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Leo's pop-up breaking new bread in NOLA

Presented by My House NOLA

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For many, finding the time to prepare a slice of toast before work consistently presents a challenge. This, however, is certainly not the case for Kate Heller, founder and owner of local pop-up Leo’s Breads.

Each Sunday, Heller rises around 4 AM, and before 10 AM, when half of New Orleans has barely crawled out of bread, has baked about 50 loaves, which she then loads into the back of her 1999 Volvo wagon and drives (still warm from the oven) across town to sell in front of her neighborhood eatery, Pagoda Cafe.

Although early morning baking has become more or less a religious activity for Heller, this was not always the case for the baker.

While attending the University of Michigan, where she studied anthropology, Heller developed an interest in cob oven (ovens made of straw and clay) building and, consequently, bread baking. Subsequently, the young baker built a few small ovens, scattered around Ann Arbor, while still in school. Then, after graduating, a friend she had worked for in high school asked if she wanted to move to California to start a small mill and wood-fired bakery just outside of Santa Barbara. Heller agreed to help with the bakery’s opening, packed up and headed out to a small Southern California town called Lompoc, where she ended up staying for three years -- baking wood-fired bread, crackers and cookies that she and her friend sold at three weekly farmers markets in Santa Barbara county.

Last December, Heller relocated to New Orleans, a city that she had frequently visited during her stint in Southern California and her college years. Initially, she relocated to NOLA with a plan to only stay through the winter; however, as many “temporary” NOLA transplants find, Heller quickly realized she had no desire to leave the city any time soon.

Though cob ovens lie near and dear to her heart, since they were, after all, the spark that ignited her deep love for bread baking, Heller has supplemented a different sort of oven better suited for large scale baking -- a three-deck Blodgett pizza oven, housed in a commissary kitchen in the Bywater, which has also been home to pop-ups Pizza Delicious and Sugerman’s Bagels. And although, Heller is grateful to be working in a city that fosters the growth of pop-ups with the availability of resources such as the commissary kitchen she uses, she adds that working within the unconventional distribution framework of a pop-up business is not without its challenges. However, she adds, though local patrons were not initially accustomed to grabbing a loaf of bread once a week outside of a Sunday brunch spot, her business quickly attracted a loyal group of regulars who make the trip to Pagoda every weekend.

When she isn’t baking bread for her pop-up, you can find Heller working at French Quarter bakery, Croissant D'Or Patisserie, picking up sesame rolls from Hong Market (which she stocks her own table’s bread basket with), or enjoying a big cup of coffee at Solo Espresso Bar.

Why bread? “I love bread! And fermentation is really cool,” Heller laughs. Of the science of bread baking and fermentation, she explains that a starter is a living culture comprised of flour and water that serves as the base for sourdough breads. Every starter is different depending on the environment and its feeding schedule, she adds. For example, a starter made on an apple orchard in Michigan will taste and act differently than a starter made in New Orleans. “If I’d only grilled steak for three years I would be really bored. I’ve baked only bread for the last three years and every bake is still exciting. Fermentation keeps things interesting.”

You can catch Heller every Sunday morning outside Pagoda Cafe. In addition to her Sunday pop-up at Pagoda Cafe, Heller fulfills special orders and produces loaves for the Edible School Yard. Check back on Friday for Heller’s sourdough starter recipe and for more information about her unique fermentation process.