By Michelle Trauring
Little did Carissa Waechter know, it all started with her great-grandmother.
The matriarch lived on a farm just outside of Chicago, where she would mill her own wheat and bake to her heart’s content. In fact, her pies were quite famous. And her two daughters, when they were just 5 years old, would go door to door, selling them.
When Ms. Waechter finally heard this story, the Floridian transplant was well into her career as a respected pastry chef in Manhattan, four generations removed from a trait that ran in her family, completely unbeknownst to her—as was her future title as proprietor of Carissa’s Breads on the East End.
“Isn’t that so random and cool?” Ms. Waechter said of the familial connection during a recent telephone interview. “I’m such a nerd.”
The story isn’t one the Waechter clan had a particular reason to tell young Carissa, who never dreamed of one day graduating from the Art Institute of New York’s culinary program, or moving to Manhattan on her 21st birthday—both of which, indeed, happened.
But, after just five minutes of talking with Ms. Waechter, it is no wonder her life has taken a series of serendipitous turns. The fast-talking 36-year-old—“thirty-six-tacular,” as she says—has a tangible thirst for life and learning. She is a planner and a problem-solver whose love for discipline juxtaposes her spontaneity; a free spirit who has always let new opportunities guide her.
So when culinary school came calling, she packed up her bags and ventured out on her own.
“I had gone to college and studied biology, but I knew I wanted to move to a bigger place. I have no idea where the interest in food came from,” she said. “I’ve always been a creative person. And definitely the business part of it, I feel like I’ve always had a general how-do-I-figure-this-out mentality. But oh my god, I was super broke, that’s for sure.”
A chain of fortuitous events led Ms. Waechter to world pastry champion Michel Willaume, who let her into his kitchen and showed her the ropes.
“I got my butt kicked by very mean, scary French guys—bakers, pastry chefs,” she laughed. “Everything was so brand new. I don’t think I realized what a crazy cool educational experience it was, because we were working so many hours, 18 hours a day. Being pushed all day, every day. It was a very structured, very, very strict environment. You learn a lot really quickly. You got your ass kicked if you put a knife in the wrong spot.”
After two years in that kitchen, there weren’t many places she couldn’t work. Chef David Burke—who promoted her to head pastry chef a mere two months in—and chef Daniel Boulud were just the ones lucky enough to get her.
But all things, including a 13-year career, come to an end—though not always as startlingly, or painfully, as they did for Ms. Waechter in 2009.
“It was a month in with Daniel and I had my first day off and I was skating in Central Park,” she recalled, and then took a deep breath before saying, “and I broke my arm. Shattered my elbow. Having a month off to heal your arm, that didn’t fly.”
“I took some time off. I’m a major workaholic, so it wasn’t ‘It was great!’ To have all that time off, I didn’t like it. I was going nuts and, I dunno, I needed to do something.
So I think when it was time to go back to work, I was ready to explore something else. I wanted to get out of the city.”
It was the skating accident that brought her out to the East End, far enough away from the hustle and bustle to feel like she had escaped it, but it was her own gut-instinct that told her she was on the cusp of a new adventure.
Coincidentally, Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett had recently kicked off its first season and, with it, reintroduced wheat to the East End.
“We, obviously, became super fast friends. I was so interested in this wheat being grown in their backyard,” Ms. Waechter said. “As a pastry chef, I’d used tons and tons of flour; I was always curious where it came from.
“My job was to change food a lot, make things out of stuff that wasn’t there,” she continued. “Foams and jellies and stuff. And out here, there’s wheat in pure form and amazing vegetables that tasted so delicious without anything done with it. It was such an eye opener.”
For the summer, she made bread at the Amagansett Farmers Market—a self-taught craft that quickly became known as “Carissa’s bread,” and a nickname she tapped for her own business, now celebrating its seventh year.
“Being a pastry chef was super cool, but I never had that desire to ‘be pastry chef in the city and that’s what I wanted to do.’ I just followed opportunities that presented themselves,” she said. “But when I came out here, I was blown away by how pure the food was. It was never that I really wanted to open a bread business. It just sort of happened.”
In 2010, she co-founded the Amagansett Food Institute, which supports farmers and food producers on the East End. The non-profit member organization has made South Fork Kitchens at Stony Brook Southampton possible—a business incubator for small-scale food producers in need of kitchen space, including herself.
While there are no typical days for Ms. Waechter, she tries to stick to a schedule. If she is not making bread in the kitchen—which occupies most of her time on Tuesdays and Thursdays—she is in her car, driving to any number of East End farms, or at home in Sag Harbor on her computer, planning for the upcoming summer season.
“It’s such a lifestyle,” she said. “Yesterday, at the kitchen, I was there for something like 13 hours. I was so excited about this thing that’s happening soon that I can’t talk about yet. But then I got home and I was on the computer for three more hours, and then I woke up early—like, 4 a.m. It runs through you.”
While Ms. Waechter has poured endless thought and creativity into her eight signature loaves, the recipe for basic bread is admittedly simple: flour, salt, water and yeast. It is mixed and developed, she explained, and then allowed to ferment and rise before baked.
Where Carissa’s Breads differ are the range and combination of additional ingredients. She has requested a variety of grains from Amber Waves this season, including amaranth, spelt, quinoa, buckwheat, hulless oats, crimson clover, barley, rye and popcorn. Not to mention, she mills her own wheat—just as her great-grandmother did.
“I feel like I get credit for something that is such a pure natural thing, but that’s the way it’s been done for so long,” she said. “For one type of bread, I’m using a sour culture that was started in Amagansett in 1965. Maybe I’m getting the credit for executing it, but this is the way to do it—the pure way, not the way other big bread companies are doing it. That’s really crazy and unnatural and so far out there.”
The baker is reluctant to attach any buzzwords or phrases to her product, including, but not limited to, “natural,” “organic,” “sustainable” and “food made with care and attention,” she said.
What she will say is this: it is not only her name attached to her bread, but her face and local reputation. She can always be found accountable, whether it is for her breads or her newly popular pies—a menu she is already preparing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.
“It’s weird. When you take a step back, it’s like, ‘Holy shit, this is so awesome,’ but if I tried to plan it the way it worked out, it never would have,” she said. “If I wanted to start a non-profit and get a kitchen and bake bread and work with farmers who grow wheat, it would have never worked that way. I am just so grateful I get to do this.”
She paused, as if to reflect on her last thought, but instead, she laughed. “Sorry, I’ve got great Amagansett sea salt and I’m mixing it in.”
For more information about Carissa’s Breads, visit carissasbreads.com.