Brothers Bakery—opened in San Francisco by two French Basque bakers in 1896. When the bakery closed in 1976, Hessler secured a piece of their venerable starter, reputed to be 167 years old. In the 1980s, Hessler used the starter at Scotty’s Sourdough Bakery in Honolulu, and later only for family baking on Maui.

In 2006, Baker and his wife, Zina, a San Antonio native, moved to Texas for the birth of their daughter (also Zina). As a parting friendship gift, Hessler gave Baker a piece of his precious 19th-century starter. Baker says that one of his proudest moments was when he baked bread with the starter for his grandparents in San Francisco. “Eating that bread brought tears to their eyes,” he says. “They said it tasted like the bread they remembered.”

“Baking is magic,” Baker says. And when you look at his softly bubbling vats of living sourdough starter, it’s easy to agree. Right now, Baker’s tangy loaves are available only to Travaasa guests, but—luckily for Austin—there are plans to open the restaurant to the public in early 2012.