Iliana Imberman Berkowitz grew up in a Jewish household where analyzing the food was as much a part of the experience as preparing and eating it.
“I think that’s very Jewish,” said Berkowitz. “We’d talk about why this recipe turned out better than before, and we’d really get into the details. We’d have this careful analysis of the food — more so than politics or current affairs or the weather.”
That level of discernment has carried into her professional life and helped Berkowitz, 30, take her bread business from a pop-up to farmers markets to her first brick-and-mortar bakery in just two years. As Kneaded Bakery has its grand opening this weekend in San Leandro.
Her analytical habit also shapes her point of view. In other words, when Berkowitz doesn’t like something, she really doesn’t like it. Like sourdough baguettes, a staple at most bakeries.
“My French-style baguettes are sweet, not sour,” she said. In fact, as far as she is concerned, “sourdough baguettes should not be made nor consumed. I have very particular feelings about that. Sourdough is for large loaves. A baguette is long and is mostly crust. The crust-to-crumb ratio is not right for a sourdough baguette. The thickness of the crust, when there’s so little crumb to balance it out when you’re chewing — it’s just wrong, it’s very wrong.”
And bread lovers, take note: Berkowitz isn’t shy about saying she makes the best bread in the Bay Area.
“If I don’t believe that, why would I expect anyone else to?” she asks.
Berkowitz is best known for her miche (a round, rustic, whole-wheat sourdough loaf inspired by world-famous Parisian bakery Poilâne). Rye flour and a longer fermentation time give the bread an extra tanginess. Another sourdough loaf features flax and sunflower seeds.
She also makes a honey rye porridge bread that has an almost custardy consistency (she says some customers who try it say, “That’s all I need.”). She also makes a mean challah and has a spelt flour loaf, though it does contain wheat flour. She says many gluten-intolerant people who try her bread are able to digest it because of its fermentation.
All of her breads have a darker crust. She says that’s where most of the flavor is.
Berkowitz has a “noshes” menu as well, which for now, includes both bialys and morning buns. While she plans to eventually expand it, she emphasized that this will remain a bakery mostly dedicated to bread.
Berkowitz grew up in Palo Alto and attended Congregation Kol Emeth, served on the United Synagogue Youth board and was a Diller Teen Fellow. It was in college at American University in Washington, D.C., that she got the baking bug. It became an outlet when she wasn’t studying.
“It was a way to procrastinate, but I was falling passionately in love with making food. It became like my third major.”
So, rather than thinking about the paper she needed to write, she’d be planning an ice cream recipe from David Lebovitz’s “Scoop,” or making sables (a French butter cookie) by Dorie Greenspan.
By the time she graduated college in 2010 with a social sciences degree and a passion for baking, she didn’t have a clear path forward. She followed her interest in food to a job at a specialty Italian grocer in Philadelphia, and when the store began carrying fresh bread, she was put in charge of the bread department.
“I was taking bread from other small local bakeries and getting schooled in the language of it and sampling it and talking about it, but not really knowing how to make it myself,” she said.
From there, she got her first job at a bakery, where she developed an appreciation for production baking. “At home you can do one or two steps and then walk away from it. When you’re in a production kitchen, you’re doing 40 things at once. You’re dancing around a bunch of other people and machines. It’s a bit like a circus and I loved it. Not everyone does.”
By the time Berkowitz moved back to the Bay Area in 2015, interest in artisanal bread had grown. She took a job at Facebook in its baking department but quickly realized they were making a corporate product that was not up to her standards. Her next job was at a now-closed company in San Mateo called Pain, and she began renting out the commercial kitchen on her own time to bake bread.
She began small with a pop-up, and then started a bread club, baking around 100 loaves a week and delivering them all herself. Next stop was at two farmers markets, where her dad helped her sell.
What makes her bread truly different?
“Almost everyone who’s starting a bakery now is making the country bread from ‘Tartine Book No. 3,’ ” she said, referring to the famous San Francisco bakery. “They’re making the country bread, and adding their own stuff into it to make it theirs. At our bakery, every dough is completely different. We are harkening back to the craft of bread making. It was not invented here in the Bay Area in the last 20 years; it’s an art that’s centuries old.”
Berkowitz received funding from Hebrew Free Loan, which helped her to pay rent at the new storefront and purchase a massive, $80,000 gas-fired, steam-injected deck oven. It came on a container ship from Italy in over 200 pieces and was assembled onsite.
“I love to feed people and I love educating people about bread and grain and the process and what goes into it,” she said. In addition to the value of supporting a woman-owned business, she said, “I also think it’s important to know your local baker and have connections with the people who are nourishing you. My bread is an extension of me. We are linked inextricably.”
As Kneaded Bakery is at 585 Victoria Court in San Leandro and can be found in a growing number of stores throughout the Bay Area.