Shorewood — For Gene Webb, bakery is more than food – it's a science.
With a doctorate degree in yeast genetics, Webb decided several years ago to turn his academic interests into a passion for pastries. Webb opened his first restaurant, North Shore Boulangerie, last week at 4401 N. Oakland Ave. in Shorewood. In addition to bakery items, the restaurant also serves soups, sandwiches, salads, quiches, omelets and other French-inspired lunchtime fare. The cafe also serves wine and a full range of coffee and espresso drinks.
Webb, who earned his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University, was working in research and administration at the University of Chicago when he decided about 10 years ago to visit France and study its notoriously savory cuisine. When he returned to the states, he turned his studies toward pastries at The French Pastry School in Chicago, and then later trained with French chef Pierre Zimmermann at La Fournette, a French bakery in Chicago.
You might think that Webb is oddly — if not overly — qualified to be a restaurateur. But Webb would disagree with you.
"Cooking in a kitchen is not all that dissimilar from working in a laboratory, with the only difference being in a kitchen you are creating something you can eat," he said. "I'm a detail-oriented person, so I've always enjoyed figuring out what makes certain processes happen."
Webb, who earned his bachelor's and masters degrees from Marquette, continued to live on the east side of Milwaukee through graduate school and his time at the University of Chicago. When he decided to open a restaurant, he scouted locations on the east side, Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, but he eventually decided on this 90-year-old storefront on Oakland Avenue and Lake Bluff Avenue that was previously occupied by Lakeshore Art Gallery and Performance Running Outfitters. He also received a $50,000 business loan from the village.
"One of the things that really amazed me is that, through an economic downturn, Shorewood was able to really bring up its business district," Webb said.
Originally built in 1923, the building has been stripped down to all of the original woodwork, exposing some unuseable features — like the original floor boards — as well as more unique features, like the decorative pressed glass on the window archways. He also opened up the wall separating what used to be two storefronts, creating a light, open space.
With his academic background and affinity for French bakery, Webb may be the first to introduce Milwaukee to levain bread. Similar to sourdough bread, this French baking method uses a natural yeast, which tastes less starchy than breads baked with traditional brewer's yeast. Natural yeast consumes the starch during the baking process, which produces more flavorful bread, Webb said.
Of all the pastry items he has learned to prepare, Webb said the simple-yet-complicated art of breadmaking has always captivated his scientific curiosity.
"I like the transparency of bread," Webb said. "You can hide so many sins under a coat of sugar, but with bread, there's no spin to it. You either got it right or you didn't get it right."
Webb also emphasizes his passion for pure ingredients. You will not find additives in his flour, nor will you find many shortcuts in his baking process.
"I don't think we have a single artificial ingredient in this whole store," he said.
Webb's philosophy of simplicity is also seen on the savory side of menu, which he developed with Milwaukee chef Kris Collett. Webb said they worked hard to create a high-quality menu, while preserving an informal atmosphere for friends to catch up on the lunch hour.
The average entree price hovers around the $8 mark, topping out at $11 if you order your croque monsieur with a fried egg.
Address: 4401 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood
Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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