My New York Culinary Experience Part IV: “Sprechen Sie Bread?” Oktoberfest with Chef Ben Hershberger

With Chef Ben Hershberger, head baker at Per Se & Bouchon Bakery in NYC

My last session at this year’s 2010 New York Culinary Experience was with Chef Ben Hershberger, head baker of Thomas Keller’s Per Se and Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center in NYC.   I’m a big fan of all of Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurants.  I had the opportunity over the summer to eat at all of Chef Keller’s restaurants in Yountville, California (The French Laundry, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and Ad Hoc) and NYC (Per Se and Bouchon Bakery).  The meals I enjoyed at Chef Keller’s restaurants were some of the best meals I’ve ever had.  So when I had the chance to take a class with one of Chef Keller’s chefs I jumped at this opportunity.

Chef Hershberger, who is a certified master baker, focused his class on breads inspired by Oktoberfest.  The class started with Chef Hershberger mixing the different dough we were to use for our session.  The breads that we were to make were pretzels, brotchen and farmer’s rye.  Once all of the dough was mixed, Chef Hershberger put some of the dough onto the table to knead by hand.  He had a pretty cool technique of lifting the dough up to his shoulder and slamming it down onto the table.  This was something I’ve never seen before.  He let one of the attendees try out this technique, and I must say she was very strong.  It seemed like a good way to release aggression. 

Slapping the dough onto the table

The first breads we made were pretzels.  Chef Hershberger demoed the proper way to form a pretzel before he gave us some dough to experiment with.  When making pretzels, it’s important to make the ends thinner than the center.  We all made a bunch of pretzels.  They had to then proof for a little while. 


Once they were ready to be baked.  Chef Hershberger dipped the pretzels into lye before putting them on a baking sheet and salting them.  Lye is a very caustic liquid, but it gives the pretzel its nice dark color and its subtle alkaline flavor.  The pretzels came out looking beautiful.  They were the perfect flavor and consistency.

Look how nice!

The second type of bread was potato bread, which is one of my favorites.  Chef Hershberger’s potato rolls were actually quite light and very tasty.  He showed us how to shape the dough into little dough balls.  This was probably the easiest bread to form.  Although, easy might be a relative term because there was definitely a technique to getting the dough to form into a nice little ball.  Once the dough balls proofed Chef Hershberger brushed the tops with an egg wash to give it a shiny appearance upon coming out of the oven. 

Pretty looking potato rolls!

Brotchen was the third type of bread that we made.  This particular German bread is similar to the sandwich rolls we have here in the States.  They can be shaped like long rolls or braided.  Again, Chef Hershberger showed us the proper way to form these rolls.  It is a little more complicated than it looks, especially the braided ones. 

A before and after of the braided brotchens

We all tried forming these rolls, some of us more successful than others.  But Chef Hershberger was nearby with a helping hand trying to correct our mistakes.  He was a patient and very accommodating teacher.  This probably stems from the fact that he was a chef/instructor at the Florida Culinary Institute.  This type of bread is perfect for a wurst or sausage sandwich.  It being a class on Oktoberfest, Chef Hershberger had prepared numerous types of German sausages, as well as sauerkraut for us to make sandwiches with.  We washed these sandwiches down with a German style beer that was actually made by Brooklyn Brewery.

Bockwurst with Sauerkraut and Whole Grained Mustard on Brotchen

Chef Hershberger finished the class by making a few loaves of the farmer’s rye bread.  This was not a traditional rye bread.  Instead, Chef Hershberger used half rye flour and half whole wheat.  He made these into larger loaves of bread.  This bread had a heartier consistency than the other bread we made.  But nonetheless, it was still a great tasting, high quality finished product.

Chef Hershberger weighing out dough with an attendee looking on.

Since there were plenty of leftovers, we all were able to take home a sampling of the breads we made.  Finishing my New York Culinary Experience in Chef Hershberger’s class was a real treat.  He was a great teacher and definitely made the class interesting.  He demoed everything before we did it.  The best way to learn is to watch a master do it first and then try your hand at it.  If you make a mistake rolling out a roll, your mistake is a lot more forgiving because it is dough and can be easily reshaped.  Working through your mistakes will only make you a better cook in the long run.

Pretzel Recipe

I took a lot away from this year’s New York Culinary Experience.  I learned some new techniques, especially when it comes to baking, but also a lot of great recipes.  I highly recommend that you attend this experience in the future.  These are once-in-a-lifetime hands-on culinary learning sessions with some of the world’s best chefs.  These are the people you should want to learn from.  These chefs have many years of hard work in professional kitchens under their belts.  And what is really great about the New York Culinary Experience is that even if you’re not the best cook, these chefs are willing to help make you a better cook so that when you go home you will be comfortable and successful in your own kitchen.  I know I can’t wait until next year’s event.  Enjoy!

Living to eat,
Tony Mangia


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