(From left) Kelsey Brito, Kate Pepper, Saw Naing, and Zoe Nathan. All photos by Mariana Schulze, courtesy of the Dutchess

Chef FeaturesLos Angeles

At The Dutchess, Three Bakers and a Burmese-Indian Chef Revive a Historic Ojai Space

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In the center of the dining room of  The Dutchess, a new restaurant in idyllic Ojai, some 80 miles north of Los Angeles, there sits an imposing cast-iron fireplace. Encased in a sturdy brick wall, its roaring fire belies a storied history for this particular building, whose new tenants both honor its past and gently press toward the future. 

Before it was a fireplace, the cast-iron structure was used as a brick bread oven, installed by local legend Bill Baker back in 1927. Baker was a German sculptor (born Wilhelm Koch) who immigrated to America during the war, then changed his name after winning a government-sponsored competition to produce the best-quality wheatless bread. In a move to ensure the longevity of his baking career, Baker bought the land that had been home to the community’s longstanding Ojai Bakery and transformed it into his own renowned bakery, where he produced massive fruitcakes for presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, in addition to his popular gluten-free lima bean bread. To this day, an inscription on the fireplace reads “The Dutchess,” courtesy of the Dutchess Bakers’ Machinery Company, a commercial baking equipment manufactory that dates back to 1886.

Pepper with her daily bread.
Pepper with her daily bread.

“She is sort of our hub, our center, which is really delightful,” says Kate Pepper, a partner in the restaurant and the longtime proprietor of Kate’s Bread, an irregular home bakery with a devoted following. When The Dutchess opened in January, Kate’s Bread morphed into one part of a multifaceted operation that includes a bakery, café, and Burmese-Indian restaurant. Although the now-fireplace no longer functions as an oven, the original bricks were repurposed in the restaurant’s patio, and contemporary steam ovens were installed in the kitchen for Pepper to bake off her signature baguettes, slab breads, and oat porridge loaves. 

At 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, the front room is anchored by an overflowing pastry case. A line of people forms for sticky toffee date muffins, spicy pickled chile cheddar scones, and citrus olive oil tea cake with candied kumquats and Santa Barbara pistachios — all courtesy of Kelsey Brito, The Dutchess’ pastry chef and the second of four partners. Several tables in the dining room are occupied by friends catching up over coffee and locals tapping away on laptops.  In the back bar room, officially called The Duke, two regulars play a game of pool against salmon-pink walls and communal tables fashioned from reclaimed wood. Meanwhile, outside, the trellis-covered patio begins to fill with guests soaking up the unseasonably warm February weather under the shade of Burmese umbrellas hand-painted by a friend of The Dutchess’s third partner and executive chef, Saw Naing. 

Brito preparing ham-and-cheese croissants.
Brito preparing ham-and-cheese croissants.

In the kitchen, eggs are being mixed into a fresh batch of yogurt-based naan dough, which will ferment for a few days in the fridge before being baked in the tandoor oven. Brito’s team is weighing pistachios, scooping out the insides of passion fruits, and putting the finishing touches on an apple crumb cake. Pepper layers sliced meats and brassicas into still-warm baguettes for the daily sandwiches, one Italian-style and the other vegetarian. On the stove, a giant pot of oil simmers with thinly sliced shallots, which will eventually turn into a crunchy fried component of Naing’s Burmese tea leaf salad. 

In short: There’s a lot going on. Zoe Nathan, the restaurant’s fourth partner, is the first to admit that each partner brings a skill and a style that don’t make immediate sense when combined. “But it works because everyone is making what they love,” she says. In addition to being the co-owner of Ojai’s 50/50 Farms and the Santa Monica-based Rustic Canyon Family restaurant group (which includes Rustic Canyon, Birdie G’s, and Cassia, among others) with her husband, Josh, Nathan is also a baker herself, having founded Huckleberry Bakery & Café. These days, she is focusing her energy on helping wherever it’s needed at The Dutchess. 

To hear Nathan tell it, there are no two bakers less alike than Pepper and Brito. While Brito is extremely organized and systematic, Pepper is “a ball of chaos,” which is exactly what drew fans to her rustic style in the first place. Where they harmonize — Nathan and Naing included — is in their devotion to their craft, and to making The Dutchess as vibrant and nurturing as possible. “We all bounce ideas off of each other, and sometimes, we can get a little carried away. But it’s fun to have people who match that energy instead of shutting it down,” Brito says. “And we’ve each been able to own our separate wheelhouses.” In bringing The Dutchess to life, each partner pursues their own challenges, while learning from one another to form a cohesive unit. 

The back patio.
The back patio.

For Pepper, that means learning how to scale her whimsical baking into a well-oiled daily operation. For Brito, who has worked for Nathan at Huckleberry and Milo & Olive in addition to at Tartine in San Francisco, it’s fusing her California-French approach with Naing’s Burmese-Indian heritage to create desserts that feel genuine to both. For example, her take on kulfi — the dense and nutty-textured ice cream popsicle that’s popular in both India and Myanmar — utilizes some of her favorite flavors: rose, geranium, pistachio, and cardamom. Her mango lassi-inspired ice cream pie swaps Rincon Tropics’ passion fruit for mango, which isn’t currently in season.

One core principle that unites the team is the shared goal of creating a closed-loop food system within an agricultural community. Currently, Nathan’s 50/50 Farms is bringing in lettuces, leeks, and mushrooms, but The Dutchess leans on relationships with a handful of local farmers for a full supply of meat, grain, and produce. Brito notes that because so many of their suppliers live in and around Ojai, they’ve already been able to welcome many of them in for dinner. “I definitely didn’t have that in San Francisco or L.A.,” she says. “It would usually be me going to the farmers market and bringing them pastries with their components in it.” Meanwhile, Naing makes daily tweaks to The Dutchess’ menu depending on what their network of growers has available. Anything left over from dinner makes its way into the next morning’s frittata for the pastry case (think samosa filling), onto sandwiches (cashew chutney), or back to 50/50 to feed the animals.

Another driving force for the team is to live up to the history of the space for the community. “We’re going for a timeless bakery, not something really hip or popular or new,” Pepper says. The name The Dutchess, in addition to already being inscribed on the equipment, is also a nod to the rich history of communal ovens, which have functioned as gathering hubs for generations. “It really resonated as the center of town,” she adds. “We want that feeling of everyone being held, that this is home for you,” Brito says.

Emily Wilson is a Los Angeles-based food writer from New York. She has contributed to Bon Appétit, Eater, TASTE, The Los Angeles Times, Punch, Atlas Obscura, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.