Q&A with Chef Alain Coumont: Founder of bakery-cafe Le Pain Quotidien

Q&A with Chef Alain Coumont: Founder of bakery-cafe Le Pain Quotidien

Author: Canadian Living


Q&A with Chef Alain Coumont: Founder of bakery-cafe Le Pain Quotidien

Organic-oholics and breadophiles rejoice: Le Pain Quotidien has landed in Canada. This homey-chic café – complete with a long communal table, creaky wooden floors and a roaring stone fireplace – is the brainchild of Belgian Chef Alain Coumont. While it began as a hobby in response to the lack of "good bread," Le Pain Quotidien ("the daily bread") has expanded into a global empire.

But with emphasis on organic ingredients, local products and handmade fare, founder chef Alain Coumont's empire is a rare gem of responsible business paired with honest, delicious food.

CanadianLiving.com caught chef Alain Coumont a scant few hours before the grand opening of his first Canadian café in Toronto.

CanadianLiving.com: What possessed you to start baking bread?

Chef Alain Coumont: I'm not a baker by trade – I'm a chef. I ran my own restaurant in Brussels in the late 1980s. At that time, the government regulated the price of bread. The only way for bakers to make money was to invest in machinery and become very efficient. The way of producing bread shifted from smaller bakeries to large operations with a lot of machinery to bake bread faster. I wasn't satisfied with the taste of this bread.

Baking my own bread was a hobby in the beginning. Then again, a hobby should cost very little but my bread oven was about $40,000. My bakery became a business by accident.

CL.com: What did that first business look like?
I opened the first bakery store in Brussels in 1990. The shop was small: 36 square metres. I only had one bread rack and one table with 16 seats. I found this table at a flea market. It's actually a seamstress's table – both ends are rounded to unroll fabric and not rip them on the corners. A couple met at this first table in my original store. They soon fell in love, rented the whole space of my store and got married inside it! This original table is still there in my first store in Brussels, and there is a replica in every one of the other locations. Without this big table 18 years ago, we wouldn't be here talking to each other today.

CL.com: Why do you think your concept has been so successful?
A restaurant is like a movie, with an actor, a scriptwriter and a producer. Without all these elements there is no movie. With food you need atmosphere, such as wood boards for the floor. You also need a human element: a real waiter in flesh and bone and what you order they will bring to the table – not a counter where you have to go back in line again if you're still hungry. We have ambiance, good products, strong organics, convivial settings, a casual atmosphere and real service. This is the winning combination.

CL.com: You cite your bread as being "old world" – what does this mean, exactly?
We create sourdough – we don't use yeast. For sourdough you need a starter: a mix of water, flour and salt. Every 12 hours, for two weeks, add a tiny bit of water, more flour, more salt, and a natural fermentation process will begin – yeast is present in wheat naturally.

For sourdough breads, the natural yeast process is a much slower process [than with regular bread]. But with this slower fermentation you create better flavour. It's like grape juice that ferments, ages, and suddenly you have a great Bordeaux. Or even cheese: take a young cheddar cheese, age it for nine months and you're left with a sharper taste, flavoured by the enzymes. Making the bread slowly creates a different texture and a much richer flavour that comes naturally if you simply take the time.

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CL.com: You're an advocate of the organics movement. Why?
AC: Fifty years ago, everything was organic. There were no chemicals, no people in white coats walking around in fields. Now people think it's impossible to farm without chemicals. It's funny – some people used to ask me, "Is it safe to eat organic?" In some people's minds, it's dangerous to eat a fruit when pesticides haven't killed the bugs, or that all the fungus has not been killed.

Now, essentially everything is polluted with metals, chemicals and discarded pharmaceuticals. Even the food industry uses more chemicals now than ever before, and people are eating more processed foods with even more chemicals than ever before.

It's just good to go organic.

CL.com: And your different bakery-café locations around the world source their own local ingredients?
Yes – in Canada we can certainly source local organic flour and other necessary products. In our Dubai location we have to import flour from Belgium, but we use their cheese and eggs and dairy. All my bakeries use as much local and organic products as we can. It makes sense! There's less shipment using local products, which means less money spent by the business.

CL.com: What advice do you have for home cooks baking their own bread?
Good bread is a hard thing to make at home – it's hard to bake bread in a conventional oven. I bake my bread on stone. The impact of the heat on the stone transforms the water in the bread dough into steam, giving the bread a kick. This impact of heat is hard to recreate at home. Some people put a slab of stone on their oven rack, which will help.

That said, everything happens before the baking – the fermentation process is important. At home, you also have to have the right type of flour. You need flour with a higher protein content; otherwise it will be too doughy. When making good bread, you need elasticity for the dough to expand.

Canadian Living's step-by-step photographed recipe for Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread will help you bake your own beautiful loaf >>

CL.com: What's your favourite baked good?
I spend so many nights baking that I prefer a good piece of organic, whole wheat sourdough with real body – a brown bread where you can really taste the cereal flavour.

Le Pain Quotidien opens four locations in Toronto in 2008, followed by locations in Vancouver and Montreal.

See the goodies featured at Le Pain Quotidien's first Canadian location on the next page! >>

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Organic desserts and pastries on display at Le Pain Quotidien's first Canadian bakery-café in Toronto.

Delicious tarts and pies lined up for hungry patrons.

Chef Alain Coumont's signature sourdough breads on display at the front door.

Le Pain Quotidien's hallmark: The communal table.

Photography by online food editor Christine Picheca

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Q&A with Chef Alain Coumont: Founder of bakery-cafe Le Pain Quotidien