They say that once you’ve got a whiff of the scent of baking bread, or felt the blissful meeting of leaven and flour working under your hands, you’ll never forget it. And so it was with Krisztina Virágh, whose path had taken her in another direction for decades. But with one big turn, she arrived where the warmth of the kiln and the crackling crust of the hot loaves gave her a sense of home like no other. This is the story of the Némi kenyér bakery.
For Krisztina Virágh, pastry has always been an exciting world. She studied at a commercial trade school, and later at a catering college, but in the nineties, the field was still lacking innovation due to the patterns preserving the ‘crisis kitchen’ technologies and ingredients of the previous decades. So she started as a real estate broker, then turned to the Airbnb sector, while baking remained a passion. But when her children grew up, she started thinking that maybe it was time for a change.
“Everything was ticked off. Family, work, house. I was standing there, like ‘Is this it then?’”
She went for a couple of counseling sessions with a coach friend, during which she realized she might want to get more serious about desserts. So she enrolled in a confectionery training course, where she learned the basics, kneaded dough, and baked cakes. She also went to work for József Vasmatics, the founder of the then-existing Chocofacture, two-three times a week, where for a little while she was even hooked by the world of bonbons. Then it was time for the exam, which she passed successfully.
“Of course, I was happy to get the certificate, but I also knew that just because I passed with an A, it didn’t make me a pastry chef.”
Wanting to gain as much practical experience as possible, she took it as a sign from heaven when she found out that a friend of hers was the manager of the New York Café. She inquired if she could intern there, and they were happy to accommodate her—the year was 2019. She spent one day a week in the kitchen, seeing all the processes firsthand, soaking up the knowledge, and trying out everything she could. It went so well that after a few months she was offered a position, which she initially turned down. It seemed like biting off more than she could chew, but they kept encouraging her, and she learned so much every day that she finally took it. In January 2020, she was offered the position of assistant pastry chef and started her training, but then Covid came along. Three-quarters of the team had to be laid off, including her. She hated the following period, but that was when the ‘sourdough revolution’ started, so she also started growing her own sourdough culture.
“After a couple of failures, the first ‘bread-like thing’ was born. At first, it had a glassy bottom, but I decided that a little flour and water wouldn’t get the better of me.”
Friends and family were eager to taste the result, and the feedback was good, so when the Kenyérlelke Festival (a gastronomic festival in Budapest celebrating traditional bread making—the Transl.) was announced, she entered as an eager amateur. To her surprise, she took a prize home with her hemp seed bread. She then got an opportunity in the Groupama Arena stadium as a pastry chef, but she no longer felt comfortable with this line of production. That’s when she signed up for Jenői Bakery owner Gabriella Ormós’s “Let’s play small bakery“ workshop in the fall, where she learned all the tricks of opening a small community bakery. When the tenant of the semi-basement below their apartment moved out, she and her supportive husband decided it was time. Everything went surprisingly smoothly—the permits, the equipment, the renovation. In April 2021, Némi kenyér Bakery (“némi kenyér” translates to “a bit of bread”—the Transl.) opened its doors.
“Everyone came to help immediately. My friends designed the logo and my website. The name was chosen because I used to do competitive sports as a kid, and once my coach accidentally called me Némi (Németh was her maiden name—the Ed.), which stuck with me.”
The small bakery started up, and although the pandemic surged in the meantime, it was manageable thanks to the nature of the business. After all, the semi-basement space was never intended to be a sit-in bakery but rather a workshop and a pick-up point. The first time I met Krisztina was when I saw her logo from the tram, then I Googled her and found the pre-order form. Still wearing a mask, but with glee, I went to pick up a thick, seeded Danish rye bread branded “Brick” through the window. It was open twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, and the locals immediately started spreading the word. All its products are made from natural ingredients, high quality, high nutritional value, sometimes organic flour, and with sourdough culture, be it farmhouse, potato, semi-brown, or Italian bread, kalach, or even cocoa snails. They work with three different types of sourdough culture: classic; rye; and madre, which is used for sweet products.
“I have a bad quality: I am a perfectionist. The most important thing is that good bread can only be baked with good a sourdough starter.”
Because baking bread is a time-consuming process, to have a freshly baked loaf on the shelf on Friday, you have to start work on Wednesday. She works 6–8 hours on kneading days and 10–11 hours on baking days—the only day off she doesn’t touch dough is Saturday. Her customers, meanwhile, have often asked her if she plans to start a workshop, which she did organize, only by chance.
“My friend put a workshop section on the website, so that sometime in the future if I needed it... But she hid it from the menu bar. However, when I received the third email of inquiry, I found out that Google had displayed it in the search engine anyway. My fate was decided. I advertised a few occasions as an experiment and they all filled up immediately.”
Her goal now is for her students to leave with useful knowledge, but she hasn’t stopped developing products either. Her expertise has been recognized by the industry, with first her potato bread in 2021, and then their Baker’s Favorite winning in 2022 at the Kenyérlelke Festival. Right now, she’s caught up in a ‘panettone fever’ in her little bakery on Villányi Road, but she and her sibling are already working on offering a delivery-by-bike service. Until then, she’s enjoying how her touch makes everything crispy and crumbly, something she just can’t get enough of—because she’s a firm believer that life and happiness, always require a bit of bread.
Photos: Dániel Gaál