bread and flours

The Breadwinners

Born to bake, Mark Gavigan rises to his moment while his wife, Kristin Ryall, whips up tasty complements.

David Lansing Current PSL, Restaurants

bread and flours

This story begins at Grand Central, in downtown Palm Springs, where I ordered avocado toast one Saturday morning. It was good. In fact, it was damn good. Was it the silky avocado, the panko-crusted egg, the light sprinkling of dukkah? No. It was the bread. Chewy, crusty, sour, earthy — everything I love (and seldom find) in good sourdough bread. So when the restaurant’s co-owner, John Diskin, stopped by my table to ask how everything was, I told him it was the best damn avocado toast I’d ever had in my life. “The bread is amazing.” He laughed, thanked me, and said, “But that’s not our bread. It’s from Bread and Flours. You know them? Mark and Kristin? She’s bringing us a delivery right now. Would you like to talk to her?”

I bake my own sourdough bread, but it’s nothing like this — of course I wanted to talk to her. Kristin comes over and we chat for a few minutes. She tells me about the breads her husband bakes and the jams she makes to go with them. I want to hear more. So she sits down. I order her a coffee and we chat for 10 or 15 minutes — about the sourdough (made with local grains from the Imperial Valley that her husband grinds by hand), about her former job (as a professional wine rep), about bees (she’s also a beekeeper). The whole story sounds, well, crazy. “It kind of is,” she says. “But we love it. If you saw Mark baking, you’d understand.”

Can I really do that, I ask. Sure, she says. “Mark bakes a couple hundred loaves every week out of our little kitchen. It’s a little chaotic but definitely entertaining. Come on by Thursday morning if you’re really interested.” So I do.

Pyramids of dough proofing baskets.
Thursday, 5 a.m. On a warm May morning, at the home of Bread and Flours, a home baking business near Demuth Park in Palm Springs, Mark Gavigan quietly slips out of bed, dresses in his normal “uniform” — white shorts, pale blue denim shirt, and traditional French baker’s beanie — and pads out to his small kitchen. He flips on the two ceiling lights and opens a fresh bag of Wild Goose coffee beans to make the first of several espressos for the day.
Mark Gavigan separates dough in to 2-pound balls for proofing.
Drinking his coffee, the 50 year old stands in front of a floor-to-ceiling white board at the end of what would be, for most people, a dining room but that he and his wife, Kristin Ryall, have converted into a crowded bakery prep room filled with rolling carts holding dozens of inverted bannetons (French proofing baskets), commercial refrigerators, a long butcher block table, plastic tubs, and stainless steel racks crammed with cookie sheets, scales, canvas bags, rolls of butcher paper, red twine, large jars of pink Himalayan salts, and, at the very top, stacks and stacks of books: A Passion for Bread, The Rye Baker, Flour Lab, Living Bread, Four Water Salt Yeast, and dozens of others. Mark sips his espresso and studies the notes, in blue ink, on the white board noting the bread to be started today: Sourdough Sammie, Seed You Later Sourdough, Washington Wheat Sourdough, SoCal Sourdough, and banana bread.
A little after 6 a.m., following his second espresso, Mark hauls a 25-pound bag of Methow Hard Red wheat berries, grown on a family farm in the foothills of the Cascade mountains outside of Winthrop, Washington (population: 394), to a small covered shed in the back and plops it in front of Jumbo, his name for the Austrian-made stone mill grinder that cost $2,700 and which Mark uses to freshly grind all of his flour. Jumbo resides outside, like a large dog, rather than in the house because it tends to throw out clouds of white dust, thick with wheat particulates, which, if inhaled regularly, can cause “baker’s lung,” a common occupational respiratory disease in Mark’s line of business.

Still, he considers the risk worth it. He knows he could buy bags of pre-ground, pre-mixed bread dough from any one of a number of sales reps who regularly contact him, trying to make his job easier and safer, as they tell him, but that’s not what he’s about. “For me, freshness is the most important thing,” he says, dumping some wheat berries into the mill. “Everything has to be at its peak. I don’t use pre-ground flour or dough softeners or preservatives or any of those things the big boys use. I want to know where my wheat berries come from because the bread gets its flavor from the soil, the terroir, just like in wine grapes.”

Mark would know about terroir. Until he started baking bread a few years ago, he, like his wife, Kristin, was a wine rep. They lived in a high-rise apartment overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago, had six-figure incomes, and traveled more than six months out of the year to France, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Argentina, and Chile. “We were living the high life,” he says. Then, in 2014, his father died and everything changed. He and Kristin came to the desert to help his mom, who was struggling with her new life, and ended up staying. But it wasn’t a straight line from hosting wine tasting dinners at Charlie Trotter’s to spending his mornings milling wheat berries. First, there was running a cleaning franchise (which was successful enough that he was bought out by a larger company in West Virginia three years later), followed by a brief stint in real estate, which, he says, “wasn’t really my thing.”

By then, he’d taken a couple of classes on bread baking and became obsessed. “I went down a deep rabbit hole. I just kept experimenting and learning everything I could. I didn’t, you know, go work for Chad (Robertson, bread guru and owner of San Francisco’s legendary Tartine Bakery) for a year. But I was really passionate about what I was doing, even though at the time I was basically just giving away all my bread to friends. I felt like baking was my mission and my calling. I’d be in a meeting with my real estate colleagues and say, ‘I’ve got to go home and make bread,’ and they’d look at each other and say, ‘No, you have a million-dollar house you need to go show.’ They were right, of course. But I felt I needed to bake. I had to follow my heart.”
Judy Gavigan, Mark’s mom, with Mark and Kristin Gavigan in front of their home bakery.

Thursday, 11 a.m. Outside, it’s 93 degrees and 27 percent humidity; inside, though the air conditioner is on, it feels even hotter. Maybe it’s because Mark spends long hours mostly alone futzing with tubs of bread dough and cranky baking equipment. (This morning, he’s trying to unjam his noisy bread slicer.) Mark likes to name everything in his kitchen. He has no helpers or apprentices, but there’s his constant companion, Lupia, the tub of sourdough starter who sits like a silent buddha in a clear tub atop one of his ovens. There’s Roxie, the commercial stand mixer, and, of course, Jumbo, the stone mill. Now, it’s time for Mr. Poolish to rise — the bread leaven made from just-milled flour, spring water, and a heaping helping of Lupia.

Mr. Poolish, who has been rising and bubbling away for several hours, is now mixed with Desert Durum, from low-desert farms in Arizona and California, and Methow Hard Red Wheat from Washington, into dough, which then begins a long, slow fermentation process that includes folding the dough every 30 minutes or so for several hours until it has become airy and easy to handle and almost double in size.

It takes about 36 hours of mixing, shaping, rising, and baking for each loaf of bread.

There are, of course, much easier ways to make bread, but Mark isn’t interested in the easy way. “I’m anti-easy when it comes to making my loaves. There’s a reason why I do everything the way I do. Like it would be easy to just bake a loaf of bread and stick it in a plastic bag but if you do that, the bread can’t breathe. And plastic is a petroleum, so your food is going in to a petroleum container. Which is why we hand-wrap our bread in paper — so the bread can breathe.”

After the fermentation process, which lasts all afternoon, Mark cuts the dough in to 1,050-gram balls (a little over 2 pounds), plops them in to bannetons, and stacks them in commercial refrigerators, set to 45 degrees, where they will go through a second fermentation overnight. Then, he starts an hours-long process of cleaning up and sanitizing all of his equipment. “Sixty percent of the work of baking bread,” he says, “is cleaning up.”

Friday, 2 p.m. Mark has been baking bread all morning long. Dozens of loaves sit cooling on stainless steel racks. Meanwhile, he’s mixing up a batch of his banana bread, which doesn’t need to rise but gets the same attention to detail as his other loaves. It’s made with maple syrup, olive oil, cinnamon, fresh ginger and all-spice, which he grinds by hand, pink Himalayan sea salt, baking powder, baking soda, and lots of bananas, which he adds to Roxie, the stand mixer, along with the flour. “I like my bananas a little chunky, so I don’t mash them.”

Meanwhile, Kristin stands at their little four-burner stove stirring blueberries in a large French hammered copper jam pan for the preserves that she sells at the Indian Wells Farmers Market on Thursdays and online. Like Mark, she takes no shortcuts in making her jams. She also makes apple butter, peach preserves, raspberry jam, and grapefruit marmalade, depending on what’s in season. The blueberry jam has been cooking for over three hours. “You have to have a lot of patience,” she says, “to make good jam.”
Mark Gavigan folds and shapes the dough.
Just before baking, he scores it with an intricate Native American pattern.

While she stirs down the blueberries, I ask her a question I’ve been dying to ask: Why are they making artisanal bread and jam in a hot little house in Palm Springs when they could be sitting on the balcony of their Chicago apartment catching the breeze from Lake Michigan and sipping a lightly chilled Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand?

Kristin laughs and says, “I guess it’s my fault.” Mark, she notes, was just baking bread as a hobby but everyone was telling him it was really good bread. “After maybe a few too many glasses of wine, I thought it would be a cute idea to order him a professional baking oven. The next morning, I had buyer’s remorse and was going to cancel the order, but Mark said, No! You can’t cancel it. So we got the oven. From there, it became clear that baking bread was Mark’s calling. It was something he felt so compelled to do. You can’t stand in the way of your partner’s happiness, can you?”

Saturday, 8:30 a.m. Every Saturday morning, Mark and Kristin drive from Palm Springs to La Quinta making at-home deliveries. They load their separate cars with brown paper bags filled with hand-wrapped loaves of bread, coolers of sourdough pizza dough, and locally produced items from their online pantry: Aziz Farm Medjool dates, Hellenic Farms fig salami, Imperial olive oil, sun-ripened Mojave gold raisins on the vine, Wild Goose coffee beans, Mark’s granola, and Kristin’s jams and preserves.

“I went down a deep rabbit hole. I just kept experimenting and learning everything I could.”
The self-taught baker leans on “Roxie,” his industrial mixer.

Kristin is heading up Gene Autry Trail toward Interstate 10 for her first delivery but stops at Vista Chino because the road is closed due to blowing sand. She mutters the S word and says, “Well, that’s going to mess up my morning.” She flips through her stack of orders and calls her client, Tatiana, and they agree to meet at the Palm Springs Farmers Market in the parking lot of the Palm Springs Cultural Center.

Tatiana is not at her car, having decided to check out the market while she’s there, but she’s left the trunk of her Tesla open and Kristen drops in several bags of bread. Meanwhile, serendipitously, another one of her clients, scheduled for a delivery later in the day, happens to park next to Kristin. After they exchange surprised hellos, the customer grabs his bread, saving Kristin a trip.
“I’m anti-easy when it comes to making my loaves. There’s a reason I do everything the way I do.”

At every stop, Kristin inevitably ends up chatting with her customers. They love to tell her what they do with the bread — the BLT sandwiches, the French toast, the grilled pan con tomate. They tell her about their pets, landscaping chores, house painting projects.

Many of the deliveries are for a single loaf of bread, but Kristin is cheerful, upbeat, and enjoys talking to their customers. At one stop at an apartment complex, she has to climb three flights of stairs and trudge to the very back corner of the complex in 100-degree heat to deliver four loaves of Sourdough Sammie.

In addition to sourdoughs and whole wheat loaves, Gavigan bakes a rotating mix of cornbread, date bread, banana bread, and healthy iterations of granola.
“It’s not so bad,” she says when I comment on the amount of effort it takes to deliver four loaves of bread. “I think about what it would be like if we were doing this in an urban environment and first had to circle the block six times looking for someplace to park. This is easy.”
At a stop in Deep Well, Kristin makes a delivery to a well-known woman who is very involved in open-space planning in Palm Springs and owns a spacious home on four lots. The woman is watering a tree in front of her house when we arrive. Kristin waves and then drops off a single bag of pizza dough. “She loves Mark’s pizza dough,” she says, getting back in her car.
Fresh Banana bread.
Paper wrapping allows the bread to breathe.

There are more deliveries of pizza dough, raspberry jam, loaves of Seed You Sammie and SoCal Sourdough, two boxes of granola, some Wild Goose espresso beans, and a loaf or two of banana bread. The final delivery, in the Araby neighborhood, is for sliced sandwich bread and a loaf of Mark’s sprouted Emmer sourdough loaf. It’s a little after 1 p.m. on a hot Saturday afternoon, and Kristin and Mark’s week is finally done. Tomorrow, they have the day off and plan to sleep late and maybe play with their two hairless cats.

On Monday morning, they’ll start all over again.

Bread and Flours sells its breads and assorted pantry items, including Kristin’s jams, at the Indian Wells Farmers Market on Thursdays. Their products are also available online, at, for Saturday home delivery.

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