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On the Rise: Meet the Baker Serving Bread at Top Phoenix Restaurants

From his garage in Tempe to top restaurants all over the Valley, this baker's bread is taking him places.
Mark Bookhamer founded Nice Buns Bakery out of his garage in Tempe in 2021.
Mark Bookhamer founded Nice Buns Bakery out of his garage in Tempe in 2021. Sara Crocker
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As a chef, Mark Bookhamer could find just about any ingredient or product he needed. But one item that eluded the Valley resident time and again was something that would seemingly be among the simplest and most ubiquitous: a perfectly pillowy, flavorful hamburger bun.

His search started simply enough while working as chef at The Normal, the former restaurant and bar concept in the Graduate Hotel Tempe. He joined the team that led the revamp of the food and beverage program, helmed by revered chef and restaurateur Chris Bianco and Tacos Chiwas owners Armando Hernandez and Nadia Holguin.

While developing a classic diner burger for the menu, Bookhamer couldn’t find the kind of bun he wanted locally, so he settled on a King’s Hawaiian bun.

In the years since, he never forgot that challenge. It launched a chase for an ideal bun that has taken Bookhamer from cooking in restaurants to baking his own bread.

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Mark Bookhamer started baking at home during the pandemic. Now, he turns out hundreds of loaves, baguettes, and buns each week.
Mark Bookhamer
From his garage in Tempe, Bookhamer launched Nice Buns Bakery and has churned out thousands of baguettes, loaves, and buns over the past two years. His bread can be found across the Valley, from the casual shipping container kitchen Sink of Swim to the upscale French bistro Sottise. Little Rituals, Bacanora, Underbelly Meat Co., and Virtù Honest Craft are also among the celebrated eateries that serve his bread.

Now, Bookhamer is taking the next step with his bakery. As of this month, he is the new resident baker at Hayden Flour Mills' new facility in Gilbert.

‘Arizona’s Luckiest Baker’

Bookhamer called himself "Arizona's luckiest baker," for the opportunity to work with the Queen Creek farm and miller, whose flour he has used from the start.

Hayden Flour Mills is a local farm whose owners grow heritage grains that they stone-mill in small batches. In addition to varieties of flour, Hayden also offers pasta and pancake mixes. They have taken on the additional space in Gilbert to house their offices, blending and production facility, fulfillment warehouse, and kitchen, along with special event space.

The move will not only allow Bookhamer to expand his baking business, but as Hayden's resident baker, he will also answer customer questions and test new flours and blends, according to Hayden Flour Mills co-founder and co-owner Jeff Zimmerman. Bookhamer anticipates he'll also teach baking classes.

Zimmerman's team has seen Bookhamer go from buying a few bags of flour to a full pallet, which clocks in at 2,000 pounds. Seeing this growth, paired with his commitment to quality and glowing reputation throughout the community made him a natural partner, Zimmerman says.

“All these people in the industry are singing his praises," he says.

Bookhamer is excited about the prospect of getting flour right off the mill, but he gets more serious when talking about his connection to an organization whose values – of celebrating family, character, and elevating local ingredients – align with his.

“These guys are excited to push me forward because of the things that I care about," Bookhamer, a father of three, says. "I want to stand next to these guys."

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Mark Bookhamer calls himself "Arizona's luckiest baker." Other chefs around the Valley credit his hard work and excellent bread.
Sara Crocker

Starting with Sourdough

Bookhamer’s entry to baking was not dissimilar to many who found themselves at home during the pandemic, making their own sourdough starter and bread.

“It is every bit of the stereotype you can think,” he says.

He had stepped away from working as a chef, quit drinking, and wasn’t sure if he wanted to be in a kitchen full-time. Baking became part of a daily routine he established to support his sobriety.

Meanwhile, he was subbing in for chef-friends who needed help with prep work.

While helping in the kitchen of Tacos Chiwas, he brought in his country loaf. Breaking that bread led to a tip and his first customer. One of Bookhamer's fellow chefs mentioned that Kevin Rosales, the executive chef for Those Pour Bastards Hospitality Group, whose bars include Killer Whale Sex Club and Disco Dragon, was in need of brioche.

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While working as a chef, Mark Bookhamer tried and failed to find a perfect hamburger bun that was locally made. Years later, he took on the task himself.
Mark Bookhamer
Prior to meeting with Rosales, Bookhamer anticipated he would write a recipe. Instead, he walked away with an order to bake 200 buns.

“What’s great about what he’s doing is he’s a chef for chefs,” Rosales says, noting that Bookhamer tweaks his recipes or develops new offerings based on their needs. Rosales currently orders country loaves from Bookhamer for charcuterie plates and sandwiches at Roosevelt Row’s Pour Bastards.

At Rosales’ suggestion, Bookhamer started playing with a recipe for milk bread, a soft, fluffy Japanese white bread. He baked daily for three months to refine it.

“I’ve wanted this hamburger bun I’ve been dreaming of since the hotel – this old-school diner hamburger bun,” Bookhamer says. “It triggered that memory and became an obsession for three months, every day.”

A Cheeky Name and a Unique Approach

As Bookhamer began selling to other customers, including his former team at Gertrude’s Restaurant, he realized he may have a viable business. The idea for his bakery’s cheeky name came when he dropped off an order at the Desert Botanical Garden’s restaurant.

“Every time I sold to them, it was, ‘Oh, nice buns, chef,’” he says, laughing.

Bookhamer was pleasantly surprised to see the moniker was available, so he took it. But since naming the business, he’s expanded his repertoire beyond buns, adding other bakes like focaccia and baguettes – which are among his most popular.

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The first bread Mark Bookhamer baked for himself was a country loaf. Now, it's one of several that Nice Buns Bakery sells to restaurants and markets.
Sara Crocker
Initially, his inclinations as a chef were in conflict with baking.

“I hated people that baked. I hated recipes. I was that guy,” Bookhamer says, adding that while he does use recipes now, they're more guidelines than gospel. “My best bake days, I ignore my recipe just a touch, and the more I pay attention to the dough, the better it works out.”

One thing that makes Bookhamer’s bread a little different is that he applies a technique used in milk bread called tangzhong to almost all of his doughs, which keeps the bread tender inside.

Through this process, Bookhamer combines and cooks water and flour, similar to making a roux. “You can add so much more moisture to the dough,” Bookhamer says.

Applying this process to other bread doughs, like baguette, allows for a crispy crust and soft middle, he says.

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Nice Buns bakery started out of a garage in Tempe. Thanks to a connection with Hayden Flour Mills, it's getting a shiny new home.
Sara Crocker

Poised to Grow

With the success Bookhamer has found so far, and more growth planned, “we both didn’t realize we were creating a monster,” Rosales says.

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Baguettes are among Nice Buns' most popular items. The baker applies a technique used in milk bread to keep his loaves tender on the inside with a crisp exterior.
Mark Bookhamer
The new partnership with Hayden Flour Mills will allow him to grow his baking team and supply more restaurants. Bookhamer says what he loved most about being a chef was feeding people and getting to know them, and their experiences, through food. Nice Buns continues that connection.

“There’s something in people’s eyes and the smile they get when you can trigger a memory. That happens with food more than it happens with anything else I’ve run across in my life,” Bookhamer says. “Bread is just pure comfort for people … That reaction – I got it so few times as a chef. Now, I see it all the time.”

Bookhamer experienced that joy and comfort while visiting the famed San Francisco bakery Tartine. A simple dish, a piece of country bread with a coddled egg, was one of the most memorable bites he had on his trip.

"[It] just blew my mind," he recalled. "I had no idea what bread could be."

He wants to bring that same experience to Phoenix. Growing the bakery's output is the first step, but Bookhamer isn't ruling out returning to a restaurant kitchen, either.

“I so desperately want a bread-forward restaurant," Bookhamer says when asked about his future goals. For him, that would mean pulling loaves right from the oven and getting them right to a customer. “I’m trying to figure out how to get fresh bread to people."

Perhaps that will be Bookhamer's next obsession. 
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