For Lee Utsumi, the scariest thing she has ever done is open her own bakery. “It’s like jumping out of a plane,” she says. “I’ve done that, and it’s the same. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Lee’s Bread, set in a cluster of old wooden buildings down a little path off a side street near Oiso Station in Oiso, Kanagawa Prefecture, might be easy to miss. But the path is well-worn and the rippled glass in the wooden sliding door rattles regularly as patrons come and go. Utsumi greets many by name, tells them when their favorite bread will be ready, asks after friends and family and often hands over a sample or two.
Utsumi’s personality is not the only draw: so is her bread. On any given day, she offers around 20 different varieties, most baked with organic Japanese flours and ancient grains, like kamut and spelt, sourced from farmers in Iwate and Hokkaido prefectures. Her display cases include pain de mie (soft, sliced bread), potato bread, bagels, baguettes, sourdough, babka and more.
Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, Utsumi’s family spent five years in Japan when her father’s job brought them to Yokosuka. She returned for a degree in Asian Studies from International Christian University in Tokyo, working at a marketing firm after graduation. It was while translating for a visiting American makeup artist that Utsumi realized she preferred to be out and working with people.
However, it wasn’t until 1993, after Japan’s economic bubble burst, that she started making that preference a reality by enrolling in night classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Tokyo.
“I loved cooking and that was the only place you could go and still work during the day. We were all working women in my class, and everyone dreamed of changing their jobs,” Utsumi says.
When she finished her culinary degree, she returned to the U.S. “I thought if I studied a little bit more, I might know what I wanted to do,” Utsumi says. She started at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in Napa, but a road trip to San Francisco changed everything.
“My friend said we had to stop in Point Reyes to try Chad Robertson’s (co-founder of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco) bread,” she says. “I’d never had anything like it. It was like a sourdough, and moist with a really good crust. After that,” she says, “I was hooked. I knew I wanted to make bread.”
Following an eight-month stint with a French baker at Club Med Sandpiper in Florida, Utsumi returned to Japan and baked bread every day, trying to make something like what she tasted in Point Reyes.
“I failed and failed. Finally, it worked. I started baking all this bread and couldn’t eat it all, so I gave it away to everyone,” she says. Eventually, two shop owners in Chigasaki asked to sell her bread. Utsumi agreed, but continued to cart her bread to sell at festivals and events, including the monthly Oiso-Ichi farmers market.
Utsumi’s campagne (French sourdough), made from a natural yeast starter, is tender and chewy with a not-too-hard, rich brown crust. The bread is tangy and full of texture, as good with butter and jam as it is with cheese or sidled alongside a warm bowl of soup.
“That’s the bread I wanted to make,” Utsumi says with a nod at the round loaves cooling on shelves inside the bakery.
“I always sold out, so the Oiso-Ichi organizers asked if I wanted to share (my current) space when they rented this building,” she says. Now that she has her own brick and mortar store, Utsumi no longer partners with the two Chigasaki shops, but she still regularly sells her bread at local markets and festivals.
Utsumi hasn’t looked back since Lee’s Bread opened in June 2017. She’s happy, but already has a fresh goal: a bakery building in Oiso that’s all her own. She hopes to add salads, other desserts, a cafe and perhaps start a bread subscription service.
“There is still so much I want to do,” Utsumi says. “I want to give people something they won’t forget, that makes them happy.”
Bread from ¥150; Japanese menu; English spoken. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food and restaurant industries.