On Satuday, I had a terrific meeting with Luc Boulet, the general manager of the Eric Kayser empire. We met at the Eric Kayser boulangerie located in the 13th arrondissment. I visited this store last week – if you recall from my post, it was the store along the Seine where I bought the pain de algue, and at that time I couldn’t take any pictures of the interior. Today, however, I had full access, and so I’m delighted to show you around one of the more interesting and successful boulangeries in Paris.
Eric Kesyer is the wonderkid of the French bakery world. Now at the helm of over 5o stores in locations as diverse as Japan, Dubai, Moscow, Lebonon, Antigua, and Los Angeles – not to mention the 17 in Paris – he has created a career on the cutting edge of bread baking. (As of right now, there are no locations in New York.) A kind of upscale “fast gourmet”, it serves a beautiful yet simple assortment of pastries, viennisories, prepared sandwiches, and salads. But the heart and soul of the operation is the bread.
Kayser was born in 1964 into a “family dynasty of bakers”. At a very early age he started working with his father in the family owned bakery. He earned his CAP, joined the military, and then joined the work fraternity called the Compagnons du Devoir – “Journeymen of the Duty”. These associations have a long history in the bread baking profession in France. It was kind of an illegal union designed to protect bakers from the tyranny of their bosses until the late 19th century. Eric used this opportunity to travel around France and explore the vast bread baking techniques of his countrymen. The association then offered him travel opportunities around the world – an experience that both grounded him in his own traditions and yet opened him up to vast possibilities. (Info courtesy of Steven Kaplan’s book Good Bread is Back)
It is this sprirt of exploration, Kayser is pushing the boundaries of bread making by looking at how technological advances can assist in larger scale production and still retain the quality and integrity of traditional methods. Luc told me today that they are working with recipes that were used two centuries ago, but also developing cutting edge equipment to achieve that end.
The most important step in the bread baking process for the Kesyer team is the pre-ferment and the mixing. Luc described this as the first note a piece of music – if you don’t get it right then the whole song is off. This first note is created in a machine that I had never seen before – a “Fermentolevain” – a giant machine that refreshes, mixes and controls the temperature of the liquid levain. Eric helped create this model in 1994. Actually, a version of this machine had been in operation in Germany for several years, but without the option to control the temperature. The “Fermentolevain” basically frees the baker to attend to other duties, but allows maximum control of the levain depending on the organization of production. This makes for a more efficient and manageable process.
Luc told me that the machine allows for less acid than a normal liquid levain, creating a mellow flavor that doesn’t overwhelm the bread. It is entirely a natural levain – no commercial yeast is added. All of the breads EK offers are made with some of this levain – at least 15-20%. He believes that using one pre-ferment offers a consistency and unity in the product. Where experimentation comes into play is in the shaping and addition of other ingredients.
After mixing, the dough receives a pointage (first ferment) of one hour. The dough is turned to enhance strength, and then scaled into larger pieces. These pieces are put into a fermentation chamber and allowed to proof slowly at a temperature between 2-7 degrees celcius. When the dough is ready to go, the team uses another piece of cutting edge equipment. This machine basically takes a huge piece of dough and cuts it into the baguette shape with a little bit of shaping. Within a minute, one has twenty pieces of baguette. EK believes that a dough receives more benefit from as a little shaping as possible.
The baguette has a beautiful exterior with square-shaped ends – a trend I see more and more in Paris. The interior of the baguette is gorgeous with a mellow but pleasing aroma. I could not stop eating it when I had mine later in the day. There is the slightest hint of sour, but it does not overwhelm the bread at all. I loved it.
The team is looking for ways to apply their non-shaping techniques to their other breads. One such product is their rye boule, a very sexy looking bread. One of the variables in their recipe is the use of very warm water when mixing, this splits the dough and helps to create its very rustic looking interior. Their technique also gives the bread a longer shelf life. Two hundred years ago, this bread was made is Central France on Wednesday, to be served on Sunday. It needed several days to really develop its taste. Luc said this version has a shelf life of about 8 days.
Luc was very generous with his time today. We spent a lot of time discussing the state of the profession both in France and abroad. His work is clearly a labor of love, and he struggles everyday with the direction of the company. Its success on the global scene has raised hard questions about where the company should go and why. The most important part of the equation, however, is how to maintain its soul and vitality without sacrificing its quality and standards. The sheer task of training bakers, service and patissiers in new countries to learn and adapt to EK’s methods methods, and in turn stay open and adapt to a culturally different workforce and client base is daunting at best. Will the customer in Dubai have the same tastes as in Moscow and Japan? But Luc is a true professional and very open and excited about the future of EK. He also has a depth, curiosity and willingness to engage in tough questions about the future of the company as well as the artisanal bread movement, and I really appreciate him sharing his insights.
(Check out flickr for more photos – their desserts are gorgeous.)