While an abrupt career change can be unsettling, it can also be the start of something new, exciting, and hopefully improved. This, at least, was the case for chefs Pam Yung and José Ramírez-Ruiz, whose sudden departure from their prior jobs at Williamsburg restaurant Isa eventually led to the birth of Yung and Ramírez-Ruiz’s own universally lauded, Michelin-starred destination, Semilla.
As chef at Semilla, Ramírez-Ruiz creates vegetable-forward main courses, while Yung, a self-taught baking star, adds grain-rich depths to a tasting menu that never fails to produce rave reviews every time the word “Semilla” is spoken aloud. And while much of the restaurant’s success can be credited to the duo’s seamless collaboration, with both individuals’ remarkable contributions conspiring to make one incredible dining experience, it’s worth putting a spotlight on Yung’s natural levain sourdough loaves and pastries, which are widely acknowledged to be some of the best in New York City. In fact, Yung is a leader in a growing pack of bakers who are turning their backs on shelf-stable yeast and industrially milled flours—or, as Yung explains, flour that has been sucked dry of all the nutrients that makes bread taste good. “To me,” says Yung, “that flour is dead.”
Yung’s interest in baking started early; she made bread at home and tried to get internships at bakeries. But the hours and pay didn’t work for her. “It’s incredibly difficult to be a baker in New York City,” says Yung. “With most bakers’ pay, I wouldn’t have been able to live here.” She looked for baking trials when she could, but it wasn’t until she started at Isa that she was able to bake comfortably.
And the more she baked, the more her appetite for it grew. She sought out Chad Robertson at Tartine for guidance in using wild (as opposed to shelf-stable) yeast, and soon started to use it to make sourdough loaves and the like.
“I fell completely in love with it,” says Yung; she also loved the work balance provided from making both plated pastries and artisan loaves. Post-Isa, she took charge of a bread CSA. “I was making bread for 30 people every week,” says Yung. “Working in restaurants and teaching myself a lot, you can get a good education if you look in the right places.”
Now at Semilla (which, not coincidentally, means “seed” in Spanish), Yung mills the majority of her own flour from whole wheat berries using a table-top mill every morning. “When you’re working with wild yeast starter, it’s important to have as much of the nutrients in the grain as possible, because that is what the yeast feeds on,” says Yung. The fermentation process of wild yeast is also, of course, responsible for sourdough’s signature tang.
“You also have much better flavor and aromatics when you don’t sift out the germ,” she says of her live grains. “It’s just amazing flavor and amazing nutrition.” And when paired with wild starter, sourdough fermentation breaks down grains more slowly, eventually allowing the body to digest more easily. Even people with gluten intolerance, says Yung, can often eat sourdough, as long as high quality grains are used.
So which grains are those? Yung uses many ancient varieties, which have lower yields but richer flavors and long histories: spelt, farro, and amaranth. “I feel like a lot of people are sort of into this huge revival in the US, learning to bake this way,” says Yung. “Even if people use yeast, they are using slower and longer fermentation processes, and better grains.”
All this isn’t to say that Yung doesn’t make recognizably modern fare; her favorite thing to make right now is pizza—but she even makes that with a natural levain. Yung has also been using Carolina Gold Rice to make loaves by folding cooked rice kernels into the dough—kind of like porridge bread, she says. “It gives the crumb a super-soft kernel.”
While it’s tempting to think that the world of artisanal baking is ultra-secretive, with methods kept close to the chest in order to gain an edge on competition, Yung insists the baking world is not like that. She’s quick to say that she finds inspiration among her peers.
“I’ve found a lot of people in bread who are really nerdy about it, and into sharing ideas and giving feedback,” says Yung. “There is a woman in Portland who is making naturally leavened pizza; we haven’t met in person but we’ve talked on the phone and emailed each other. She is sort of like my muse in terms of giving me a lot of guidance.”
Semilla’s success and its impact on New York’s dining scene make it hard to imagine that Yung and Ramírez-Ruiz’s were, post-Isa, tempted to leave New York. Nowadays, their biggest challenge is neither drawing customers to their restaurant nor conceptualizing and producing intrepid dishes and heavenly breads. Rather, it’s the huge, concerted effort required to keep a small business, no matter how successful, running.
“Mostly, we’re pretty tired. José and I are owners but we’re working all of the time,” says Yung. “We won’t lie, it’s not easy, but we’re pretty satisfied with what we’ve accomplished so far.”
Photos by Liz Clayman.