The best bread in town, in a place you’d never expect

Croissants and pastries at Cafe Waiola
Croissants and pastries at Cafe Waiola

**Update: Café Waiola by The Curb closed on Tuesday, June 10.**

Want to get your hands on some of the freshest baked bread in town?

You just need to know where to look — inside University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine.

Surprising as it may seem, Chris Sy has been baking and selling delicious, European-style artisan breads out of the school’s cafeteria since February.

“I get into work between 9:30 p.m. and midnight the evening before, all that time until around 6 a.m. is spent prepping, mixing doughs, rolling out and shaping,” Sy said. “At 6 a.m., croissants start going into the oven, so that the first round is baked and cool enough to handle by 7 a.m., when the cafe opens.”

His creations, which include various types of freshly baked bread loaves that rotate daily, plus a selection of croissants, are available every Tuesday through Saturday at Cafe Waiola, the cafeteria’s new cafe and coffee bar.

“It’s the best bread on the island,” said customer Yale Passamaneck. “It’s moist. It’s got a great crust and we can eat it over a couple of days and it still tastes like we got it that day.”

Sy says his breads are likely popular for their depth of flavor and simplicity of ingredients. Most of his breads contain just flour, water and salt and feature a sourdough starter — one he’s been using for the last seven years.

“For me, the most important thing is the dough and how much flavor I can pull out of it,” Sy said. “The depth of flavor comes from fermentation and needs to be developed over a long time.”

Sy says it takes eight to 12 hours to prep each batch of dough. Then he bakes it in extremely high heat to caramelize the crust, adding more flavor and texture to the loaves.

The Beginning

Boredom. That’s how Sy explains the origin of his obsession with bread.

Sy moved back to Honolulu after working at the now-closed Trio restaurant in Chicago under award-winning chef Grant Achatz. “It didn’t have the same intensity,” Sy said of his life in Honolulu. “I had more free time.”

So, he taught himself to bake bread — recreating a European sourdough he had first tasted in France. “Three ingredients and a bowl, that’s all I needed,” he said. “I mixed everything by hand — I still do to this day, for the most part.”

In 2012, Sy began baking his bread at Prima, using the restaurant’s kiawe-wood-fired brick oven as it cooled after dinner service. He would then sell the loaves at the Pig and the Lady’s booth at the farmers market.

But, as his following grew, so did his hectic schedule. “I would mix the dough at the (now-closed) Whole Ox Deli in Kakaako, then drive to Prima in Kailua to bake at 2:30 a.m., then I would wake up to do deliveries,” Sy said. “It wasn’t sustainable.”

The Move

Last year, Sumner Ohye of The Curb approached Sy to work out of the medical school’s kitchen. With a vastly larger space, refrigeration and the chance to remain in once place as he worked, Sy accepted.

There was just one caveat. The double-stacked convection ovens weren’t as conducive to bread baking, so Sy had to make a few adjustments.

“I didn’t mind changing the menu,” he said. “I was confident I could make something as compelling as the bread, even if it wasn’t the same thing.”

That something turned out to be croissants, pastries he had been making on the side for years, but never fully developed until now.

His daily menu offers three different, yet equally flaky, options — sweet, savory and plain. Each batch is prepared over a three-day period and includes flavors like almond and blackberry, sesame citron and prosciutto and cheese. “I choose what compliments the dough,” Sy said.

It’s a change fans seem to enjoy. The Passamanecks say they’ve stopped by two weekends in a row for a coffee and pastry fix. “The pastries are much more interesting here with all the different flavors,” said Nora Passamaneck.

Since the move, Sy has scaled back his bread production by 25 percent. But, he says, bread is and always will be a staple. “I’m still trying to figure out ways to use the equipment to my advantage,” he said.

Your best bet to sample one of Sy’s experiments is on a Saturday, when he’ll likely whip up a random batch of foccaccia or a tray of sandwiches if he has the time. “I’m constantly doing new things,” he said.

Available Tuesdays-Fridays, 7 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturdays, 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Bread $8 per loaf, croissants $3.50 plain, $4 flavored. [Bread menu] Tuesday: Seeded semolina, Wednesday: Country loaf, Thursday: Brioche, Friday: New York rye, Saturday: City loaf. For updates, follow @breadshophnl on Twitter.

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