FOOD

The Instagram focaccia seller inspired by pizza

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Chef Karla Mendoza's sea salt and rosemary focaccia (left) and the newest flavor Spanish chorizo, kale, tomato, red onion, garlic confit, and mozzarella. Photos from CRAFTED AT HOME/INSTAGRAM

Chef Karla Mendoza discovered that sourdough brings people together. An artform that takes a lot of waiting, measuring, and wrist strength, it was something many picked up during the pandemic because time was all anyone had. That included herself, who set up shop in the tiny kitchen of her apartment, making do with an oven made for just two people to use and baking 40 loaves every day. “Actually, it’s a skill. It develops your patience and muscle,” she said, laughing. She had even developed tennis elbow from baking loaves and loaves of sourdough a day.

At the beginning, before her small business called Crafted At Home was even an idea, she was simply baking again for fun. Prior to the pandemic, she was doing a lot of consulting work out of town that she practically only stayed in Manila during the weekends. “During our first strict lockdown, I was like, ‘What can I do? I’m gonna go crazy! I’m just gonna be so bored!’ So I started practicing other things that I learned in the past.”

Having trained in Los Angeles at La Brea Bakery, one of the biggest retail bakeries in America under award winning chef, baker, and author Nancy Silverton, baking focaccia was the first thing that came to mind when looking for something time consuming to fill the hours. Since she spends most of the year abroad, she turned to the local sourdough community on Facebook and Viber for tips on where to source certain ingredients. “Everyone is so kind and sharing,” she gushed. In the earlier days, she had even posted on the group that she had extra sourdough starter that she decided to give it away to people in the group. (For bread beginners, starter is used to make a leavener, which helps add more depth and life into bread.) “15 people asked, so I gave it away. Up to now — I know there are three people for sure — who have a business using my starter as their start. One, who is a hobbyist, she does it for her house, and another one who taught her daughter to do it. Parang I have five apos.”

Where the pandemic has kept everyone physically separated, her sourdough community has become tight and connected. She’s stayed in contact with the people who used her starter, and she even checks up on them to ask how they used the starter, if they’re still using it, how the flavor is, and how they’ve been doing in general. “It’s a nice way to make friends,” she said.

The shift from home baking to business happened when her friends, having tried her quarantine focaccia for the first time, exclaimed that it was too delicious not to sell. When she argued that logistics might be difficult, they assured her that Instagram and Viber are big enough platforms and that couriers were still operational. She relented and decided to try it for a week. If the response was good, she would see where to go from there.

She sold out her first batch within half an hour. “The moment people were getting their orders, everyone was texting me back like, ‘This is so good! When’s the next slot? When can I order next?’” She had to keep it going.

Her initial plan was to have five basic flavors on the menu and a limited sixth one that rotated to keep the selection fresh and exciting. “That never happened because everybody said, “Don’t ever take this off! Keep selling it! This is now my new favorite!” Now, she has 9 flavors on the menu (and counting).

Starting a bread business in her little apartment has been a completely solo venture. “From buying things, sourcing things, testing, to making the dough, to measuring everything out, it’s all me,” Chef Karla demonstrated the steps with her hands. She even wraps the bread, which is meticulously folded into two sheets of paper to keep it protected during transit, all herself. “It is so hard and I’ve been doing everything by hand. No machines because that’s how I learned it.”

Her focaccia bread takes three days in total to make. The dough takes two days, beginning with the starter, while the baking itself takes one. “Yesterday I made the starter, which is the natural yeast. Today I will make the dough for all of them. Tomorrow I have 35 pieces so I had to make enough starter for 35 yesterday, today I have to make the dough for 35, and then tomorrow morning I have to top it and bake it off.”

Chef Karla Mendoza learned how to make bread in LA while working under James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef of 2014 Nancy Silverton. Photo from CRAFTED AT HOME/INSTAGRAM

Chef Karla recalled some practices she learned from working under Nancy Silverton. “The way she handles bread is very different. She’s not rough. Usually, bread bakers have a big upper body. Nancy is so slight and feminine, and the way she touches things — it’s very finessed. She worked for the Institution in Italian Cooking in California, Campanile, for two years before Silverton recruited her to be the executive chef of their next concept: Pizzeria Mozza. “It took me about six months to learn how to make pizza. I had to learn how to do the dough formula and then we practiced and practiced and practiced before we opened up the restaurant.” That was 14 years ago.

“At Pizzeria, with my toppings, I kind of take it to the next step. What would be pepperoni pizza for me is probably use another kind of dried sausage, probably add a little bit of chilis to it, and instead of just canned tomato sauce, get the best kind of tomatoes and make the tomato sauce from scratch,” she said. This creativity with the toppings is what led Pizzeria Mozza to become as successful as it is. Take their version of the perennially polarizing Hawaiian pizza for example. “We started slicing the pineapple on a slicer so it’s super thin and then putting that on the pizza so when it cooks it also dries up and it becomes candied and sweet. It gets caramelized so it kind of has a texture as well. It’s not soggy pineapple bits that you get on the pizza. It actually adds texture and flavor.” With her focaccia bread, she loves when the toppings sink into the bread. “It’s like a surprise,” she beamed.

It is her experience with pizza and toppings that has allowed her focaccia menu to continually expand. While in America, Chef Karla learned how to create flavors inspired by the seasons, like creating a summer pizza using corn and squash, here she’s learned to work with what’s local and to take inspiration from the little things that surround her. “Oh, chorizo!” she exclaimed. “I was eating an empanada — that’s how this whole new flavor happened. What’s inside? I saw there was chorizo and cheese. But I wanted it to have color. What’s colorful? Kale! Let’s put kale. And then I keep testing and I keep testing. Everyday I’m kind of testing something.”

Garden focaccia. Photo from CRAFTED AT HOME/FACEBOOK

While not everything she tests makes it on the menu, most do, and every flavor she launches becomes the latest favorite. “I want to take out the potato focaccia because... para maiba naman because my whole intention was to rotate these flavors! But I can’t because there are so many who love it and it sells well so I can’t take it off,” she said, laughing.

When asked what’s next for her, Chef Karla happily announced that she was offered to be the Executive Chef of Pizzeria Mozza in London — and she accepted! “It’s good news and bad news.” She laughed when I asked if I could still fit in some focaccia orders. She is set to leave on May 3rd to bake in enough time to quarantine before they officially open by the end of May.