Two words: Chocolate bread.
When I was a Westchester neophyte, those words were all it took for me to hightail it to The Kneaded Bread, Port Chester’s one-stop shop for possibly the best bread in Westchester. Some say the state. Even the nation.
“If you like the chocolate bread, you need to try the chocolate challah,” says owner Jennifer Kohn who runs the bakery with her husband, chef Jeffrey Kohn.
I do, so I did. Its doughy braids of pastry-light wisps are heaped with chocolate hunks and flecked with nibs. It’s the kind of pull-apart perfection where each tug beckons another and before you know it you’re left with crumbs. Or maybe that’s just me.
Jennifer, though, might agree.
“Bread is my desert island food,” she says, particularly French baguette with good butter and apricot preserves.
“I have always loved bread from the challahs my family ate on Friday nights to scarfing down bread baskets in restaurants growing up,” she adds. “I love a good crust, love seeds, anything. I love a bakery – the smells, the feeling. Even a nostalgic old-time bakery that still uses string to tie their boxes gets to me.”
At 16 years old, The Kneaded Bread could be considered old-time in its own right. Jeffrey, a CIA-trained Rye Brook native, saw the county’s void for artisan bread at a time when Port Chester was still more or less a culinary void between Rye and Mamaroneck – before Tarry Lodge or the buzzing Bartaco, before The Waterfront anchored Main Street, and before the word “artisanal” appeared on every chalkboard menu from Brooklyn to the Bay Area.
“We had a big sign that said ‘Coming Soon Fresh-baked Artisan Bread,’” remembers Jennifer. “Everyone around here kept asking us what artisan meant.”
Jennifer and Jeffrey were a foodie duo since the ’90s. They quit their jobs – Jennifer’s at Mercury Records working publicity for hair bands like Def Leppard and Kiss – to work restaurant gigs and save for a six-month culinary tour through Europe.
“Traveling for food is our thing,” says Jennifer. “We’ve eaten in three-star Michelins in France, from a woman making snack patties on the beach in Jamaica to a roadside stand in Rhode Island.”
While saving, Jeffery made friends with a baker. Seeing how he was planning a life with a bread devotee who also happened to possess impressive business ambitions, the stars just aligned. In June of 1998, after prepping everything hand-by-hand – and hand-in-hand – from menu planning to painting the walls their sunshiny hue, the then-betrothed pair opened for business.
“A lot of it was on-the-job training,” says Jennifer. “The morning we opened, I was running through my clothes to find change for the cash register.”
With storefront signage its only marketing, word of The Kneaded Bread’s quality and variety swept the county, earning an ever-growing cult following – not to mention an influx of accolades – for freshness and flavor.
“We don’t sell anything the next day and everything is coming out of the oven that morning,” says Jennifer. “We use no dough conditioners, no fillers, no preservatives and most of the bread rises over two days which enables it to get a better crust. The crust acts as a natural preservative.”
That, and the loaves taste sensational. Today The Kneaded Bread bakes more than 300 a day with flavors like ciabatta to their dreamy brioche, a proper sourdough and French baguette, and everything else from multigrain to kalamata olive to pumpernickel. Call ahead to see if they’ve made pretzels – also packed with provolone – a hit from the days they were available at The Capitol Theatre. The cinnamon swirl and provolone earn a special kind of devotion.
“We’ve been coming here for the provolone bread since he was just a little guy,” said one longtime patron in line, motioning to her son who’s now a head taller than his mom.
The customer favorite packs a wallop of sour saltiness in every nook and cranny. Sliced open, you’ll find cheesy layers coating bread bubbles and gooey eruptions escaping the crust.
Though it all comes back to the bread, loaves were just the beginning. It’s now impossible to ignore their pastries like scones, cakes, cookies, donuts (on weekends), dusted almond croissants and the salty-sweet, super-sticky pecan buns. (Another selection that invites rapid unraveling.) Lunch hours are packed for make-your-own salads, house-made soups – fans will be thrilled to hear it’s gazpacho season – and sandwiches like the consummate favorite, albacore tuna.
But unlike shops whose quality inversely correlates to expanding product lines, the growing bakery never waded into mediocrity. Jennifer and Jeffery still employ the same small-batch, made-from-scratch methods, the same dough starter and the same hands-on philosophy as they did on day one.
And, sure, they’ve since gained a troupe of dedicated employees – like manager Fernando Bastida, with them for 14 years – who take 4 a.m. and red-eye shifts to start the two-day rise, monitor temperamental yeasts and get daily bakes out by opening bell. But when you call to check the daily lunch menu, it’s Jennifer’s voice you’ll hear on the message. She’s still taking out the trash, taking orders and ringing up customers lined out the door.
“The bakery is a 24-hour operation,” says Jennifer, who’s fared everything from bum ovens to power outages. “The other day I had to run back at 10 o’clock at night. There’s always something.”
And though these days the change drawer stays stocked, The Kneaded Bread is still as Mom ’n’ Pop as ever. In the most literal sense, too, for since opening (and marrying four months later), Jennifer and Jeffrey have also earned the official titles of Mom and Pop to their two sons, now pre-teen, who keep them pinballing the county from school to basketball practice to the Q Restaurant and Bar, the Kohn’s BBQ spot also on Port Chester’s Main Street. (You’ll find Jeffery behind the bar at lunch every Thursday, slinging drinks and talking Syracuse b-ball.)
“We’re just a good team,” says Jennifer. “We are completely partners. We couldn’t do it without each other.”
When he’s not at Q, sourcing, pricing or menu planning, Jeffrey’s been known to make some midnight yeast runs, and Jennifer handles everything from payroll to display.
“I write all the tickets, so it’s my handwriting on everything,” she says. “And I’m always moving stuff around and rearranging things to make it pleasing to the eye.”
Jennifer also had a four-year stint at MoMA, and her design prowess shows. Notice how boules (round loaves) are interspersed with footballs (oval loaves) or raisin breads nestle next to potato rosemary. And the product isn’t the only pretty part. Tiered displays encircle a towering fresh floral centerpiece, vintage breadboxes and pastel pastry stands pack in charm, and canary-colored walls with oversized windows (the better to see fresh-baked fare) lure fans, families, foot traffic and first-timers alike.
“It’s sunny and it smells good,” says Jennifer. “People just like coming here.”
The Kneaded Bread is at 181 N. Main St. in Port Chester. For more, call 914-937-9489 or visit kneadedbread.com.