Bill Johnson: To this baker, his doughnut recipe is the holey grail

  • (Client: The Original Farmers Market)

    I was told Bob Tusquellas could teach me how to make the perfect doughnut.

    So I showed up at Bob’s Coffee & Donuts in the heart of the historic Original Farmer’s Market on Third Street at Fairfax Avenue hoping for the best.

    Bob Tusquellas, it soon became clear, would have more easily surrendered his ATM pin number than surrender his doughnut recipe. Still, the 72-year-old baker set out a plate of his doughnuts and some coffee, and we sat down and chatted.

    He has been making doughnuts at the Farmer’s Market for 44 years now. I was finishing up seventh grade when he first opened up. And you just have to admire anyone who can stick to one thing for that long.

    It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Tusquellas in the late 1960s was destined to go to Dearborn, Mich., and make cars.

    He first went to UCLA for a business administration degree, later transferring to UC Berkeley where he finished up before earning an MBA. Ford Motor Co. wanted him. And he was set to go.

    And then, Tusquellas’ father called.

    The fish market around the corner from his dad’s butcher shop at the Farmer’s Market was coming up for sale. Was he interested?

    The Ford people and his professors were aghast when Tusquellas packed up his belongings and his new bride, Kathy, and made the drive back to Third Street.

    It was 1966, and neither Tusquella nor his bride knew a thing about selling fish. It couldn’t be that different from hawking meat, the way he had at his father’s butcher shop from the time he was 11. And it wasn’t, he later learned.

    “I’d always wanted my own business like my Dad’s,” he explained of ditching Ford.

    “I learned the food business from the guys at my father’s shop, all World War II guys like my Dad, tough as nails, gruff guys that weren’t well-educated, but knew what they were doing. Finest education I ever got.”

    In 1970, the doughnut shop came up for sale. He quickly bought it. As with fish, he knew nothing of making doughnuts.

    The shop back then made only cake doughnuts – plain, powdered and chocolate-cinnamon. Tusquellas, though, loved raised doughnuts. For six months, he studied making the cake variety. Over the following year, he would study how to make raised glazed doughnuts.

    “The flour company sent over a guy. He says to be here at four the next morning, and to bring a table and this and that. We’ll try something, he said,” Tusquellas remembers.

    “We put everything in the mixer, proofed it. It comes out, and I taste it. It was absolutely beautiful,” he exults.

    His glazed doughnuts are some of the best I have ever eaten – perfectly glazed, the inside so light it is almost like eating cotton candy.

    “It is an art,” he tells me. “And no, I’m not a perfectionist, just a guy who wants it to taste the way I want it to taste,” he says.

    No, he will not show me how he makes his doughnuts, he says. When I protest that he has shown his bakers his methods countless times over the years, he smiles and says his recipe comes to the store pre-mixed in bags. The bakers just fry them.

    It is why he has never opened a second shop, he said. It would mean he couldn’t actually control how the doughnuts are made.

    “I won’t ever give away my recipe,” Tusquellas says flatly.

    On this day, he is gearing up for National Doughnut Day on Friday. He will add two additional bakers, and three additional counter helpers.

    “Last year, I thought it would be kind of busy, but it turned out to be very busy, like planning a dinner party for eight and 30 people show up,” he says.

    He walks me over to his counter where he has hung a sign. Friday, too, is June 6.

    “Do you know how many young people have no idea what June 6 is?” he asks me. “They think D-Day is a movie or something.”

    It is why he will give away doughnuts and coffee for free to any service member who shows up in uniform.

    For Bob Tusquellas, Friday will not just be about doughnuts. It will be about remembering.

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