Grillaxin' with Fresh Flours' Etsuko Minematsu

A green tea muffin, front and center. Minematsu asked not to be photographed, though you'll often see her behind the counter.
One of the most beloved bakeries in Seattle, Fresh Flours is known for its traditional French croissants as well as more unusual Japanese-influenced pastries, like an adzuki bean-filled brioche. With one location in Phinney and a second on Ballard Ave., the bakery is thriving. I spoke with co-owner Etsuko Minematsu about her role at this bakery, which she runs with her husband, baker Keiji Koh. He was in bed with a bad back the day of our interview, so Minematsu relates his answers as well as her own. As you'll see, the two often agree, but not always.

SW: Could you introduce your shop?

Minematsu: All the bakers, including my husband, start working at midnight, and leave before anyone starts coming in, sometimes. My husband, Keiji, he is my partner, and he owns this place, I guess you could call him head baker. We only have five bakers here, and they all have their own skill sets. I think most of them have more than seven years baking experience, so they are sort of independent; they work as a team.

So what's your role?

My role is to do everything else. Office work. I work as a cashier at Phinney and help out when we are busy in the afternoon. We work as a team, in the kitchen.

So tell me a little bit of your background.

I will speak for him. He started working for a Japanese bakery in the East Village, that's where he began his baking career. He learned everything on site. And also he studied a lot of Japanese recipe books. In 2000 we decided to move to the West Coast, and he worked in Dutch Bakery, a little café next to Bay Theater, and after that he worked for the Elliot Bay Bookstore café. And then the owners decided to sell the business, they decided to use mixes, so he left that. He used to work for Top Pot [then connected to Zeitgeist Coffee], and he asked them if they wanted pastries, so we started as wholesale, before we opened the Phinney store in 2005.

What are your culinary inspirations?

I asked him, and this is true for both of us. In Japan, the bakery is a huge deal. There's a bakery on every corner. It's like a Japanese style, but it's a French style too. Everyone has their own favorite or neighborhood bakery and they buy six or seven, eight pastries, for yourself and for our family. It's a very common thing. I think there is this notion that in Japan we only eat rice and miso soup, but they eat a lot of breads there. So that's when he started studying, dreaming about, where his business came from. So now that we're here, we wanted to mix some from here and some from Japan.

Is there an ingredient that Keiji is particularly into working with these days? If so, what?

We are interested in working with vegetables, maybe mashed and mixed in the dough. Maybe spinach bread, or carrot bread. In the dough, but also as a stuffing. I also want to use exotic vegetables. This is not something that Keiji probably would agree, but I like seaweed, and burdock, a long skinny root vegetable, sautéed with carrot and mirin and soy sauce. My favorite French pastry is a brioche bun with burdock, seasoned with sesame oil, soy sauce. So something like that. It may be too exotic, maybe we'll start with something less unusual, maybe purple potatoes, which make a beautiful stuffing.

What would Keiji say?

We always try to use something unique, always green tea powder, and always adzuki beans. And we have a handful now, of these items. Especially on Sunday. We have a green tea cookie, a green tea muffin. And the adzuki bean brioche is really popular.

What was your favorite food when you were a kid? And Keiji's favorite food?

He said beef balls. Rice balls with seasoned meat on top of it. It's a common fast food in Japan. With sautéed onion. He's not a type of person who eats sweets all of the time. We don't have a lot of chocolate pastries.

And you?

I love pudding, especially a Japanese pudding, kind of a custard, but baked. Like a Spanish flan, a little sweet, a little more egg-custardy, and not using gelatin. Egg, milk, half and half, and baked with a caramel sauce.

Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with Minematsu to learn how she'd top homemade pizza and what sushi restaurant she'd visit to spend $100.

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