Bellegarde Bows Out
Up for a James Beard award this month, Bellegarde Bakery was forced to close its doors.
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
Graison Gill of Bellegarde Bakery revolutionized New Orleans’ breadbasket with flavors from the past. On a hot, New Orleans April day in 2009, the 23-year-old California native stepped off a Greyhound bus, with no clear intent for his future. Despite that, Gill was certain that he was home.
Gill moved into a shared Bywater apartment on Royal Street where his bread adventures began. He remembered, “Baking grabbed me. It’s a very solitary activity, a beautiful ritual that requires self-discipline and commitment. It’s both intellectual and physical and engages every one of your senses simultaneously.” He became obsessed with the process.
While experiencing some success selling his loaves at local farmers markets, he recognized his technical limitations and enrolled in professional baking school in San Francisco, graduating with professional certification. After apprenticing in top Bay Area bakeries, New Orleans called him home. “The city’s spiritual magnetism drew me in so deeply that I feel out of place anywhere else in America,” he explains.
Through extensive historical research, Gill decided to call his business “Bellegarde” in a nod to a New Orleans bakery that operated back to 1722. The story of that early bakery spoke to Gill’s intentions to “create something honest and simple with a lot of clarity and integrity.”
Striving for the perfect loaf at Bellegarde, Gill concluded that the secret was the ingredients. “Most conventional white flour is dead, while freshly stone milled flour is a live food.” So, the baker became a miller, too. Beginning with a small, tabletop mill, Gill grew the operation to include a pair of 2,500-pound granite mills as he changed the flavor profile of New Orleans bread with his carefully curated flour, utilizing heirloom ingredients sourced from small farmers.
While the poor boy loaf dominated the local food scene, Gill believed that New Orleans bread could be as diverse as the city itself. His efforts were rewarded when chefs began to recognize Bellegarde’s bread as “something with its own flavor” versus poor boy bread, which he says functions “as a napkin you can dump anything on – shrimp, garlic, wine, butter… That bread is never going to talk back.”
Strictly a wholesale operation until a 2019 expansion, Bellegarde’s bread was listed proudly on top local restaurant menus and sold in groceries across the city. Last fall, Gill incorporated retail into the mix when he opened the new Apple Street facility.
COVID-19 upended Bellegarde Bakery. Over 65% of his business evaporated when the city’s restaurants closed on March 16. In a crazy twist of fate, Gill received his first James Beard nomination for Outstanding Baker in the midst of the crisis. Although the bakery never closed, trying “everything from curbside to walk-up retail,” once the PPP money ran out, so did his options.
In a July 17 press release, Gill announced, “The financial and emotional toll of COVID-19 has made it impossible to bake bread and mill flour. We have been losing money since March 15, and there is simply no more left to lose.” Optimistically, he continued, “Although I hope this is a temporary closure for Bellegarde, I hope to take this opportunity to create permanent change in myself and the world around me. If we want to preserve the culture and cuisine of New Orleans, we will have to nurture its roots.”
Gill fears for his beloved adopted home and wonders “how long New Orleans can continue if it willfully ignores its own heart: the New Orleanians who are at risk of extinction because brutal social and economic policies have made it unbearable to live here.” Despite that, he’s willing to “fight for the destiny” of the city he loves by pursuing policy at both the state and city level.
On September 25, he expects to be amongst friends at this year’s James Beard award ceremony. It’s notable that all five of the local chefs competing for this year’s Best Chef of the South have included Bellegarde by name on their restaurant’s menus.
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.