This season we’re going back to our roots in California’s wine country, where the first Williams-Sonoma store was opened. Along the way we’ll be spotlighting the local chefs, artisans and producers who have made the region a top culinary destination and continue to inspire us, in the kitchen and around the table.
For the past 30 years, Karen Mitchell has run the Model Bakery, a must-stop destination on any Wine Country road trip. With locations in St. Helena and in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, the almost 90-year-old bakery specializes in artisan breads, delectable baked goods like cakes and cookies, and most famously, light, fluffy, buttery English muffins that are delicious with jam. (We dare you to eat just one.)
We talked to Karen and her daughter and managing partner, Sarah, about life at the bakery, how they develop their baking recipes, and how the history and ingredients of the region influence both the menu at the bakery and how they cook at home.
Q&A with Karen Mitchell, owner
Tell us about your culinary history. When did you become interested in food?
I am originally from Portland, Oregon. I grew up there and went to college – Willamette University in Salem. I moved to the Napa Valley in the 1970’s and have lived here ever since. My husband and I settled on a small farm in the valley where we grow wine grapes and raise a big organic garden. I traveled in Europe and was enchanted with the wine regions there. The Napa Valley was just beginning to expand in the early 70’s and we wanted to be a part of this growth. I had been a high school teacher and continued with this until the birth of our daughter. My next endeavor was a catering business in the Valley – we worked with the new wineries and vineyards that were emerging. It was an exciting time to be in the food business. I had always loved to cook and bake, my family in Oregon had many ties to the food world.
Can you tell us how you came to be the owner of the Model Bakery?
In 1984, my landlord and friend, offered me the lease on our local St. Helena bakery. It has been here since the early 1900’s – and had just become available. I jumped at the opportunity although it meant a great deal of effort and time to renovate the premises. The star feature is the old brick ovens built into the walls of the bakery. They produced amazing breads with a hard crust unlike anything being made at the time. We opened just before Thanksgiving and are now looking forward to our 30-year anniversary next year. My daughter, Sarah, grew up with the bakery and returned after college to help me operate the business. It has grown from a small retail shop in downtown St. Helena to a second operation at Oxbow Public Market in Napa. We operate a wholesale business as well and deliver daily to many of the top restaurants and stores throughout the valley. We have just published our first cookbook “The Model Bakery Cookbook” which is being released in September.
How and when did you become interested in baking?
I and a group of talented bakers have developed all our recipes over the last 30 years. Our bread recipes showcase organic flour, natural sourdough starters and the current pull and fold technique for developing bread doughs. Our morning pastries are based primarily on laminated croissant type doughs. We also produce a full line of cakes, pies, tarts and cookies. We offer a daily lunch menu including sandwiches, salads, soups & pizzas.
You’re known for your fantastic English Muffins. What’s the secret to making them?
Our most popular product is our house-made English Muffin – a focaccia style bread roll that is griddled in clarified butter rather than being baked. This hand-rolled special bread (we made hundreds of these daily) was featured on the Food Network show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” and on “Barefoot Contessa.”
How do regional ingredients factor in to the Model Bakery?
Our food philosophy is to promote local and organic ingredients and treat them as naturally as possible. We source produce, flour, dairy and drinks from the finest purveyors in our area and handle them with respect. We are working with a new line of wheat flour raised in Northern California that is genetically superior. Our baked goods are unique because of this care and attention. Our customers are very loyal and return daily to support our efforts. We are devoted to the wine community that surrounds us – our sourdough starters come from wine grape fermentations. We have worked with local vintners and restaurants throughout the years to promote their products along with our own.
What’s one thing from the bakery that you could eat every single day?
On a daily basis, I cannot resist a fresh loaf of Pain Levain bread, either a batard or baguette. The formula uses 15% whole-wheat flour that gives the bread extra chew and moistness. In the afternoons, I love to save a late bake French baguette for our evening meal. My other weakness is a warm chocolate chip cookie (with walnuts). I try not to have one daily!
At home, I have a large organic garden where I raise tomatoes, salad ingredients, herbs and other vegetables. I start my plants in early spring in my greenhouse and enjoy the results all through the summer and fall. I have fruit trees that yield a bounty of wonderful peaches, cherries, plums and apples. We raise wine grapes on our farm (syrah) and we make our own wine (Four Cairn Vineyards) as well as sell a portion to our friends (Lewis Vineyards). I also have a small chicken flock that gives me golden brown eggs daily. And if I have too much to use at home, I have a local bakery that happily absorbs the excess. I bring home the vegetable scraps to feed my chickens and the compost bin. It is a full-circle way of life. Our dinners always include what is ready in the garden – I take my colander out to see what is ready rather than go grocery shopping. It is an ideal way to live. And of course, I love to can and preserve so our bounty sustains us through the winter – tomatoes for sauce, fruit for preserves & chutneys, pickles for a grilled meal. And they make great gifts at holiday time.
What’s for dinner tonight?
Tonight – I saw some French green beans that look ready, Caribe Red Potatoes to grill with garlic and rosemary, Paul Robeson black tomatoes with fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil, and of course a loaf of bread and a bottle of our wine. Life is good!
Q&A with Sarah Mitchell Hansen
Tell us what it was like to grow up in St. Helena. How did the region and your childhood spent on a farm influence you later in life?
St. Helena is a small town where everyone knows each other. Because of the food and wine influence, it’s a very sophisticated town as well. Many of my friends were interested in food because of their travels, and we loved going into the city (San Francisco) to try new foods whenever we got the chance. Dim sum was always a special treat for us.
Living in a beautiful place like the Napa Valley, you often take for granted how lucky you are. I lived in Barcelona for a year in college, and traveled through Europe. I loved the food and the culture there, but when I returned to the Napa Valley I realized it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Living on a small farm, I learned to appreciate fresh fruits and vegetables. I loved canning tomatoes from the garden with my mom, and my favorite – making pickles! In the warm season, we’d sit outside for dinner every night and usually at least one part of our meal was grown in our garden. I enjoyed going out to the garden and picking fresh herbs and lettuces for our nightly salads. Because of my exposure to gardening, it is now one of my passions. Even though we have a small home in Napa, I have every inch of my garden planted with raised beds growing all kinds of vegetables. This experience is now being passed on to my 8-year-old son who loves picking the ripe cherry tomatoes and insists our lettuce is the best he’s ever had! I feel lucky to have had this exposure, it makes me appreciate people who grow their own food.
How was the bakery a part of your life growing up?
My mom bought the bakery when I was about 10 years old. I used to walk over to the bakery after school, I’d grab a cookie and sit on the flour sacks in the storage room and do my homework. The counter staff (who were mostly in high school or college) all treated me like a little sister. I loved the attention! Being the town bakery, you become such a strong part of the community. We’d give the day-old bread to the Catholic church or to the elementary school to use for their hot lunches. We’d make birthday cakes for many of my friends’ birthday parties. And then when I was older, for my friends weddings. By being a part of so many celebrations and life events (through food) I really felt like we had a valuable place in the community.
After leaving St. Helena to work in the corporate world, why did you decide to come back to the bakery?
After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, I worked in corporate sales, first for Xerox selling equipment, then for Oracle in software sales. It was during the dot-com era, and everyone was spending lots of money on new equipment. It was a fun time, but after about eight years of living in San Francisco, I felt I needed a change. My mom had an offer to sell the bakery, and was considering retiring. She said this was my one shot to return to the Napa Valley and take it over. I decided it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. The first few years at the bakery were a lot of work, but I enjoyed living back in the Napa Valley, and starting my own family here.
Describe a typical day at the bakery.
The baker is 24-7. It never stops. The bread mixers come in early in the morning to start mixing doughs. The shapers come in the late morning and early afternoon. The pastry chefs come in the early morning to start making cakes and cookies. Then the night bakers come in to bake the pastries and breads. By the time they finish baking, our packers arrive to start packing wholesale orders for deliveries. Then the counter staff arrives to start opening the stores. It just never stops!
Since the company has grown so much (with over 60 employees), I mostly manage the business side (accounting, payroll, HR, all the boring stuff!), but I enjoy it all. We have a close team of employees that all work well together. I enjoy tasting new products our bakers have developed, working with baristas on new drink techniques, and trying the new salads or sandwiches our chefs develop – there is always something new being created, which makes it fun!
Are you a baker yourself?
I enjoy cooking savory food more than baking. I do make a mean pineapple upside down cake (my son’s favorite) with fresh vanilla ice cream or a special treat from time to time. But since I own one of the best bakeries around, I find it’s better to leave it to my pros! I love cooking for friends and family. We often have families over for barbecues in the summer (my friends love my special panzanella salad with heirloom tomatoes from the garden and ciabatta from our bakery), or in the winter we’ll make a braised dish like short ribs or stew with fresh warm baguettes from the bakery, of course!
What is the one thing from the bakery that you could eat every single day?
The French baguette -I do! Who can resist a late bake from the oven around 3pm? Perfect for dinner.
What’s the most popular thing you sell at the bakery?
Our English Muffins. They have been featured on many cooking shows, such as the “Barefoot Contessa” and the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Customers line up for them on the weekends. We have to limit them to 6 a person unless they order ahead, otherwise we’ll be sold-out in the first hour of the day!
How do you decide what’s on the menu at the bakery? Is it seasonally focused?
We do focus on the season and what is readily available. A lot of our items are based on holidays – i.e., Christmas is our biggest holiday with many cookies, buches de noels and special cakes and breads. Thanksgiving we make hundreds of fresh pies. Easter we make all kinds of iced cookies and tarts or desserts. Our lunch items are based on what’s in season -you’ll find heirloom tomato and fresh mozzarella salad in the summer, in the fall maybe a farro salad with roasted butternut squash and cippolini onions. Our breads may use fresh sage in the fall, dried figs in late summer, or a hearty beer bread in the fall.
Tell us: What’s for dinner tonight?
Friday night is pizza night at our house. My 8-year-old son loves helping me roll out the dough. I’m always experimenting with my pizza dough recipes – long fermentations overnight vs. quick yeasted version with type 00 flour other nights. We all like different toppings. My son likes cheese and sausage, of course! I’ll roast some peppers and sauté some mushrooms and top mine with different salumi or proscuitto. My husband isn’t picky, he takes what’s left from the two of us!
I usually make a Caesar salad with fresh sourdough croutons, and extra anchovies for my son! And of course we’ll enjoy a bottle of my husband’s Four Cairn Syrah. That’s a Friday in the Napa Valley for us!
See The Model Bakery’s famous English muffins on The Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate.”