A Mitzvah for L.A.
Doug Weinstein | Diamond Bakery
Kneaded: L.A. Bread Stories celebrates Los Angeles’ history, heritage, and communities through the lens of bread.
Diamond Bakery is the last-standing Jewish bakery on Los Angeles’s iconic Fairfax Blvd. It has served L.A.’s Jewish community since 1946. Its bread and pastries are the smells and flavors of childhood memories and family traditions for many generations of Jewish families in the area. Douglas Robert Weinstein remembers going to several Jewish shops along Fairfax Blvd for every high holiday during his childhood. Most of the shops he remembers have long since closed their doors. In 2020, when Doug learned that the COVID-19 pandemic hit Diamond Bakery so hard it was about to close down, he set out on his mission to save Diamond Bakery for generations to come.
It's not like I was just some rich guy that wanted to take over the bakery. On the contrary, I'm a poor baker that wanted to save this bakery's life, you know? It was a mitzvah.
Tell me a bit about yourself and how you got started in the kitchen.
My family moved to Los Angeles in 1975 when I was twelve. In the 7th grade, I worked as a helper at a pizza place in exchange for pastrami sandwiches. One day, the dough guy didn't show up, and the owner needed some help in the kitchen. So, there I was, sweeping the floors and wiping tables, when he said to me, “Hey, kid, let me show you how to mix the dough.” That was my first exposure to baking. Mixing flour, water, yeast, salt, and oil–and there you have it, pizza dough! I thought it was really cool. That is what started my path down the culinary highway. Shortly after high school, I started an apprenticeship at the Century Plaza Hotel, where I trained under a certified European master baker, pastry chef, and confectionist. During my time working with him, I learned about Diamond Bakery. While learning, I wanted to ensure I was being taught well, so I sought out some bakeries in L.A. that had a good reputation. Diamond Bakery was my favorite because of the cheesy pockets and the rye bread.
How did you learn that the bakery was in danger of going out of business?
Back in February 2020, a friend from New York visited me. He had never been to Southern California, so I decided to take him on what I call the “Jew Food Cruise.” We drove from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles and stopped at every Jewish deli and bakery on the way to try something different at each one. Diamond Bakery was on our list, thanks to their cheesy pockets and rye bread. When we got there, we discovered that the employees had taken over the bakery just before the COVID-19 pandemic. We followed up months later and learned that because the pandemic was challenging for so many small businesses, they planned to close the bakery for good in June 2020. After learning about the possible closure of a historic Jewish bakery, I came up with the vision and dreamed of saving Diamond Bakery.
Why was saving Diamond Bakery so important to you?
This [Diamond Bakery] is the last standalone Jewish bakery on Fairfax. There used to be five. Since moving to L.A. I’ve come to Fairfax for every Jewish High Holiday. We’d go to the seafood store that’s no longer here to get white fish and carp to make gefilte fish. We would come here and get rye bread. Coming to Fairfax was like going to Jerusalem; it was like coming home. Fairfax has always been an important cultural center for the Jewish Community in Los Angeles. When I heard they were going to close, something hit me. I just couldn’t morally allow that to happen. Too many families have their traditions tied up in this place. So, we devised a plan, made an offer, and took it over.
The last four words of the “Hamotzi,” a Hebrew prayer to break bread, hang over the bread counter at Diamond Bakery, blessing each loaf as it is sold. The full prayer reads: Blessed is the Oneness that makes us holy and brings forth bread from the earth.
Diamond Bakery sells a lot more than challah. Some of its other delicacies can be seen in the cabinet below the counter.
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What is Diamond Bakery known for besides your favorite cheesy pockets and rye bread?
We are extremely well known for our challah bread. Challah is a special bread of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, enriched with eggs and oil and usually braided before baking. It is typically eaten on ceremonial occasions such as Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. Besides selling directly to individuals, we service several synagogues. So, we deliver hundreds of challah loaves every Friday to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the Temple of Israel of Hollywood, the Santa Barbara Jewish Federation, and the synagogue. I live in Santa Barbara, so I travel with their delivery when I go home. Many Jewish people in the area have grown up with Diamond Bakery’s Shabbat challah, so even though I’m a new owner, it's the same old recipe.
How does challah bring people in the Jewish community together?
Challah is one of our oldest traditions. It is the ceremonial manna (bread) for the Jewish tradition's most important holiday, the Sabbath. The Sabbath is what makes Jewish life work. Once a week, you get one day where you can stop, be thankful (for food), and be present with family and God. Shabbat has three symbols: challah, candles, and wine. Everyone [in the Jewish community] has a memory of tearing challah and having challah french toast on Sunday morning. It brings us together in memories and shared experiences.
Tell us a little bit about your baking process and your favorite part about baking challah.
Diamond Bakery prepares its dough in bulk.
Doug prepares for braiding challah by creating several equally sized balls of dough then rolls each dough ball out into long skinny pieces.
The strips of dough are laid out in preparation for braiding.
Doug showing us his speedy challah-braiding skills.
An egg wash is applied to each challah loaf before baking to ensure a shiny, golden-brown exterior that tastes as good as it looks.
After being garnished with sesame and poppy seeds, these challah loaves are ready for baking.
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The baking, the mixing, the shaping–the whole process is meditative for me. You can’t focus on anything else when you are scaling (or measuring) the ingredients, so that is what I enjoy the most. I also enjoy braiding challah. As an apprentice, my goal was to be as fast or faster than everybody else at the table. I’m still very competitive and love how it becomes a race to see who can braid the most. I come pretty close to winning a lot of times [chuckles]. I'm pretty good.
Is there anything more you want us to know about the community you serve?
My intention behind saving Diamond Bakery is to perpetuate Los Angeles’s Jewish baking traditions into the next generation. So, I’d like to get to know people and welcome you to be a part of the community. For generations, students from Fairfax High School would come here after school and get a cookie or two. We want them to keep doing that. We want all the young kids that want to find a job that lets them be creative to come by and see what it’s like being a baker. Everyone who works here has been here for years and is on their way out. They’re hanging on until we can get the next generation up and running. So come and join us!
EXPLORE MORE FROM DIAMOND BAKERY
To see what’s cooking at Diamond Bakery, go to diamondbakeryla.com or visit their bakery, located at Los Angeles at 335 N Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036.
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