When you’re running a hot, new restaurant in Washington, D.C., you have to be prepared for any and all emergencies if you want to keep your customers satisfied. Jeff Tunks, master chef presiding over the kitchen of the trendy Acadiana restaurant in the nation’s capital, had honed his skills at the Culinary Institute of America, and, after a stint as head chef at the Grill Room of the Windsor Court in New Orleans, was ready to teach the world a thing or two about Louisiana food. Acadiana was packed every night, and Tunks’ ears burned with compliments. He prided himself on his authentic Bayou State ingredients. On his menu, among various Creole and Cajun specialties, was a popular offering, “The Peacemaker” – none other than a New Orleans oyster loaf. And Tunks liked to serve bread from New Orleans’ own Leidenheimer Baking Co. Then came Hurricane Katrina.
The nation watched mesmerized, as day followed day and tragedy heaped on tragedy. In Washington, Tunks despaired. Much of New Orleans was underwater and, to add to his misery, Leidenheimer itself was not operational. How could he serve anything but the finest, lightest, crustiest loaf of New Orleans bread?
Naturally, Leiden-heimer’s came to his rescue. If they couldn’t bake in New Orleans, they’d find someplace dry to do it!
As Robert J. “Sandy” Whann IV, fourth generation of the family operating Leiden-heimer, explains: “Within a week of the storm hitting, we had been in touch with our friends around the country who are in the baking business. We arranged for our operations manager to travel to Chicago and produce our product in a friend’s bakery.” Even the muffuletta loaves came out of the Chicago ovens, ready for olive salad and cold cuts.
You can’t keep a good bakery down. As soon as its Simon Bolivar Boulevard location dried out, Whann had the ovens heated and running. One hundred and ten years of food perfection can’t be sidelined easily.
The bakery’s founder, George Leidenheimer, arrived in this city from Deidesheim, Germany, in 1896. His bakery started on Dryades Street, but by 1904 was in its present location. Early loaves were most likely dense, dark, German breads. But a good baker looks for ways to please his customers. As Whann explains, “Our bread is probably a combination of the early German baking heritage combined with the food we have in south Louisiana.”
Whann sees seafood as the key: “As seafood was so accessible, our bread matched it.” Leidenheimer loaves are designed “to complement what is on the sandwich rather than take it over.” It comes in all sizes, from long poor-boy to the petite pistolette.
But is New Orleans French bread really French? Can you buy it in Paris? Whann has an opinion on that, too. “Actually, there’s not much difference,” he says. “Many different types of bread are found in Paris. It varies block by block – in terms of its lightness and thinness of crust.” Whann also believes that “what typically passes in the United States as a Parisian baguette doesn’t resemble that found in Paris: It’s too doughy; the crust is too chewy.” New Orleans French bread, as Whann bakes it, hits all the right notes of crisp crust and light interior.
Leidenheimer has a long, proud history and a hopeful future. Whann was honored in 2002 as a “Rising Star” of the baking industry. According to the trade publication Baking and Snack, his “devotion, dedication and determination” combined with “energy, passion and vigor” earned him accolades for a career spent running his family business. Years after bouncing on flour sacks as a child, he earned a degree in business administration at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University, while working in various bakeries during vacations. Finally, he returned to Leidenheimer, where his sister, Katherine, is regularly on hand.
Running a bakery involves more than just mixing dough. Whann admits he keeps a close eye on the commodity market. “It’s a key aspect of our business,” he says.
Obviously, baking bread calls for huge quantities of wheat. “We have folks we work with at Horizon Milling, just outside of Baton Rouge. We use a very high-quality flour, with high gluten content.”
“Our wheat comes from the Dakotas, Kansas and Minnesota. Sometimes we use all spring wheat, sometimes a spring and winter blend. We change the type of flour we use based on what the year’s crop is like,” Whann explains.
Whann has also expanded the business as times have changed. Leidenheimer ships frozen bread around the country – Texas is an especially good market. Leidenheimer Baking Co. has owned Reising’s Bakery since the early 1990s, and prior to Hurricane Katrina, Leidenheimer had also purchased Gendusa’s Bakery.
Whann’s restaurant customers, from grand establishments to humble poor-boy stands, are the driving force of the bakery. Citing the creativity of chefs, Whann has high praise for new innovative takes on traditional New Orleans food. In fact, Whann joined with local chef Susan Spicer in founding Wild Flour Breads, producing “handmade artisan bread, Old World Italian breads and some French breads.”
Leidenheimer’s maintains a quiet presence in the city, but one longtime commercial jingle stands out: “Ooh la Leidenheimer. That’s what I said. Ooh la Leidenheimer. That’s fresh for bread.” (or, in another version, “That’s fresh for French Bread.”) Leidenheimer’s tune today is heard only while holding on the company telephone line.
There is a lot of work ahead for the bakery in post-Katrina New Orleans. While Whann is extremely proud of the progress his employees have made, the replacement bakery vans still bother him: “I can’t get used to looking at white trucks. They’re too plain.” Missing are cartoonist Bunny Matthews’ quintessentially New Orleans “Vic ‘N Natly” drawings. Whann promises they will return.
Whann offers opinions on how to treat (and eat) French bread:
1. “Never microwave it. That’s for popcorn, not bread,” he cautions.
2. “Whatever you don’t use, freeze it that day.”
3. “Never thaw bread; all you do is aid the staling process. Put it right into the oven frozen.”
As for his favorite way to eat Leidenheimer bread, Whann recommends toasting a loaf of poor-boy bread in a 350-degree oven. Butter it well, and fill the sandwich with fried seafood.
Coming in at a close second is what he calls “the perfect hot roast beef.”
“Fortunately,” Whann adds, “there are a lot of our hardworking customers out there who are making lots of those.”