If you’ve ever enjoyed one of Matchstick Coffee’s divine Earl-Grey muffins, double-baked almond croissants, or a warm loaf of the café-and-roaster’s sourdough bread, then you’ve tasted the brilliance of local plant-based baker and chef Annabelle Choi.
The twentysomething culinary whiz has become a well-known presence in Vancouver’s vegan and carb-centric food scenes in recent years, with dozens of fans flocking to her semi-weekly pop-up events in the hopes of taking one of her freshly baked sourdough loaves home. (Fair warning: she almost always sells out early.)
So it’s hard to believe that, prior to engineering Matchstick’s in-house bread and pastry program in 2014, Choi had never successfully made a loaf of sourdough in her life.
“It put me in a very uncomfortable situation, where I really had to grow fast and just stay humble,” she tells the Straight during an interview at Elysian Coffee’s Mount Pleasant commissary kitchen, where the industrial-design grad will soon be preparing a fresh batch of her signature sourdough for a weekend pop-up. “Because, as a bread baker, you’re trying to celebrate something that’s been done for centuries.”
Drawing from the skills and techniques she learned at Ireland’s Ballymaloe Cookery School—and during stages with San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery and Craftsman and Wolves—Choi dove head-first into developing a rotating lineup of baked goods for Matchstick that, in addition to tasting great, would embody the values of the “slow food” movement in every bite.
This meant working closely with local farmers and purveyors and employing seasonal foods sourced nearby. Producing items in small batches and refusing add-ons and preservatives were also important.
“It’s less about you than it is about the farmer or where it [the food] is coming from,” she says of the process. “That, to me, is what slow food is. You’re taking the time to hone in on that ingredient and helping the consumer to understand how pure that product is and how beautiful that product was even before it got in your hands.”
It’s a school of thought that continues to inform Choi’s work as she conducts workshops, bread-making classes, and other events in the city, while providing creative consultancy services to emerging patisseries and eateries. Her sourdough method, in particular, stays true to the slow-food movement by employing the simplest of ingredients (flour, ancient grains, water, and salt) and allowing for natural fermentation to occur over time.
According to Choi, this practice leads to increased enzymatic activity, enriched flavours, and more readily available nutrients for the body to take in.
The baker’s wildly popular charcoal-sourdough-Kamut bread, in particular, uses small amounts of charcoal that help absorb water during the autolysis step, resulting in a richer and fluffier loaf that’s more akin to white bread despite its whole-wheat ingredients. “You can’t taste the charcoal in the bread because it’s so minimal, but the colour comes through dramatically and that’s always attractive,” says Choi. “The bread also tastes different because it [the charcoal] brings out so much more character out of my grains.”
Three years after producing her first sourdough loaves for Matchstick, Choi continues to knead, play, and experiment with her recipes. Developing relationships with local purveyors such as Klippers Organics, Wild Foraged, and Nuez Beverage Co., she brings the slow-food mentality to the masses. (In addition to conducting plant-based cooking workshops at Cook Culture, she’s also crafted one-off dinners for Mount Pleasant’s Dock Lunch and local creative agency Here There Studio.)
And though the experienced chef admits she was first drawn to the pastry arts as a way to honour her late abstract-artist father (“The field really called to me because it was physical, it was spatial,” she explains), it’s safe to say she’s in it for the long haul. “In terms of a personal pursuit, I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with my level of skill,” says Choi. “I don’t think any baker can be.”