A.J. Brown has had quite the unique journey to opening his own restaurant, from homebrewed beer to culinary school in France. It’s a culinary odyssey he’s excited to take with his wife, Kirsten. Together, they now help St. Louisans break bread together at Knead Bakehouse + Provisions.

Growing up in St. Charles and the Lake St. Louis area, A.J. says some of his favorite experiences were in the kitchen with his family. “I’ve enjoyed cooking for as long as I can remember,” he says. “My parents and grandparents were always in the kitchen, and my grandfather was a passion project baker. I learned the heart of cooking from them. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a chef and have my own restaurant.”

His father and older brothers were a major source of inspiration. While A.J. was in high school, they began to experiment with making their own beer. “I watched them and was fascinated by the process of fermentation,” he explains. Taking that interest to college, he pursued a degree in food sciences with a plan to go into the beverage industry. After graduating, he worked at O’Fallon Brewery and Noboleis Vineyards. However, he simply could not shake his childhood dream of being a chef. He took off across the Atlantic Ocean to study at Institut Paul Bocuse in Écully, France, near Lyon.

A.J. recalls his time at Institut Paul Bocuse as intense and regimented, but also a magical experience. “It was amazing,” he recalls. “I was one of 10 students in the international program. My classmates were from all around the world. The school was in an old castle estate and had a two Michilen star restaurant attached, so I just really enjoyed the high caliber of cooking. It was a very special place to go and learn about food.”

After returning from France, A.J. knew he wanted to find a way to combine his passion for cooking with his interest in fermentation. He found the solution in creating his own sourdough. He began selling his bread at local farmers markets in the spring and summer while also bartending. During his second farmers market season, he met Kirsten. “He was working at a local craft beer place, and I went with friends,” she explains. “We met, and within a couple months, we were dating. I never thought I would meet my husband at a bar, but I did.”

A West County and Wildwood native, Kirsten also grew up with a passion for food, but she never imagined she’d end up working in the culinary arts. “My mom is an excellent cook, so I’ve always had an appreciation for great food,” she says. “When I was younger, I knew I wanted to have my own business, but I didn’t expect that it would be related to food.” She began helping A.J. with his work at the farmers markets, and over time, opening their own brick-and-mortar location became a shared dream.

To take the next step, the couple launched a Kickstarter campaign, and they managed to raise more than $30,000 in 30 days. It was a moving show of community support for the Browns. “Knead never would have happened without that initial backing from the community,” A.J. notes. “After the Kickstarter, it was still a two-and-half year process to get the rest of the funding, but we knew we had the support of our farmers market clientele. It helped us endure that period of uncertainty.” In 2017, Knead Bakehouse + Provisions opened its doors.

Last November, Knead celebrated its fifth anniversary. A.J. is excited about how far they’ve come as a team. “I’m so grateful that this is something we’ve been able to do together,” he says. “We’ve grown and matured. We’ve learned that every iteration doesn’t have to be perfect—you just have to be prepared to rework concepts when they fail. People are excited to see what we are doing. Just like with the Kickstarter, the community has really come through, supporting us through the pandemic and other challenges.”

For Kirsten, the highlight of these last five years has been getting to grow with the community. “It really is our customers who make what we do possible,” she says. “They’ve seen our business and family grow, and we’ve got to see them through their major milestones as well. One of our regulars, Peyton, started coming to Knead before she met her husband. We got to see them start dating, get married and have their first child. In fact, her husband picked up Knead so it could be her first meal in the hospital after having the baby. Not many careers let you be a part of somebody’s life in that way.”

Spring is a busy time at Knead. Along with preparing holiday items for Easter, Kirsten notes they also celebrate National Sourdough Day, which is, all jokes aside, April 1. After all, A.J.’s sourdough is still at the heart of what they do. “We always wanted to embrace what we do as something quintessentially of St. Louis—this is a Midwestern bread,” he explains. “We source regionally grown ingredients and aim to be as local as possible. We want to create something meaningful for the community. Our mission is to help curate milestones in people’s lives through delicious food.”

Photo by Bill Barrett