While the key to a good loaf of bread is the quality of flour used, what is the key ingredient in a hugely successful bakery with branches dotted across the globe? It would seem Alain Coumont has the answer, as the founder of Le Pain Quotidien, the well known bakery which has 267 branches worldwide and counting.
I had the pleasure of attending a recent baking masterclass with the man himself at the only Irish Le Pain Quotidien in Kildare Village. After whipping up some delicious sourdough and quinoa spelt scones I got the chance to have a chat with Alain about how his amazing career fell into place, not accidentally but with some serendipitous turns.
Alain tells me that growing up in a specialty food store owned by his parents, with his mother’s family owning a hotel restaurant and cafe and numerous uncles working as chefs means he grew up immersed in the world of good food in his native Belgium. In an accent as smooth Belgian chocolate he laughs ‘I was born in the butter!’
Laughing still, he recalls baking his first apple pie with his grandmother at the tender age of three years old and the picture of someone destined to make waves in the food world begins to come together. But in his early teens a career as a chef didn’t seem like the life he dreamed of, as Alain notes wanting to avoid the unsociable hours and difficult work-life balance associated with the profession.
As fate would have it, Alain went to the US at age fifteen to learn English and it was there he spotted Michel Guérard, who he describes as the father of French nouvelle cuisine, in an ABC documentary. ‘I saw then that cooking is not just feeding people, it is an art.’ Two months later he returned home and asked his father to send him to culinary school, setting the wheels in motion.
Having developed a broad skill set which went beyond cooking in culinary school, Alain graduated and needed vital experience under his belt to succeed. He set his sights high, taking out the Michelin guide and targeting the twelve 3 Michelin-starred restaurants in France. His proposition? Take me on and I will work for a year, for free. Taking up a place in one of the three establishments which responded, Alain quickly worked his way up and was offered a salary after just three months.
But his thirst for knowledge and experience was now in full swing, so instead Alain chose to broaden his horizons and take a job with none other than his original inspiration, Michele Guérard at 3 star Les Prés L’Eugenie, outside Biarritz. Following this with a stint as a private chef for the 6th richest woman in the US, Alain became accustomed to private jets and catering to the elite but eventually bored of being ‘a luxury slave.’
Returning to Brussels in 1989, Alain had his sights set on opening his own restaurant, a gastro-pub ‘with great food but no tablecloth’. However, after three months Alain realised that the standard of bread available in Brussels wasn’t up to scratch, so in order to supply his own restaurant he opened a tiny bread bakery – almost as a hobby, he adds. Naturally, the bakery produced more loaves than the restaurant would be able to use, so in a business-minded move, Alain decided to sell the excess and Le Pain Quotidien was born.
Flour, water, salt and time were the integral ingredients then, these words are etched on the walls of his bread empire today and still present are the communal seamstress tables which he originally picked up at a flea market. But how does a small-scale bakery balloon to such heights? Alain recalls a lady coming into the store with a proposition – as Alain’s bread reminded her of the loaves she enjoyed when holidaying in the French mountains, she wondered if he would supply the bread should she open her own shop. From one petite premises in Brussels, the franchise idea took flight, with 50 stores across Europe after just four years.
How is this possible, I wondered, when so many bakeries fail or struggle with just one premises? ‘It is simple food, we are true believers in organic, not just green-washing’ he assures me, ‘it reflects the way I eat myself, I live on a farm and am entirely self-sufficient.’ Alain brings this passion for organic ingredients to the menu in every store, utilising the finest produce in every given country, with provenance being a paramount consideration. Every Le Pain Quotidien follows this brief and their rustic charm just seems to resonate with people the world over.
This passion for organic produce is evident in abundance as Alain explains to me the genealogy of wheat, tracing it back to his preferred ancient strains such as einkorn. These strains do not pose the same concerns regarding the oft-demonised gluten as highly processed wheat and produce earthy, richly flavoured loaves perfectly in-keeping with the rustic style of Le Pain Quotidien.
Unfortunately, Alain explains, these are low-yield strains of wheat meaning utilising just these flours is unfortunately not cost-effective at this point, but Alain hopes change is afoot in this regard and is working towards contributing to this himself. There is, of course, a lot more to it and it is obvious that Alain could speak knowledgeably at length about the topic, if we only had the time.
Pared back, wholesome and nourishing food is the backbone of the brand and this is no doubt reflective of Alain’s Belgian heritage which entails a rich butter culture, unpasteurised, raw milk with an affinity with products in the most natural state possible. Alain cites a love for natural non-sulphate wine, which he makes at home and explains that his death-row meal would definitely include some caviar, wild rather than farmed of course. Heartily laughing once again, Alain notes that it is widely illegal to fish wild sturgeon now, ‘but I have friends in Russia!’ he jests.
What’s next for Le Pain Quotidien here in Ireland? Real estate in Dublin city centre is in Alain’s sights, meaning his delectable sourdough, rye and scone creations will hopefully soon be easier to come by in these parts – and having been treated to a buffet of their delicious fare in Kildare, I’ll be first in the door.
For more on Le Pain Quotidien click here.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!