The Midwestern Diner Visits Hewn
This interview with Ellen and Julie originally appeared in The Midwestern Diner, written by Vincent Labriola, 08.14.15
Ellen King and Julie Matthei are the co-owners of Hewn in Evanston.
How did you meet each other?
JULIE MATTHEI: Our kids went to the same school right down the street, Chiaravalle Montessori School. Ellen had started an underground bread club at school. I love bread and asked her if I could join the club.
ELLEN KING: It’s not that I tried to keep it exclusive, it’s just that I couldn’t have any more people. I was killing myself to make it. I said, “I can add you but I can’t guarantee you’ll get bread every week.” If all my regulars ordered, and I had about a hundred, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I was in a regular apartment, making all this bread.
JM: Using Dutch ovens and such.
EK: And fifty-pound bags of flour. I couldn’t rent a commercial kitchen because most places don’t have an oven that’s made for bread.
JM: She let me in, let’s not forget that. We wound up taking our kids to a Cubs game and I said, “Why aren’t you selling this to more people? There’s a lack of really good bread, particularly in the suburbs.” There are some great places, but not like you find on the West Coast or the East Coast for that matter, where I’m from.
I said, “This could really be great.” We got to talking more. Six months later, in December of 2012, we formed the LLC. By June of 2013 we were open. It was probably good that we moved at that pace. When you think about things too much you’re less inclined to take that leap and actually do it. Plus we didn’t want to delay things, that affects your financial bottom line.
Julie, you handle the front-of-house. What is your background before opening Hewn?
JM: I was the Director of Guidance at Loyola Academy.
EK: It’s actually super handy here because I definitely don’t have a guidance background. [laughs] I’m much more gruff, “Get it done and get it done now, it’s hot I know but who cares,” and she’s like, “We have to consider the whole person.” [laughs]
JM: That’s what you have here. They come in, “I need to talk to you, there’s a mess.”
EK: And it’s true, a lot of running a place successfully is taking care of our employees— it’s important to both of us but she does it on a more holistic level. Every business could benefit from having a Director of Guidance. [laughs]
Ellen, you are the head baker here. What is your background?
EK: I was always fascinated with American history. Went to grad school and studied colonial New England history. I did some preservation work on the coast of Maine, which is where I came up with the name for Hewn. I had a name for the business before I knew what the business would be. [laughs]
We were working on this house that was built in 1803, peeling back some of the plaster and all of a sudden we found this lathe, made by hand with an ax, the original walls that had gone up in the building. We peeled it back and someone said it was “hand-hewn lathe.” We could date that area of the house. There had been different extensions to it but you could date them by the ax or saw marks on the wood. The idea of something that was “hand-hewn” was always fascinating to me.
It took me a long time to realize I loved food. It was my only outlet when I was working other jobs. So I went to the Seattle Culinary Academy. It was great because it was one of the few schools that was committed to sustainability and working with local farmers. Seattle itself has so many amazing farms within a very short radius. I got exposed to the savory, to bread making, and pastry.
I worked in some restaurants in Seattle, and as a cheese buyer I got to work with a bunch of small farmers, cheese farms, and learned how to make cheese. I got exposed to a lot of different things, but I took bread for granted. I had friends that had bakeries in Seattle and good bread was around all the time. When we moved back to Chicago I missed those loaves that I had gotten used to eating.
I had a young son, so I didn’t want to work back in restaurants because of the hours. I was already sleep-deprived, and then to be working till midnight… it wasn’t gonna work, so instead I became obsessed with bread.
EK: I finally had the time and the patience to try and understand it as a whole. I had several days at a time to work on bread. And that is the biggest thing with bread: you have to be very patient. You’re not in control of it.
JM: Not the way we make it.
EK: You can adjust it, steer it. It’s like you’re a huge container ship operator. You can’t make big adjustments quickly, you know? It’s very slow, you have to understand what’s going on. For two years I binge-watched seasons of Lost and made bread. It would take me several hours to make a batch of bread, after making my starter and building that for a couple weeks, to know if it was gonna work. There was no quick reward at the end of it. And I had to make it on a scale that was big enough so that I could learn from my mistakes. I had to make forty to eighty loaves at a time to really see what was happening.
JM: Let’s remember that when we first decided to open we said, “We’ll sell some bread, we’ll be open three hours a day and once it sells out we’ll close.” But it has grown from “We’ll be a bread store,” to “We’ll do bread and pastries,” to “We’ll do bread and pastries and sandwiches… and great coffee… and catering… and we should probably do wholesale.” It’s evolved very quickly. We’ve only been doing this for two years but it feels like a lot longer.
Our business has grown exponentially in that time. We’ve been very fortunate to have wonderful customers and great support by the City of Evanston.
How did you pick this location?
JM: On this street at the time there were some anchors like Red 7 Salon and the Mexican Shop over there, but there were also quite a few things that were boarded up. This spot was one of them. We loved the fact that it was close to Chiaravalle, it was on an alley which made it easy for deliveries, and it was an open rectangle. There had not been a kitchen here before so we had to do a complete buildout of the space.
EK: It was ugly and horrible, with gray tile… it was some sort of construction company before. My son was six at the time, he got into Google Maps and was obsessed with it. He said, “The place is empty! Did you close?” And I said, “No, that’s from years ago!” [laughs] It took them a while to update it.
JM: We loved the natural light, and the fact that there are windows in the back. We partnered with a builder I had worked with before to create our retail space. It’s not very big, we don’t have much seating but there’s benches and this lovely parklet— that’s a whole other story.
EK: We have a church pew that my son and I found in an alley.
JM: I had done some design projects previously and I said, “I want the retail space to mirror the work that Ellen does with the bread.” That’s why it’s built from all salvaged materials, recycled materials, and has a warm, friendly, neighborhood feeling.
We used old barn roofing from southern Illinois for the walls. It looks great, it’s easy to clean, and it’s a fraction of the cost we would’ve otherwise put in there, normally tile to comply with safety and health codes. We didn’t know if the city was gonna go for it but Ellen said, “Let me just take a piece over and see.” So Ellen walks into the City of Evanston building with this piece of rusty corrugated tin and a towel and says, “Look, I can clean it.”
She came back and said, “It’s a go.” I couldn’t believe it, it saved us a couple thousand dollars. We put safety sealant on it. Who knew that you could do something like that?
Tell me about the kitchen.
JM: The oven is the big deal.
EK: It’s funny ‘cause now I think our space is so small, we’re stacking bread everywhere. But when we started I was like, “Wow, we’ve got so much space back here.” We set it up so that it is as simple and straightforward as possible. People can come in and see the bakers, and we can see them too.
It’s fun when we can interact. I wanted the oven to be straight back when you walk in. We took cypress pickle barrels that were planed out to make barn doors that we can close if we want to be really messy and not talk to anybody. That was important, to not have the clear glass where you never have control over people seeing us work. Now the front closes them ‘cause they don’t want our heat from the back.
Our oven is high-tech and awesome: steam-injected, stone hearth. We have a convection oven, made before 1980. It’s old, but it’s a workhorse. And we have another old mixer that we use for our croissants and brioche— but we hand-mix all of our bread, we turn all the tubs by hand, and that’s now several hundred pounds a day. It’s labor-intensive.
Gluten is talked about a lot these days. What are your thoughts on it?
EK: We feel that gluten isn’t bad for you. The way certain kinds of breads and wheats have been processed is causing the problem now. It’s not that we’ve historically had problems with gluten, it’s that they’ve completely narrowed down the variety of wheat that they’re growing to a handful of varieties that are all patented and bred to withstand Roundup, growing with fertilizers and all of these chemicals.
That is altering the wheat. They spray an insecticide on the wheat while it’s sitting in storage. And when the bread is being made, they’re using a mixer and working super-fast to develop the gluten because they want to make the bread as quickly as possible and get it on the shelf. They add extra gluten into it, and instant yeast.
The whole process is completely different than what we want.
Tell me about your process.
EK: We use all-organic flour, as much local flour as we can. Right now we get 50% of our flour from Wisconsin, and the other half comes from the Dakotas. We’re also working with Hazzard Free Farm in Illinois that’s growing a heritage wheat for us. We got the seeds from a seed-saver, a Marquis wheat that hasn’t been grown in over seventy-five years. She was able to get about ten pounds, which is nothing. The first year is about planting it, harvesting it, saving the seeds and planting it again. We are actually making the trip to Pecatonica this weekend to help her harvest the wheat. Maybe we can get a little bit to play with for bread next year. That’s our long-term project.
We use our starter so that we’re naturally leavening the bread, we’re not adding instant yeast to it. This means our bread can withstand roughly twenty hours of fermentation. The bread being mixed and shaped today is in the refrigerator by noon, and then it gets baked tomorrow morning. Instant yeast doesn’t have that viability, it dies without building any flavor. With our starter our bread is developed. It’s airy, with irregular holes and that acidic taste. It’s like biting into some ancient, foreign landscape.
It’s not an exact science. I’ve been having this problem. We’re closed Mondays but we have to produce for Tuesday. On Sunday we close early, so the starter gets a different feeding schedule, and the weather’s been off— basically I come in on Monday and the starter’s so lazy, not ready to work, that I’m ending up having to wait more hours than anticipated. But I can only do so much to make it go a little quicker. I’m at the mercy of the starter.
JM: You have to be so patient, the way that we bake this bread, and as a business it’s hard. It’s this constant rub against each other.
EK: We have customers come in and say, “You know, you could make more money if you had more product,” and I’m like, “Thanks for the business lesson.” [laughs] That’s not what we’re doing.
JM: I wish we could.
EK: But it’s one of the most beautiful things, working with the dough when the starter’s at the right temperature, when you’ve allowed it to ferment long enough. It’s like touching the softest, most pillowy canvas.
Do you think your techniques identify with a particular culture?
EK: We wanted to use the best techniques from French bread in an American setting. My brother’s fiancée is French, and when I spend time there with them I tour the bakeries of her family friends. In the basement where the ovens are, they have these huge old wooden troughs, like big sinks, all wood and covered up.
That’s how they used to mix their bread. Without a mixer, turning it in these massive troughs. It was after the war that the mixer became widespread. Today it’s not efficient to completely hand-mix, but you can use a mixer in a limited amount to incorporate your ingredients and still allow the bread to have a long fermentation time. That is how we’re doing it here. Before WWII, this is how bread was made. We’re doing bread that is very reminiscent of France in the early 1900s, with American wheat.
Is it ever difficult to get people to respect the way you make food?
EK: Yeah. People will come in and say, “Your bread, it’s more expensive…” And we’ll say, “Yeah, but the ingredients we’re using are double the price of what you’re used to.” The organic flour we use is more than double the price of regular flour. Its also a much slower process. We don’t sell endless amounts, and try to compensate our employees well, and that’s what the price is. If this bread doesn’t work for you, we get it. If I was doing it for the money, I’d be making white bread in some factory.
Whatever people say, positive or negative, I’m doing it because I love it. I like being under the radar, and being able to do my thing. I do worry sometimes about becoming too trendy… I love what we do and I want to get our mission out, but I’m not in it for me to become some ego or personality. The negatives of that, especially in our culture, are so great that people start to criticize.
I love being in the back. I do less dough now than I used to, but I have to keep the business going and growing. I go home totally exhausted, but before I did this I used to spend so much time asking, “What am I doing with my life?” I never do that now. I go home and feel like I have my place in the world. I feel so fulfilled. I’m exhausted, but it’s a great way to be.
How does Hewn fit into Evanston’s larger food and drink community?
JM: We’re here at a time when Evanston’s food scene has exploded. The fact that we can partner with places such as Boltwood, Found, Lucky Platter, and Union— it’s this wonderful organic situation. We love being able to pass our customers to other businesses, and them doing the same with us.
EK: More than that, we’re all friends. We’re all the same age, our kids are all the same age, we see each other often. It all happened at the same time, and we feel really lucky to be here. Being connected is what makes a small business worthwhile. If you look at it from a farming perspective, you feel like your roots are all intertwined, and everybody’s benefiting and sprouting up from that.
JM: Sketchbook, Temperance, and Peckish Pig are our three local breweries. We love working with them. Peckish Pig sells our bread, as has Temperance. We take the grains that they use in the brewing process and fold them into our country loaf. They call them spent grains. Normally, they’d throw them out.
EK: Sometimes they sell them for chicken feed.
JM: The spent grain makes for a different type of a texture, though you don’t taste beer. Recently we started doing beer bread. Instead of using water to hydrate the bread we’re using beer. We only do it once a week, and now everyone’s always asking, “Where’s the beer bread?”
The community is the best part of having this business. It’s the whole Jesuit philosophy of things, bringing people together. I love the fact that we’re all trying to help each other, we’re not up against each other. It is such a positive vibe here in Evanston. Look at some of our social media posts. Last night we were at Union, and they’re doing this wonderful dish with our country bread, with fennel and zucchini. Of course I took a picture of that and put it out there.
EK: People working together like this is unique to food. Even if you’re in the same field, it’s not competition. If we all do well, we’re all gonna stay afloat.
As you mentioned earlier, in the summer there is a parklet in front of the bakery. How did that happen?
EK: It’s a community project that we raised the funds for.
JM: Through Kickstarter. 150 people pitched in, and we raised $14,000 for it. The city had approached us with the pilot program, they thought this space would be great for it. It is a public park on a street. That’s what “parklet” means. We oversee it but we don’t own it.
EK: We sponsor it and have insurance on it. We store it in the winter and take care of it.
JM: We thought it was important for this street, to draw people here. It’s a place for people to gather. Now that we’ve been in business a little over two years we know most of the customers that come in. We’ve become a great neighborhood spot.