Cooking with Joshua

"Well, everyone loves bread,” Joshua Weissman says plainly. And while that’s probably true, few people love it as much as the 23-year-old former Uchiko cook and YouTube culinary star. (If his hundreds of thousands of subscribers don’t justify the moniker, by the way, see who has the platform’s most watched tutorial on sourdough starters. Here’s a hint: it’s not Allrecipes or establishments like San Francisco’s famed Tartine Bakery.) Bread quite literally helped Weissman launch the current stage of his life, one focused on becoming the best chef he can be.

As a teen in Houston, Weissman struggled with obesity. He dabbled in professional gaming through “World of Warcraft,” eating what he pleased along the way before ultimately shifting his lifestyle dramatically and losing over 100 pounds. Then, from roughly ages 17 through 19, he became obsessed with a new, health-focused way of living: a paleo-oriented, gluten-free approach to cooking and eating that eventually spawned a successful blog and book (both called “The Slim Palate”). But at 19, Weissman wanted another change, and this time he hoped to settle on a better balance. He moved out of his parents’ place, relocated to Austin and started putting his interest in fermentation to use by baking loaf after loaf.

“Bread was my way out of that community, the paleo, gluten-free life. It’s literally the epitome of something you’re not supposed to eat [on those diets]. I was almost afraid of it — like, ‘I don’t want to get fat again. What if it makes me fat again?’” he says. “Now it’s super therapeutic. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a very emotional connection for bread makers. It’s one of the few things in food that’s always evolving. Your next loaf is always better than your last loaf, and your next loaf is always worse than your last loaf. Bread is just different because there are so many variables that impact it.”

Bread has played a central role in the young cook’s life and career ever since. Fresh in Austin, he earned his first restaurant job with the group he says has the city’s best bread: Odd Duck. And while Weissman’s skills helped him get his foot in the door, he desperately needed that restaurant experience — learning the lexicon, the lifestyle, the little details about how the business operates — before stepping into Uchiko’s back of house. After all, the sign on the kitchen door in the famed Austin institution doesn’t read “Kitchen.” Instead, it features a plaque that states a universally known truth in the restaurant world: “Be precise. Our margin of error is small.”

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“I knew how to bake bread before Odd Duck, but actually, that’s part of how I got the job at Uchiko,” Weissman recalls. “I was so desperate. If I didn’t get a job there, I didn’t want to work anywhere else. So I brought four loaves on my first day staging.” (Pronounced staahj, staging is a type of industry internship or kitchen audition.) “They weren’t just stoked to eat bread; they were surprised at the quality. ‘Where did you learn this?’ I think it showed I was more dedicated than other people.”

Weissman completed his last day at Uchiko this summer, but he’s not done with kitchen life. Given his YouTube revenue these days, his next adventure involves continuing to produce cooking videos full time from his South Austin apartment, before hopefully staging at some of his favorite restaurants in Austin, San Francisco or Paris. He partially chose his current apartment for this very purpose; large windows wash his sleek, modern kitchen in loads of natural light. Weissman says his friends joke that the studio has no living room; it’s all kitchen (which feels kind of true, albeit kind of cool, too). But that makes sense for Weissman, as it’s here that he spends most of his time, baking his favorite sourdough loaf, among other things.

Weissman grew up cooking alongside his mom, who was quite an established home pastry baker, and he fondly recalls receiving gift boxes of breads from his grandmother for the holidays. Those memories, along with all that time spent at Odd Duck, then Uchiko, have only taken Weissman’s fondness for detail to an even more granular level. He can talk at length about a loaf’s crumb structure, how hydration impacts that airy and decadent center or why he offers most new bakers a simplified version of this recipe (in short, it’s because the full version involves precise oven steaming and obsessing over humidity levels). A follower of his once joked that Weissman would go so far as to develop his own wheat farm; it prompted him to start home milling, at least.

The resulting bread looks, smells and somehow even sounds good as Weissman pierces the crust with a bread knife. Given all the know-how baked into this loaf, it doesn’t require any fancy final treatment. Weissman simply drops some butter in a cast-iron skillet and toasts a few slices by moving them around using only his fingers.(Followers joke Weissman has developed such cooking calluses that these hands will survive contact with just about any surface or bacteria around.) He finishes with a dash of flaky Maldon sea salt. Any Southern mom would be proud, including Weissman’s own. “You know, she would probably complain there’s not enough butter in this pan right now,” he admits. “But there’s more than enough.”

It’s probably not hard to imagine, but the bread tastes even better than it looks.

By Nathan Mattise • Photography by Nathan Beels