Two weeks ago, Danny Gabriner, a fast-talking 24-year-old who radiates a tightly-coiled intelligence quit his “bullshit” day job optimizing Ad-Sense click-throughs for the tech reviews site CNET.
Now he’s standing at the flour-dusted table in his sunny Bryant Street kitchen, shaping loaves of bread.
“I’ve chosen this as my profession,” he says with the sincerity of an Eagle Scout.
Up until now, baking’s been a labor of love for Gabriner. He’s been making rustic, sourdough bread under the name Sour Flour since May, when he set out to make a thousand loaves and learn about baking along the way.
Since then, he’s given away every last crumb he’s made. On Sunday night at the Monkey Club he celebrated that thousandth loaf.
With his goal met, and his paycheck nonexistent, Gabriner’s ready to step his operation up a notch. He’s working on plans to raise funds and move production from his Bryant Street apartment to a rented commercial kitchen.
With a crisp russet crust and a satiny, holey interior, Gabriner’s loaves could contend with much of the handcrafted bread sold at specialty grocers. But Sour Flour’s operation is decidedly homespun.
Gabriner works out of the kitchen he shares with his brother, a firefighter. On big baking days, he commandeers his neighbors’ ovens. Several 50-pound sacks of flour are lined up under his immaculate counter. His three sourdough starters, Blarf, Dulce and Wheaties, occupy oversized tupperwares in his pantry.
On Sunday morning, Gabriner ferried loaves from the kitchen table to his make-shift proofing chamber – a spare room outfitted with a couch, a TV and a space heater cranked up.
Back in the kitchen, as he fed his starter — the slurry of flour and water teeming with wild yeast and bacteria that makes sourdough bread rise and gives it it’s distinctive flavor – Gabriner said abandoning the computer keyboard for the bread board isn’t as big a leap as it seems.
“The thing about bread is that half of it is completely hands-on and technical, but there’s also a very, very heavy math component,” he said.
Gabriner, who majored in computer programming and economics at New York University, has nearly filled a composition book with small, scratchy print detailing each batch of bread’s formula and results. He’s trying to get a programmer friend to develop a database to track his baking.
“He’s a mad scientist,” said Roger Feely, a regular at Bagel Mondays bake sessions who’s also used Gabriner’s bread at his popular fusion food cart, Soul Cocina.
Feely was on hand at the Monkey Club, dishing up bowls of lemon-grass studded squash soup with Thai spices.
What really happened, he said, is he happened on a poster for a Soul Cocina event and was surprised to see naan by Sour Flour on the bill. “Oh, I’m doing naan?” he said. He did.
Feely, no slouch in the kitchen – his culinary career includes a stint as pastry chef at Citizen Cake and as a chef at other well-regarded kitchens in India and San Francisco — says wannabe chefs could take a tip from Gabriner: “I still take class with Danny, who’s just this regular dude, working alone. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Baking and giving bread away has helped Gabriner to hook into the city’s street food scene. He regularly supplies bread to the Sexy Soup Lady and makes dough for Pizza Hacker, who, in turn, gives him baking tips.
Gabriner’s also made friends at the local office buildings and cafes where he regularly drops off free bread and bagels, fresh from the oven. “I’ve never really known my neighbors before,” said Gabriner, who grew up between Noe Valley and Glen Park. “I know so many of them now.”
One, Tiffany Abuan, who works in development at KQED, where Gabriner delivers bagels every Monday, moonlights making flavored butters under the name Mmmm, butter! She was at Monkey Club with her wares, in flavors from ranging sea salt sage caper to chocolate.
Also in the mix was Sarabeth Leong, a high school friend of Gabriner’s. Turns out, he hasn’t always been a foodie. When he first started talking to her about wild yeasts, she was shocked, “I was like, ‘Is this the same guy that didn’t used to want to eat an orange?’”
Gabriner’s taught Leong to shape loaves and feed starter. She says his bread’s improved mightily over the thousand-loaf span. “At first, it was like, ‘Ok. Homemade bread.’ Now it’s like, ‘Wow!’”
That was evident at Sunday night’s party where Gabriner’s street food friends, schoolmates home for the holidays, and happy recipients of free baked goods gathered, ate and shared stories.
Gabriner kept running back and forth to his kitchen half a block away to take move bread in and out of the oven. But he was clearly in his element. “Baking should be – and has been, traditionally, though that’s been lost – a central part of the community.”
But as much as he’s about bread and community, Gabriner also has business ambitions. Asked if he sees an operation on the scale of Acme Bread Company in his future, he replied, “or bigger.”
Though he’s declined donations until now, he’s ready to start accepting them. In fact, Gabriner would like to get $16,000 over the next three months to grow the operation.
“It’s just your typical take over the world strategy,” he said. “But don’t tell anybody.”
He hasn’t quite figured out how he’ll make money at bread-making. Maybe selling memberships while still giving bread away.
Maybe moving his operations to the house his family has in Marin County and building an oven with an ironworker neighbor.
That, Gabriner said, would be tracing the path of a Mission baker he admires, Chad Robertson, of Tartine, who ran Bay Village in Point Reyes Station before moving to San Francisco.
As he surveyed the room, just before dashing back to his kitchen to put loaf number 998 — a huge sourdough — in the oven Gabriner said, “This is just the beginning. I’ve got plenty to go. But I like this as a start.”