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When he was growing up in Tehran, Nas Salamati of Santa Rosa used to watch his grandmother cook the classic dishes of Persia, aromatic with spices such as saffron and coriander, cardamom and turmeric.

“She made some very complex, tasty dishes,” said Salamati, 52, who now runs Goguette Bakery in Santa Rosa with help from his wife, nutritionist Nagine Shariat, and their 11-year-old daughter, Soraya.

Since opening in January, the European-style, family-owned bread bakery has drawn a following among local foodies for the flavorful, long-fermented sourdough loaves that Salamati bakes to crusty perfection in a huge, masonry oven he imported from France.

Whether made from whole wheat or rye, studded with chocolate or green olives, shaped into round miches or gently folded into a 3-foot-long “pain de partage” (bread to share), the fresh, flavorful loaves have been snatched up by locals looking for an artisanal bread to complement the local cheeses and meats, vegetables and wines of the region.

“I think bread is the most basic food to humans, and when you make it with care and love, there is a passage of energy,” Salamati said of his new trade. “People are finding out that bread, especially with all the great ingredients we have here, can elevate the rest of the table.”

What’s most astonishing about this small, gem of a bakery, however, is that Salamati was educated as an engineer and only fell in love with baking bread about 10 years ago. He is basically self-taught, having read books, worked in French bakeries and sought out mentors in local experts such as Mike “the bejkr” Zakowski of Sonoma and owner Jed Wallach of Wild Flour Bakery in Freestone.

“What it adds, not just to Santa Rosa, but the whole North Bay Community, is a piece of the Old World in the New World,” said Gence Alton, a regular customer from Santa Rosa. “Every bread I take from them is near perfection in both look and smell and taste and nutrition ... their breads are about finesse, and that’s very hard to obtain with dough.”

By launching a second career in the magical interaction between flour and water, the professional couple — he’s worked mostly in high tech, she’s a private nutritionist — feel that in an odd and wonderful way, they have come full circle.

“All the travel we’ve done was always directed by food,” Shariat explained. “We feel like it was meant to be. It was our destiny.”

“There’s so much discipline in engineering and in bread,” Salamati added. “And my engineering background has helped shorten my learning curve.”

A Renaissance man at heart, Salamati left Iran with his parents the night before the Iranian revolution broke out in 1979. Because his family spoke French, they ended up in Montreal, where he got his BA in electrical engineering. He later got an MBA from Colorado State University.

Throughout his career, Salamanti has always worked in hardware, designing microchips and systems for everything from robotic arm cameras used in outer space to continuous glucose monitoring systems used inside the human body. He and his wife moved to Santa Rosa in 1996 when he got a job with Next Level Communications in Rohnert Park.

But about 10 years ago, the engineer’s curiosity was piqued by the idea of baking bread with levain, a natural starter and living organism made from a fermented blend of flour and water, which has been used by bakers for centuries. Around the same time, the bread world was starting to rediscover the healthy properties of ancient grains like khorasan, commercially known as kamut, which originated in Persia.

Since then, Salamanti has been on a quest to bring together the best of ancient bread baking techniques with modern research into ways to make bread more healthy and nutritious.

“Now the science is looking into what made that ancient bread so digestible,” he said. “I tell customers that right now, we are racing to go back in time to find out how bread was made before, and combining that knowledge with science today.”

In the future, Salamati’s dream is to starting milling his own ancient grains that would, ideally, be grown by local farmers.

“Old grains are healthier and more nutritious, but we need a bridge to get there,” he said. “We need access to the grain and better infrastructure for harvesting and cleaning the grain.”

Meanwhile, his customers are happy to taste through Salamati’s current line of eight different, handmade breads, which are inspired by traditional recipes but also reflect the baker’s own style. His levain (starter) traveled from the French Alps to the U.S. over a decade ago, but can change according to how it is fed and the variables of time, temperature and water percentages.

“Working with levain, the bread takes on the character of the place,” he explained. “But what you do with the levain gives it a unique flavor ... and sometimes a small changes makes a big difference.”

How did the electrical engineer end up working with flour and water instead of computer chips and circuit boards?

About 10 years ago, Salamati built a pizza oven in his backyard in the McDonald neighborhood, then bought a copy of “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” by Peter Reinhart, a well-known baker, educator and cookbook author who got his start baking bread in Santa Rosa in the mid-80s. Salamati started out by making a pain de campagne (country bread) from the cookbook, then tried out a recipe for a baguette made with ice water.

“That was the beginning of learning about how slow fermentation has an impact on the final product,” he said. “Once I started making bread, I hardly made any pizza in the oven.”

But Salamati did not stop there, After joining the Bread Baker’s Guild of America, he was invited to go to Paris to the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in 2012, the year Zakowski and the rest of Team USA came in second in the international competition.

“I spoke French, so I was the translator and the tour guide,” Salamati said. “That was my entrée into the baking world.”

Meanwhile, Salamati had already been doing quite a bit of research on bread, squeezing in weeklong internships at bakeries all over France as part of various vacations and work trips. At one of the bakeries, located in the Haute-Savoie region near the base of the Alps, he worked with Paul Rochet, a baker who built his own ovens. Rochet took the baker’s apprentice under his wing.

“Paul was someone who was passionate and wanted to teach about the trade,” Salamati said. “By then, I was starting to dream about having my own bakery.”

About seven years ago, Salamati switched over to consulting as an engineer, and about 18 months ago, he turned his focus completely to bread.

Wherever he worked in France, he had always paid close attention to the bread ovens and the final products they turned out. He was especially interested in a perfect crust, which can only be created by a very hot oven.

“There was a bakery in Aix-en-Provence whose bread always looked perfect,” he said. “So when the time came, I contacted these bakers and did some comparative shopping, and we bought this oven from a company (Fringano) in Metz in the north of France.”

The oven, which can be wood-burning but has been modified to work with gas, came by container ship and arrived last October, along with the first rains. It was in pieces and took a team of French technicians 10 days to assemble it, from the refractory bricks inside the oven to the stainless steel exterior.

“I knew this was a key part of the bakery,” Salamati said of the oven, which measures 8-feet-wide x 11-feet-long. “I wanted the oven to have the masonry mass to hold the heat, That’s what creates the crust.”

Opening Goguette — named after an 18th-century singing and dancing society in Paris and Belgium — was basically a family affair.

Salamati’s cousin, architect Maxie Karimian of Los Angeles, helped design the narrow space, which has some retail shelves and a reception area up front, and the oven and bread shaping counter in the back. The look of the bakery is very French, with clean, white subway tiles and a large clock. A few bright, red chairs are placed out front when it is open.

The uniforms worn by the family and their staff of two baking assistants were designed by Salamati’s mother, a couturière from Montreal. Everyone wears a handmade, white linen cap and a striped, black and white shirt. The men wear white linen vests with brass stripes in the back, and the women wear simple, linen pullovers over their striped shirts.

Because their focus is on the bread, the bakery only sells a few bread-related products: linen bread bags, handmade by Salamati’s mother, and Opinel bread knives imported from France. Salamati advises his customers to only slice off what they want to eat, in order to preserve the rest of the loaf.

For the bakery, Salamati’s goal was to focus on just a few breads, but to make them great. Because he wants the bakery to be sustainable for his family, it is only open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 1:30 to 6 p.m.

“Unlike in Europe, where people go to the bakeries for breakfast and lunch, people here consume bread for dinner,” he said. “So we decided to bake during the day.”

On his days off, he is often feeding the levain, which must be made a few days in advance. To help avoid waste, the bakery has an online reservation system that allows customers to pay for the bread ahead of time, then pick it up whenever it is convenient for them.

“It is more work for us, but we know how much bread to make and customers don’t have to rush here,” Shariat said.

Although it has only been open for seven months, word-of-mouth has already leaked out, and the bakery has regulars coming from as far away as Calistoga and Marin County to pick up the Pain de ville and Pain de campagne (available every day); the Cheese fougasse on Thursdays; the Pain au sésame and Gochoco (chocolate) on Thursdays; the Pain de partage (bread to share) and Pain de seigle (rye bread) on Fridays; and the Miche (large. round sourdough loaf), Pain de partage, Pain aux olives and Gochoco on Saturdays. (For an up-to-date schedule, go to goguettebread.com.)

“We try to look at the days of the week and think what people may need,” Shariat said. “All of these breads last several days.”

Like the 18th-century society it was named after, Goguette has become a gathering place for the community, especially for those who speak French. Many of its most loyal customers come from the French-American Charter School, which the couple co-founded in order to give their only child the kind of French education that they grew up with in Iran.

“We figured that it was a gift to the community,” Shariat said. “Now people have moved here from out of the area for the school, and it’s free to everyone.”

The bakery, like the school, tends to attract a wide variety of people from all over the world who share a common love of the French culture, the cuisine and the wine.

“Through the baking, we have met people from all over the world,” Shariat said. “It’s become an international language. and that was our dream for the school too ... that it would open up to the world.”

When the bakery finally opened in January, the family danced around the bakery singing along to Edith Piaf’s recording of “Non, je ne regrette rien.”

Despite all the work and uncertainty of launching their own business, Salamati is glad they have given their daughter a life lesson in making your dreams come true.

“We’ve been talking about it, and also we’ve gone through the steps of execution,” Salamati said. “And she feels like she is a part of it, too.”

When she’s not in school, Soraya delivers bread to nearby Rosso Pizzeria + Wine Bar for bruschetta and, on the other side of the bakery, to Riviera restaurant for special events.

“It feels like we are leaving a legacy for our daughter, of course, but also for the community,” Salamati said. “She has learned to really greet people, and now she has created her own community.”

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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