Firsts + Lasts: Eric Kayser

The French baker on the first meal he remembers, the last meal he hopes to have, and why he doesn't want to talk about baguettes.

By / June 2012

Eric Kayser, the renowned French baker, remembers clearly the first meal he loved; he just couldn’t tell me what it was in English. And when he purred the word in French, it rolled off his tongue smooth and rounded but short on hard consonant sounds that I could infer a spelling from. For an Italian-speaker like me, who is more comfortable with that hacking, back of the throat “sket” that goes with an order of bruschetta, the word is a mouthful of French. Spelled topinambour, it sounds more like to-i-na-oouurr. It is also (I later found out thanks to Google) French for Jerusalem artichoke.

Sometimes called sunchokes, Jerusalem artichokes look like the ginger roots’ brother from another mother. With their nubby ridges and wart-like skin, these edible tubers make up for in flavor what they lack in appearance. The taste, which Kayser agreed with me was difficult to describe, is somewhere between potatoes and artichoke hearts. But when Kayser first tried sunchokes, served in a warm and creamy soup at his aunt’s home near Lure, France, when he was seven years old, description was hardly the point.

The point was eating. In Kayser’s recollections of that day in his aunt’s kitchen, the soup was unlike anything he had ever had before. “It was a totally crazy experience for me,” he said. “I had no idea or memory of it before, so I couldn’t even say it tastes like this or like that. It was just totally strange, but so good.” 

Strange, good, and hearty enough to spread on a piece of bread, he told me. For Kayser, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of French bakers, the experience was a fitting, and formative, first culinary memory. With 20 locations across Paris and a growing number of bakeries around the globe, Eric Kayser has become famous for his devotion to traditional French baking methods, for the consistent quality and innovative flavors of his breads and pastries, and, based on my sampling last summer, for making one hell of a baguette.

Curcuma bread, prepared with tumeric, is one of Eric Kayser's staples.

With its crunchy and nutty outside, buttery inside, and toasty aroma, Kayser’s baguettes are a hug for the senses, but asked about them, he quickly changes the subject (you’ll find out why in the interview below). So I won’t dwell on them either, other than to say: Eat one. Eat one soon. Last week, I chatted with Kayser on the phone to find out more about his life as a French baker, his growing global bread empire, and of course, the first and last bites of his life.

When did you decide to become a baker?
Maybe it’s not that original, but I grew up in the family business. My family originally comes from Alsace, then we moved a little bit south to a region we call “Franche-Comte,” which is basically translated as “The French County.” (laughing)

My parents had a bakery there, which also belonged to my grandparents and was in our family for four generations. Very early, I knew I wanted to do the same as my parents. So you can imagine how it was to grow up in these circumstances. I learned to count 1-2-3-4 by preparing eggs for the brioche.

When I was four or five years old I was already saying that I wanted to become a baker and I wanted to travel around the world. Those were two things I had in mind – being a baker and traveling around the world – because when you are living in the French countryside you are so alone and cut off from everything. You need to travel and get out to discover new places, new countries, new cultures.

Did you ever consider a different profession?
No. I’m sorry, but no, for me, I have no regrets. When you grow up with this kind of identity, it’s impossible to imagine being anything else. You grow up with only one goal, to become a baker. To produce the best bread, brioche, croissant, or whatever, and you try to be the very best. That is normal for me.

It’s a wonderful feeling, to know what you must be. People are sometimes a little shocked when I say that, because there are so many things to do, but I just feel good doing what I do every day.

Where did you receive your professional training?
A little bit later on in my childhood, my family moved to the South of France, to the region Saint-Raphaël. My family worked as bakers there and when I was 14, I began my apprenticeship with another baker, M. Gerard Levant, but we called him Gégé. After that I went through the normal steps for a young baker in France, but the first thing that really changed my life was when I met with an association called Compagnons du Tour de France, a group that teaches and trains young professionals in a very exclusive way. 

It was really great for me because I already had this profession in my blood, but to be able to live that way and be with people that share the same values was a great period of time for me. After that, I went on what we call the tour du France where you travel to different bakeries throughout the French countryside to learn specific recipes and so on.

After learning from all those bakers in my apprenticeships all over the country, I wanted to try the other side, to give my time teaching young people. I did this for two years with the Compagnons before joining the most prestigious professional school in France, the National Academy of Baking and Pastry in Normandy, in the Loire region. For me that was a turning point in my life, because from that moment I had the opportunity to travel a lot, not only in France, but all around the world as a bakery teacher and consultant.

What did your father teach you about baking?
When I look back on him working, he rarely said anything. He was totally inside of what he was doing. He was not even trying to share with me, he was in another world. All I could do to learn was look at his hands and his face. I always thought that it must be a very special feeling to have your hands in dough all the time, a total fusion with the products. I wanted to get the same feeling because it was difficult to understand and I wanted for him to say more, to tell me. But I learned mostly from other people. For him, it was mostly internal. That made me envious of him. I wanted to feel how he felt inside of it.

Did that contribute to your desire to teach?
Yes, exactly. To bring some words to it. When I learned with my father, he could go for hours saying nothing, even with other people around. On one side it was motivating; on the other it was frustrating. I appreciate putting words to what I am doing when I teach now.

Did you plan to return to work at your parents’ bakery eventually?
No, because in between my training my parents sold their bakery. But I did always have in mind the idea, not to come back to the family business, but to create my own business. And that’s what I did in 1996 in Paris. The very first one was in the 5th Arrondissement, on Rue Monge.

Why did you open your first bakery in Paris?
I had already been living there for a few years as a teacher, which is very practical in France because you know, everything is happening in Paris. From the beginning my idea was not only to open a bakery, because there is already something like 2,500 private and family bakeries in Paris so one more, even if your name is Eric Kayser, it won’t make a big difference.

My idea was to create a luxurious brand in the bread world, not because I love the idea or price of luxury but because bread, very very nice bread, is a very complicated thing. Because when you work hard every night, when you respect the fermentation, the tradition like we do, even when it’s a day-to-day thing, it’s a kind of luxurious product. You could do it in a very easy way, just mixing flour and water and some ingredients, but if you want to do it professionally, it’s a very tough, complicated job.

My feeling is that the customer doesn’t really imagine the work that goes on behind the bread and the only way to make them feel that work is to try to sell bread like a luxurious product, like a jewel. This idea is doable in Paris, but difficult outside, because you won’t have as many customers and people that appreciate this effort in the countryside. That’s why I started in Paris.

What distinguishes your bread and your techniques from other bakers in Paris?
Most of the French bakers try to do the same thing as their baker neighbor. They don’t try to do something new, they just make baguette because baguette is easy to sell in France, but they are not trying to personalize their production, recipes or ingredients, to create a new environment.

All those points were very important to me. I didn’t want to open a bakery just to create bread like the next baker on the next street. That is a little bit silly, but that’s the way many French bakers are. Most of the time they are not trying to personalize anything. Sometimes they even try to disappear behind the products, but that’s not my idea.

My idea was the contrary; to exist through the products and personalize them as much as possible. If you are proud of what you are doing you need to personalize it. I had no idea what would happen after the first bakery opened, but even if it was just in one bakery, I wanted it to be personal.

Tell me about some of your signature breads.
I have two breads in mind and I will on purpose not speak of the baguette, even though I am very proud of our baguette…

And why won’t you talk about the baguette?
Because I can imagine that everybody will expect me to because I’m a French baker! Also, because it is important to let people know that there are many other breads in France besides the baguette.

Of our loaves, we have one big one called La Tourte de Meule. This big loaf is prepared with stone mill flour and with a long fermentation process. It’s a two-kilo bread and this quantity of dough is important if you want to develop a very specific flavor and aroma.

But there is another bread I want to mention because it’s like a wonder story. We make one called Curcuma bread, which is prepared with the Curcuma (turmeric) spice. It gives to the bread a very strange, yellow color. We mix the spice into the dough with nuts and that gives it a flavor that is sweet without being too sweet. You can eat it with many things and over the years it has became a signature product not only because of the color but also because of the really interesting flavor and mouth feel.

Other than baking, what are your passions? What do you like to do when you’re not working?
The problem is, when am I not working? (laughs) Most the time I don’t feel like I’m working, really. But honestly, I love to run and when I have some free time my pleasure is to run in very different places. To discover a new landscape and environment through running – in Moscow or running around the river in Congo – it’s a crazy thing. When you run you see things differently than you would in a plane, train, or car.

Any new projects currently in development?
Oh yes, many things will happen before the end of the year. On the new opening side, we will open a bakery  in New York in July. It will be our first site in the US and will be on 3rd Avenue. There will be a grand opening in September or October. For me, it is very important because it was a childhood dream for me to open a store in New York.

We will also open our first store in Central Africa, in Kinshasa, which is a very different environment. That has been a very strange project that I’ve loved. You can’t ignore Africa, it’s impossible. There is so much to do there on the high-end, luxury side, and on the mass production side to produce food to feed the people. Right now we have a project to open a school in Burkina Faso with an association there.

We already teach and train people in baking, pastry, and catering in Dakar, Senegal, where we also have a bakery. This project in Kinshasa will give us another opportunity to be present in Africa, to open a shop but also to develop other activities. Then in Hong Kong we will open at the middle of December. We don’t have a huge plan for expanding in China because from a business perspective it is a little risky/tricky environment.

What’s happening in Paris food-wise right now that you think is important for people to know?
I want people to begin to understand what “natural” means. I think for me, it means much more than organic. I’m very disappointed that most of the time people automatically equate organic with quality, which is absolutely not true. I have nothing against the wave of organic, but it’s only the first step. It is not the answer. It is not the goal.

Organic means nothing, really. Guarantee of origin means nothing, really. It speaks only of the raw materials, not of what you will eat, because what you will eat comes after the human transformation. With the organic movement, you take care of the origin and your environment, but you often forget the humanity. You cannot forget the humanity; the face of the people transforming the products.

I’d like people to consider searching not just for organic products but for a combination of quality of raw materials and the competencies of the people who prepare them. Because that’s where you inject culture into your products.

And finally, I always like to ask this question: if you could have one last meal before you die, what would it be?
If it’s the last thing I eat before dying, I think it would be something I feel a little guilty about eating. For me, very simply, it would be many different types of crêpes – crêpes sucrées, crêpes sale – with fruit jam, chocolate, or ham, if you want it salty.

From the time I was very young until now, I could eat crêpes until I die. That’s a problem for me. It’s not reasonable. (laughing) I love them, I don’t know why. I can eat much more than I should, even if I am sick afterward, there is no limit for me. I cannot stop, I have to walk away. If I am dying, I imagine I would just die eating crêpes.

 

Martha J. Miller is the food columnist for EthnoTraveler. Her writing also appears in the Washington Post and the Oxford American.

 

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