Bread Furst owner judged nation’s best baker by James Beard Foundation

Mark Furstenberg, deemed America's best baker by the James Beard Foundation, owns Bread Furst at 4434 Connecticut Ave. NW in Van Ness. (photo by Huge Galdones for the James Beard Foundation)

Bread Furst owner Mark Furstenberg was the only D.C. chef to earn a competitive 2017 James Beard Foundation Award, a nationwide honor for outstanding food service, at a dinner ceremony Monday night in Chicago.

He beat out bakers from New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Portland, Ore., to achieve the “Best Baker” distinction at the Beard awards. In one case, Furstenberg triumphed over a bakery that bears his handiwork — he helped found Brooklyn’s Bien Cuit, whose owner Zachary Golper was a fellow finalist this year.

In the three years since Furstenberg opened Bread Furst at 4434 Connecticut Ave. NW, the bakery has quickly become a local favorite, and a beacon for what community members hope will become a more active business district in Van Ness in years to come.

A longtime Washingtonian, Furstenberg, 78, followed a winding path to find his calling as a baker, originally starting his career with several decades in politics — including a stint in John F. Kennedy’s presidential administration and a few years as a Washington Post journalist. He broke into the local culinary scene in the 1990s with a chain of Marvelous Market bakeries, the first one in Chevy Chase. He sold the bakeries in 1996, and the next year opened the Bread Line cafe downtown at 1751 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, earning acclaim — and Beard nominations — before selling the establishment in 2005.

Next Furstenberg sought a neighborhood bakery, bringing Bread Furst to Van Ness in 2014, less than a week after the last Marvelous Market closed its doors.

The newly minted award winner wasn’t available for comment in time for publication — he was traveling back to D.C. from Chicago on Tuesday, after enjoying a ceremony hosted by “Modern Family” actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson. His bakery’s general manager Eun Yim told The Current on Tuesday morning that the shop was in high spirits upon hearing the good news.

“We’re all so proud for him and we’re excited,” Yim said. “Winning a James Beard award after the fifth nomination is pretty remarkable. People do tend to forget that he had already been nominated twice in his career for best chef. For everyone at the bakery, it’s an amazing accomplishment for him.”

Furstenberg was nominated in 2015 and 2016 for Best Baker, but lost last year to Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery + Cafe in Boston and the year before to Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. Before that, Furstenberg was nominated in 2005 and 2006 for Best Mid-Atlantic Chef for Bread Line.

Yim herself said she has worked at the store for two years and has enjoyed every moment.

“I get to work with my mentor. He’s funny; he makes all of the staff laugh,” Yim said. “He is exactly the person that you hear about. For me, he’s an icon.”

From Connecticut Avenue, Bread Furst customers can view the production process in the kitchen. The menu’s artisanal bread such as baguettes and ficelle is baked every four hours; regular offerings also include brioche and levain country loaf, sold by the pound. There are also daily specials such as challah served on Fridays, bialys on weekends and breads baked from ancient grains such as farro and kamut.

Local admiration for the shop extends beyond love of its treats. Van Ness Main Street executive director Theresa Cameron credits Furstenberg with conjuring the energy that led to the creation of her organization in late 2015. The area around Bread Furst has seen significant development since the shop opened, including Soapstone Market from the owners of Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase, and the Italian restaurant Sfoglina in the Park Van Ness complex.
Before the Main Street group had an office of its own, Cameron used Bread Furst as one of her local spots to meet with neighbors and officials.

“He really likes Van Ness and cares about his employees,” Cameron said of Furstenberg. “He just has such a high work ethic and really wants everybody around him to feel welcome and to work as hard as he does. He has a ton of respect for anyone. Anyone who walks into the store is a friend of his.”

The same goes for when he walks into other people’s stores, according to Politics and Prose book buyer Mark LaFramboise, who’s known Furstenberg for nearly two decades. Furstenberg’s late sister Carla Cohen founded the bookstore in 1984, on the same block where he later opened Marvelous Market, and he used to host the store’s annual holiday party at Bread Line. Now he’s mainly around as a customer.

“He’s always looking for literary fiction. He wants to be turned on to somebody he doesn’t know about,” LaFramboise said. “That speaks well to his curiosity.”
Furstenberg doesn’t lack for strong opinions, though, particularly about cookbooks worth selling. “He would say, ‘I know you have this,’” LaFramboise said. “If I didn’t, I would just make sure I have it.”

This year’s James Beard winners also included a longtime fixture in D.C.’s culinary scene: Lifetime Achievement honoree Nora Pouillon, an organic food pioneer whose Dupont Circle eatery Restaurant Nora is closing June 30 after nearly four decades. Another winner with ties to D.C. — best restaurateur Stephen Starr, recognized for New York City’s Le Coucou — owns Le Diplomate at 1601 14th St. NW.

This post has been updated to correct the location of Le Coucou. While Stephen Starr’s company is based in Philadelphia, this restaurant is located in New York City.