Jeffrey Finkelstein is widely known as the man behind some of the best bread in the city, as well as the awesome bakery Hof Kelsten (4524 Blvd. St-Laurent) that opened back in the Fall of 2013. Even if you’ve never been to the bakery itself, you may have tasted their bread before, as Jeffrey’s been providing his staple product to many of Montreal’s best restaurants for years, including Le Club Chasse et Pêche, Le Filet, Les 400 Coups, Joe Beef, Nora Gray, Toqué!, and Dominion Square Tavern.
We met with Jeffrey at Hof Kelsten one late Sunday afternoon. The sun was shining through the floor-to-ceiling windows that run across the front of the urban space. Customers were enjoying a variety of sandwiches, as well as coffee, hot chocolates and the incredibly delicious baked goods. As we sat down for the interview, Jeffrey was finishing up a conversation with a friend about making sausages, an addition he had recently added to the brunch menu. “The menu is super simple; there are no tricks. It’s a simple deli menu with a Jewish twist on the items,” he explained.
Jeffrey, 35, grew up in the Cote-St-Luc borough of Montreal, but has travelled extensively throughout his life. It was during one particular trip he took in his early twenties that he became truly conscious of his passion for cooking. “I was travelling around the world at the time, and I was in England when I ran out of money and I had to find a job. I ended up working at a little café where the food was taken really seriously. People were passionate – and that was what got me hooked. It was a passion clicking for me,” he said.
He knew almost instantly that he wanted to become a chef, and soon enrolled himself at the French Culinary Institute in New York. In the years following his graduation, he went on to work at some of the best restaurants in the world, including Per Se in New York, Toqué! in Montreal, The French Laundry in California, Hibiscus in England, and El Bulli in Spain.
“This city is a hotbed for food and we’re in it now. It’s one of those moments in time in a city and I wanted to be a part of that.”
However, coming back to Montreal was always part of his plan, since his family, friends, and roots remain in the city. He’s also very enthusiastic about the food culture here in Montreal. “This city is a hotbed for food and we’re in it now,” Jeffrey said with a smile, “It’s one of those moments in time in a city and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Training at multiple restaurants taught Jeffrey a variety of skills, but bread baking was still something that he wanted to master. Taking time off after working in Europe, he taught himself how to make bread in his mom’s apartment. “By the time my mom came back from her three-month vacation, I had a semi-operational bakery going on in her apartment. It took her a few more months to kick me and the business out, and then I spent two and a half years in a pastry shop on Mont-Royal using their space to make bread,” Jeffrey said.
Having had success selling bread to many of the city’s restaurants, his next step was to buy his own storefront to open to the public. “The people that have been tasting our bread for four years finally get to actually buy it for themselves,” he said. The products now available include the rye and caraway bread that he’s been making since the beginning, as well as other Jewish pastries and breakfast specialties.
Growing up in a Jewish family, Jeffrey was intent on including these cultural traditions into the bakery, particular as his grandmother was a central figure in his life. “My grandmother was from Hungary, and she was the queen of cooking. When you walked into her house, she always had freshly squeezed orange juice and a spread of Jewish delicacies such as rugelach, sweet cheese Danishes, and latkes. She had a large influence on me growing up, and I wanted to carry on this tradition,” he explained nostalgically.
We were surprised to learn that the name of the bakery was actually a play on his family name. “I dropped a few letters from my last name to make Kelsten, and when I was working in Spain Jeffrey became Joffrey, then Hef, and eventually my English friends started to call me Hof as a joke, and it kinda stuck.”
Hof is a seriously talented baker, and he does not intend to stop anytime soon. “I hope I’m going to be here for a very long time,” Jeffrey said. This was music to our ears, and great news for all of us here in Montreal.