close up of a hand brushing something on the top of a row of babkas
Alex Tishman makes three kinds of babka each week for his Fire Swamp Provisions operation. (Photo/Oakes Norman, @CameraCoffeeGuy)

Fire Swamp’s bagels and babka are sizzlin’ hot at Novato market

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The beginning of the pandemic for Alex Tishman was like that of so many other chefs. Employed at the time by the company Big City Chefs, he was mostly doing small dinner parties and teaching cooking classes. But come March 2020, all of his bookings were canceled. His wife, who works in software, was suddenly working from home. And his year-old son couldn’t be in day care.

Tishman became the primary caretaker of his son during the day, as he continued to think about what he could do to keep his hand in the work. He started by putting out the word to friends and neighbors in Novato and ended up selling some matzah ball soup for Passover and a batch of hot sauce he’d made. Then when the sourdough craze took off, he remembered how much he had enjoyed baking bread in culinary school. As a professional chef, he thought to himself, “I can do this better than anyone.”

In late June 2020, he took part in a fundraiser called Bakers Against Racism that was held in the wake of the George Floyd murder; his sourdough bread, bagels and focaccia netted $840, which he donated to the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP.

Not only did he feel good about making a difference in the world through baking, but he saw that there was a market for what he made, and that he could earn real money doing it.

Alex Tishman at Novato’s weekly farmers market. (Photo/Oakes Norman, @CameraCoffeeGuy)
Alex Tishman at Novato’s weekly farmers market. (Photo/Oakes Norman, @CameraCoffeeGuy)

Baked goods are among the few food items that can be made at home and sold with the proper permitting. Tishman got all of his paperwork in order and now sells at the Tuesday farmers market in Novato, under the name Fire Swamp Provisions. (“Princess Bride” fans will appreciate the name.)

He is baking at home, but not in his kitchen. He has invested significantly to professionalize his bakery operation — in his garage. On a video tour, this columnist counted three ovens, a 30-quart capacity mixer and several refrigerators. Tishman reported that he also had a couple hundred pounds of flour, and all of the boxes and bags he uses for packaging in a storage container.

“It’s a professional operation in my garage,” he said. “A lot of cottage bakers don’t have the background that I do, but because I worked in professional kitchens for almost 20 years, I can’t do this halfway.”

His biggest seller is his sourdough bread. He also makes sourdough bagels and three kinds of babka: Cinnamon sugar and chocolate Nutella are always on the menu, with one seasonal fruit variety. The week we tried it, it was blueberry and Meyer lemon with vanilla and mascarpone, the next week was strawberry with lemon verbena. We loved the novelty of the blueberry babka, which had a wonderful crumb and texture.

closeup of a babka with blueberries visible on top
Alex Tishman’s Blueberry Meyer lemon babka. (Photo/Alix Wall)

All of his produce comes from local farms. He still donates 5 percent of his proceeds to the NAACP’s fund to protect voting rights, and says by now he’s donated over $5,000.

He bakes challah but doesn’t sell it regularly at the market, since it’s held on a Tuesday, but people can preorder it on his website. Other items, including jams, apple butters and focaccia, can be preordered and picked up at the market. He also started making Parker House buns to sell wholesale.

Tishman loves selling his own goods at the farmers market and getting the chance to talk to people; for a long time as a chef, he was on the other side as a buyer.

While Novato isn’t as Jewish as some other parts of Marin County, “there’s a small but vocal contingent,” he said, and they come to the farmers market to buy the bagels and babka. “There are more young, Jewish families than I expected to find here.”

Tishman, 37, has a rather unconventional Jewish background. His parents are from Pittsburgh and met at Jewish summer camp. Wanting to get as far away as possible, they moved to Alaska, where Tishman spent his early childhood in the woods, with no electricity or running water. After his parents divorced, Tishman lived with his father in Florida and went to a Conservative synagogue, though when it came time for his bar mitzvah, his father was attending a Chabad shul, so that’s where he became a bar mitzvah. After that, he lived with his mother in Redwood Valley, outside of Eureka on the north coast.

Tishman recommends slicing bagels in half while fresh and then freezing. Before toasting, spray with a bit of water. (Photo/Maya G. Photography)
Tishman recommends slicing bagels in half while fresh and then freezing. Before toasting, spray with a bit of water. (Photo/Maya G. Photography)

Throughout high school, he worked at a natural foods grocery store, and by 19, he had enrolled in the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

“I was ready to leave a small town and figure out my life,” he said.

Before Big City Chefs, he worked his way up in a number of restaurant kitchens, including the Michelin-starred Acquerello, Yoshi’s and Chow in Danville.

Tishman is back with Big City Chefs and has started doing a dinner party here or there, but he’s definitely looking at the silver lining of the pandemic and how it led him to start his own business, something he wouldn’t have done before.

Before the pandemic, “I never would have started my own baking business,” he said. “But I love what I’m doing, with the limited amount of time and energy I have. I’m not 22 anymore.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."