“Maybe the only thing you’ve ever eaten is a Twinkie, so a Twinkie is a great thing,” says Lincoln Carson.
In a way, food is an ongoing journey. A journey where one collects flavors that, over time, allow us to dissect the good, the bad, and… the Twinkie. Without tasting new things, we’d be left with a mediocre palette and a void filled with boxed pastries from the end cap of a supermarket aisle. Thankfully, there are culinary guardians in this world that can guide us to the freshly baked kouign amanns at the local bakery.
If Venice, CA, had the foodie-equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers, it would probably look something like Superba Food + Bread, where I sit, drinking a delicately smooth cortado made from Heart Coffee beans. This rather ambitious establishment is not only a restaurant for breakfast, lunch, & dinner, but also a patisserie, coffee shop, and bakery all rolled into one.
A chef (Jason Travi), a pastry chef (Lincoln Carson), a bread baker (Jonathan Eng), and an expert in coffee (Tyler Wells) all work in tandem to bring an experience that caters to… basically everything, in its own unique and quirky way: the Life Superba way—the team’s mantra.
I take a moment to finish my cortado in hopes of eradicating the morning Z’s before my adventure into the bakery kitchen commences. I fail to muster up the energy to fully screw my head on straight and fully awaken—the woes of writing through the night.
“The Lots of Grains Hotcake, please!” I proudly announce to the gentleman standing behind the front counter.
Like any sane American would do, I figured an enormous pancake doused with a liberal amount of Vermont maple syrup (and topped with a large slab of butter), a second cortado, and freshly squeezed orange juice would do the trick, returning my stamina and health back to tip-top shape. We, at Life & Thyme, have certain standards we must abide by after all—when in Rome, eat the damn pancake.
On display for the world to see and salivate over, the pastry case flaunts a rather European selection of delicacies that derive from the talented Lincoln Carson, the resident Pastry Chef. Buttery layers of perfection and finesse make up the croissants that, when cut in half, showcase a kind of fluffiness, airiness, and care that should go into this often ubiquitous-but-difficult-to-do-well pastry. Or its more adventurous counterpart, the Everything Croissant: a golden crusted croissant topped with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, onion, garlic and other spices, and stuffed with cream cheese. Also on exhibition is my personal favorite: the Kouign Amann, a French pastry cake that originated in the 1800’s, in Brittany. Made from croissant dough, the kouign amann is layer upon layer of butter and sugar, which is baked with precision for the perfect golden and dark brown encrustation with a caramelized bottom—though it’s served upside down at Superba because this is… Superba.
After devouring the colossal hotcake, consuming copious amounts of espresso, and even a kouign amann, I head through the doors of the kitchen and into the secondary kitchen reserved for the bakery to find Pastry Chef Lincoln Carson and the rest of the bakers.
The Beirut-born Carson may appear modest and somewhat reserved in his personality, his impressive accolades and kitchen experiences stem from working under world-renowned chefs and restaurants, such as Las Vegas’ Daniel Boulud, La Bernadin in New York, and acquiring the Corporate Pastry Chef title for Michael Mina’s Mina Group. Oh, and he rides down Lincoln Blvd (how fitting) in Venice on a motorcycle wearing his chef coat. The guy does not mess around.
Between snacking on various bites of pastries being made in the bustling bakery kitchen, and the wiping of flour off of our cameras, I was curious to learn what makes Lincoln’s mind tick.
What inspired you to become a pastry chef?
Lincoln Carson: Lack of anything better to do, I think. The idea of going to traditional college and getting four years worth of student loans and having no idea what the hell to do with that didn’t really appeal to me. I was always very artistic and I had a vague idea that it might be a good way to execute some of that and actually have a job. It was certainly before Food Network, and before chefs were really celebrities. It was more about the passion.
I went specifically for pastry [at culinary school], and it gave me enough skill sets that I can get into a restaurant, get a job, and not be in the way. It’s like anything else worthwhile, you need to work your ass off. Ideally, you’re working with the best people you can find and you’re willing to suck it up and prove yourself to get there. I was fortunate enough to be young (20 or 21 years old) when I got out of culinary school; you can take a lot of abuse at that point. I moved to New York City immediately after school, got lucky working with some really great people, and paid attention. Leave the ego at the door and try to absorb everything that is being taught to you.
What does a typical day look like for the bakery?
For us, at 5am we start getting everything ready for the morning bake. That’s all the product you see on the counter. All of the croissants, all of the mixes that have to be done, finishing the cakes… we try to stagger where the bulk of the production work is done the night before.
How often are you experimenting with new pastries or new ideas?
Seems like the past couple of weeks, but not often. It’s really been about zeroing in on the minutia and getting our consistency level to the point where I am happy with it. I think that has been the biggest challenge to date, once we got to a level where we said “This is great, this is what we want,” now how do we keep it there? So now I am at a point where I can just work on maintenance without training and start working on new items more. I really want this place to be the go-to if you want pastries in the area.
What are some of the challenges you face when you’re striving for a high quality product?
The easy part is if you’re doing everything yourself, right? But the reality is that we’re open 7 days a week, we open 7am and close at 10:30 or 11 at night, you can’t deal with everything by yourself. The biggest challenge in defining quality and then consistent quality is in getting a staff prepared and then training them properly. If you are not able to articulate and really teach them and make sure that they understand to get it on a day to day basis, you’re dead in the water.
The other challenge—and this is going to sound strange—but training your guests as well. Why is this better or why is this considered good? Why do I consider it good? What’s important about you buying this piece of bread versus the bread at Whole Foods, what makes this a better piece of bread? It’s not inherent. People aren’t born saying, “Wow, I understand why this is a great piece of pastry!”
“Don’t get me wrong, everyone loves to hear when they are doing something right, but I honestly don’t care so much about positive feedback, I’d rather hear if you didn’t like something, I have something to work at.”
I’ve noticed you’re out in the front talking and engaging with customers, it makes it feel more like a community.
It’s really easy to hide in the back and just produce what you produce but it’s only part of the story, and people don’t get that. They can see that something is beautiful but you couldn’t convey everything that went into it. It’s funny, people will ask you after looking at the pastry case, “Oh it all looks beautiful. What do you like?” I was surprised when people started to trust the guy in the white coat. I come out there and I’m like, “Oh, they actually listen to what I’m telling them.”
What advice do you give those that are looking to enter this industry?
There are a lot of bakers out there who like to feel like they are pastry chefs, or put out there that they’re pastry chefs, but there is a big difference. Bakers who bake a great scone because they found a good recipe and then those truly understanding the process and the science behind it to get a desired result, being able to repeat that desired result, becoming a master of your medium, and being able to look at it through very critical and objective lenses.
So much is based on the personality of an individual. My personality tends to look at the things that are wrong, to the point where maybe I should start smelling the roses a little bit more. Don’t get me wrong, everyone loves to hear when they are doing something right, but I honestly don’t care so much about positive feedback, I’d rather hear if you didn’t like something, I have something to work at. But being humble, open to criticism, and being self-critical, whether it’s something as simple as a chocolate chip cookie, I mean, if you really want to be a master of your craft, is it the best chocolate chip cookie you can make at that time given your resources and knowledge? What are you missing? What else can you go out and learn? What products can you bring to the table that can be better? What technique can you focus on more? Keeping that humility and not assuming you got to this point where you know it. Between that, and finding people that are better than you, whether it’s working with someone who can teach you about coffee or working with another chef you can learn a lot from.
Superba Food + Bread
1900 S. Lincoln Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90291