With his burly physique, shaved head, and cauliflower ears, Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria's head baker looks like the wrong kind of guy you'd want to meet down a back alley in Bordeaux. And you'd be right: as a youth in France, Kamel Saci was a professional judo champion. But in his basement bakery, a completely different side to his personality comes out. For Kamel, dough is not an opponent to be beaten into submission; it responds best to a minimum of handling, the gentler the better. The results show his techniques work. Il Buco's ovens produce some of the crustiest and most flavorsome artisan loaves in the city.
Kamel was raised in the small city of Vianne in France's southwest. From an early age, he showed an aptitude for judo, competing through high school and college. But then he broke his leg, ending his fighting career, so he had to find a job to keep paying for school. A temp agency sent him to an artisan bakery to sweep the floors. The boss needed an assistant baker; Kamel filled in and fell in love with the work. He moved to Paris to study the trade, working under the famous baker Eric Kayser, and then globe-hopped from London to Barcelona to Miami to Orlando. Last year, he was hired by Il Buco to make bread for its diners and for the retail trade. He says: "I try to make the best bread in New York every morning."
Il Buco's ciabatta reveals Kamel's aesthetic. Ciabatta means "slipper" in Italian, and in too many bakeries around town this loaf has degenerated into a pale, spongy, and flavorless sandwich roll. Kamel, on the other hand, bakes the darkest ciabattas in town. Tap the crust: it's hard, not soft as the Pillsbury Doughboy's stomach. That thick and crunchy crust encloses a crumb with a beautiful hole structure and a faintly sour and nutty flavor. It's made with just organic flour (like all Il Buco's breads), sea salt, and the Italian-style biga starter. Serious bread.
In his baguettes, Kamel demonstrates the art of balancing flavor and texture. This is a classic baguette with the crackling crust, but inside the crumb has a rich, wheat-y flavor. He achieves that flavor by mixing two parts biga with one part blended whole wheat and white flours. He also adds sea salt and a secret ingredient: cracked wheat that has been softened in water. Unlike most great baguettes, which only four or five hours after baking, this is a 12-hour baguette. Bought at breakfast, it will still be fresh at dinner.
That same baguette dough goes into Kamel's delicious lentil bread. First he cooks yellow lentils with onions and thyme until they're just soft on the outside and still hard at the inside. He mixes one part drained lentils with three parts dough and shapes the bread into a pointy loaf. The lentils don't add much flavor to crumb but do add a slight but pleasant crunch. So you get to enjoy the total package of crisp crust, crunchy crumb, and great whole wheat flavor.
Il Buco's two fruit-nut breads, both made with the baguette dough, are also worth a detour, particularly for breakfast. The fig-hazelnut is made from 10 percent dried figs and 10 percent roasted hazelnuts, while the walnut-raisin includes golden raisins and coarsely chopped toasted walnuts. Both are slightly moister, denser, and chewier than the baguette and absolutely delicious.
Kamel Saci's breads are available behind the retail counter at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria.