A town that’s famed for its culinary scene should never settle for mediocre bread. Fortunately, three local artisans have risen to the challenge of satisfying the good people of Cape Island.
Story by KATE CHADWICK Photographs by ALEKSEY MORYAKOV
You’re on your way down Sunset Boulevard towards the Point when you see a bunch of cars pulled over along the side of the road. Is it a yard sale? Barbecue? Garden party? No, it’s a different phenomenon altogether. With her soft voice, curly hair, and angelic countenance (complete with clear blue eyes), Elizabeth Degener looks like the college kid next door. But the gentle hippie-chick persona belies a practical nature, and this college graduate has a degree in business. Apparently, when you pair a Zen-like attitude with talent, hard work, and experience gained through world travel, you get a young lady whose modest roadside operation is causing major buzz, not to mention major devotion. And the Zen translates to the customers — it’s not unusual to see one customer pass back the last loaf of the favorite bread of the customer in line behind him. We know — we’ve seen it happen.
If the crowds lining up each morning along Sunset Boulevard are any indication, Elizabeth Degener is a phenomenon, of the bread-baking variety. This will be Elizabeth’s (her dad, Press of Atlantic City reporter Rich Degener, calls her Biz) third summer hawking her sublime breads from a humble whitewashed wooden stand on Sunset, just outside the fence surrounding Enfin Farm, which her family has called home for three generations. She also sells fresh flowers, the occasional eggs, and whatever other veggies and fruits the farm produces — tomatoes, zucchini, raspberries and the like. But it’s the bread that’s causing the pulled-over cars and kick-standed bikes, and that’s because this bread is exceptional. They’re baked 20 loaves at a time in the wee hours of the morning in a wood-fired clay oven — the varieties include classic French, Curry Fennel Anise and Coconut Milk, and this reporter’s favorite, Olive Oil and Black Pepper. Elizabeth learned to bake in Germany while WWOOF-ing (world-wide oppotortunities working on organic farms) throughout Europe and India, during breaks from her studies at the American College in Dublin, Ireland.
We asked Elizabeth how her globetrotting informed her work. “My travels were solely responsible for finding myself on the farm. I picked up pieces at each farm of what I had in mind to create once I was finished college,” she says. “I learned about agriculture, farm-to-table cooking, baking bread, caring for animals, jamming and preserving — the perfect complement to my business degree. I moved around so much, and I was always struck with prime examples of people I do and do not want to emulate, the work I do and do not want to pursue. The most important thing for me was to stay perceptive and conscious and have a good attitude. I trusted the right opportunities would unfold or become more apparent after college if I worked hard and stayed clear, and so it did.”
Although she shares the farm and, to some degree, its responsibilities, with her mom Ann, dad Rich (“He’s just happy his kids want to be here,” says Elizabeth), a gaggle of ducks and an absurdly cheerful retriever named Abby, Elizabeth is, at least for now, a one-person operation. We observe that it looks like demand may soon outweigh supply for her crispy-crusted, complex creations, with customers usually waiting before her breads are unloaded into their wicker baskets. “I suppose I have to think about that and my limitations, unless I suddenly become completely nocturnal and grow an extra pair of hands,” she says. “But for now, I like being in control. And if I’m representing this bread, I want it to be my energy. This feels like what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Elizabeth’s breadstand is located at 609 Sunset Boulevard; it’s on the right as you head towards Sunset Beach — it’s okay to follow the crowd in this instance. She will be there every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday all summer, from 10am until she sells out. Which is fairly quickly…
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Dylan Rutherford is a handsome, polite young man whose mannerisms and demeanor give away his Air Force Auxiliary training, where he learned, among other things, how to fly. Appropriate, seeing as how his enterprise, Little Bastard’s Bread Company (‘Bringing you holy crusty bread since 2010’), has taken off. Dylan, a West Cape May resident and Culinary Institute of America student, is a young man on an old mission, the master of his own little empire at the of 19. “Everyone,” he told us, “has a right to delicious bread.”
So how did such a nice young man end up with a not-so-nice name for his company? “My dad’s friend Phil Risko used to call me that — in a nice way,” he smiles.
Dylan started selling bread to teachers while attending Cape May County Technical High School. “I went from classroom to classroom, right around the holidays, and took orders for bread.” He didn’t get permission from school administrators on this — “They just would have said no anyway,” he tells us. “I’d collect orders for a couple hundred loaves, line up all my supplies, put on the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and disappear into the baking, sometimes all night long.” (And if it meant skipping a day of school to finish the job, well, that may have happened too.)
Eventually, Dylan moved the baking operation out his house after hooking up with Chris Shriver at the Depot Market Café, who allowed him to not only use the kitchen while the restaurant was closed, but also to put some loaves on his counter for sale. “His was the first place to carry my bread,” Dylan says. “He’s a good guy.”
Eventually, though, things got a bit too crowded: “People go to the Depot to grab a great sandwich; it’s not on their radar to be shopping for a loaf of artisan bread.” So Dylan moved over to the Rea’s Farm kitchen, where he had also begun selling his bread at their farm market. But this ambitious young man wanted more.
“I also started working on Steve White, over at Seaside Cheese. He was carrying Le Bus bread, and he didn’t want to sell mine. He’s stubborn, but I’m persistent. Eventually, I just walked in there with two loaves and a cutting board, cut a piece of bread, and said, ‘Try it.’ I left with an order for eight loaves. My bread sells out there every time he orders it. And it’s a perfect spot for it, because he pairs it with the right cheeses for people — he even does it with the chocolate bread [the Phoenix Special, named after his girlfriend]. A good bread with a good cheese is a no-brainer.”
Dylan’s plans for Little Bastard include franchising “at least up the east coast,” he says. “My parents are thinking about moving to New England, so that’s the next stop.”
Which brings us to Janis Quiggle, who happens to be Dylan Rutherford’s aunt. She has also been a stalwart on the Cape May food scene since the seventies, when she started cooking at the dearly departed Cape May eatery Peaches, and she still works part-time at Rio Station, making their cheesecakes as well as handling their marketing.
In the meandering journey that a career in the restaurant business can be, Janis is now also the proprietor of Q Bakery at Rea’s Farm in West Cape May, and the first official franchisee of Little Bastard Bread Company, while Dylan is off working his CIA externship in Tennessee. We visited with her in the sunny kitchen of her bakery, a tiny, brightly painted space that used to the Rea’s Farm office. It’s decorated with porcelain ornaments Janis made herself, yet another creative outlet for this artisan. She let us nibble on the cheese she was chopping for the absurdly good Three Cheese Bread, which is, essentially, a self-contained meal, made with Fontina, Asiago and Pecorino cheeses. And right on cue, during our interview, two gentlemen walked in and bought the last three loaves of it she had on hand. All three, right out from under us. “This bread is amazing with tomato soup — amazing,” they told us. According to Janis, they’d just been in the day before and had bought two loaves. That’s dedication. Averaging $12 a (very large) loaf, this is quite an investment, but perhaps it gives you an idea of quality of product we’re talking about here. (And if you’re watching your pennies, you can buy half-loaves.)
We asked whether the bakery came about as a way to help Dylan, or whether Dylan’s bread caused the bakery come about. “It was kind of a chicken-and-egg situation,” she said. “Dylan started baking here… I was able to help him with things like… well, this, for instance — what I’m doing right now. He would come in here, cut up just enough cheese to bake a couple of loaves of bread, bake them, come back the next night, cut just enough cheese to bake a couple of loaves, and so on. I taught him stuff like cutting a whole bunch of cheese ahead of time and putting it in a large container like this in the fridge, so you can get through a few days without having that extra step. That’s the kind of knowledge that you get just from being around this business longer.”
Janis also sells pies and cookies — in fact, her Snickerdoodles are the best this reporter has ever had (and that’s saying a lot). “Locals and tourists buy different things. A tourist isn’t going to walk in here and buy a pie, but I have locals who buy one without fail every weekend. Last Thanksgiving I sold 75 in two days.” We remark that it must be particularly rewarding, both for her personally, and to be a part of her nephew’s success. “It absolutely is — it’s gratifying. And it’s good to have that kind of passion for what you do inside of you, because you’re going to need it.”
Janis Quiggle’s fresh baked goods and Little Bastard’s breads will be available Tuesdays through Sundays all summer at Rea’s Farm Market in West Cape May.