The son and grandson of grocers, Chef Alain Coumont never aspired to become a full-time baker, yet his observation of his grandmother making the daily bread was instilled in his memory, one he never forgot. As a young chef in Brussels, Coumont found it extremely difficult to find the right bread for his restaurant. In a world where fine dining became extremely competitive, Coumont noticed that restaurants started using commercial ingredients in making their daily bread. Passionate about quality, and perhaps an esoteric incarnate of his grandmother’s daily rituals in bread making, Coumont returned to his roots and opened a small bakery to supply his restaurant.
Le Pain Quotidien, a small, rustic bakery reminiscent of the Belgian country side , quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. Brussels fell in love with the concept of the daily bread, especially when Chef Coumont added his culinary touch to include simple salads, tartines and soups. By adding a long communal table where his guests would sit to eat together, Le PQ became an instant success.
Standing today as a cornerstone in communal organic dining, Le PQ now offers customers even further options from a wide range of delicious tartines and wholesome organic dishes, all prepared according to the brand’s philosophy that takes to heart providing healthy superior dishes. A completely organic company, Le PQ’s bread, milk, eggs, olive oils, tapenades and spreads are all sourced according to a commitment to build lasting and meaningful partnerships with organic farmers; nothing but the finest ingredients make it to Le PQ’s communal table.
What inspired you to start baking bread and while working in the fine dining restaurant business?
In having the greatest honor to celebrate our 21st anniversary this month, I feel very humbled to be taken back to our beginnings. Twenty-one years ago and back in Brussels when I was running my own fine dining restaurant, I wasn’t happy with the quality of bread that accompanied the food. That’s why I decided to start a small bakery to provide the bread for my restaurant.
What did that first business look like?
At that time, as much as I desired to supply my own restaurant with bread, when I decided to open the small bakery I was worried about the profitability of the bakery in terms of rent and labor costs. That’s why I decided to add a little bit of the cafeteria vibe and not a complete dining restaurant. A simple menu that adds value to the bakery, serving bread compliments such as soups, salads, tartines, etc.
Can we say that the concept of “Bread culture” exists? Did you think this concept would be a success here in the Middle East?
Of course, the concept and popularity of bread in Europe is like the popularity of rice in China and Asian cultures. When introducing a bread-focused concept anywhere, the idea is to introduce the lifestyle of bread consumption with its compliments. Now we have the restaurant side of the business comprising 60 to 80 percent, and of course the bread is still important as this area represents the core of dining at Le PQ. The bread culture is part of the ambience at Le PQ, casual, simple and humble. It is truly a simpler way of European dining, rustic and provincial.
The highlight of your bakery is the breads. What makes your bread different? Why do you think the concept of bread has been so successful?
The reason why the concept is so successful lies in how our breads are different at Le PQ. In fact, most of our bread is sourdough bread. The difference between our bread and other kinds lies in its main ingredients. Technically, bread is composed of flour, water, salt, sometimes cereal grains, and yeast. The yeast, the fermenting agent, differentiates our bread from other kinds, as we don’t use any yeast.
Because we create sourdough bread, we don’t incorporate yeast, yet we create a starter composed of water, flour, and salt. Every 12 hours, for two weeks, we add a tiny bit of water, more flour, more salt, and a natural fermentation process will begin – yeast is present in wheat, naturally, and we simply, physically cultivate it. For sourdough breads, the natural yeast process is a much slower process than with other kinds of bread, yet with this slower fermentation you create better flavor. To start that culture is difficult as a process in terms of technicality, yet the procedure is simple! When you make the daily bread, you incorporate a piece of the naturally fermented bread, which makes your daily bread tastier. Mixing your new dough with the sourdough creates a rich, developed and textured flavor.
Do your different bakery-café locations around the world source their own local ingredients?
For the dough, and creating a naturally occurring yeast agent, this can be done easily at any of our bakeries. Perhaps the difficulty lies in the different basic qualities of the ingredients, like the water or salt. For instance, here, our bakeries must refrain from using tap water due to the higher chlorine levels, which affect the rise of the bread. With a proper filtration system, we avoid that.
You’re an advocate of the organics movement. Why?
Given our focus on creating a natural starter (yeast) for our breads, we do focus on keeping all our ingredients in their natural form. We don’t include oils, sugars or any additives. Besides the white baguette, we keep everything whole grain and preserve the natural germ and bran of the breads. When you use whole grain, the taste of the flavor of the wheat is pleasant, and doesn’t occur when you use white flour. If we can’t find it locally, we import organic wheat and organic flours. For instance, all our retail products are also organic, the jams, the oils, butter; we try and source local and organic ingredients all the time.
When are you going to introduce an organic burger to the menu?
A burger? Yea of course! Why not! Sourcing organic ingredients is expensive, but worth it. It is a niche market in terms of suppliers, so contracts with farmers and producers are integral to our ability to source these organic ingredients.
What advice do you have for home cooks baking their own bread at home?
Well, bread is not complicated. To me, there isn’t anything that could stop one from making good bread at home. Perhaps the difference between our bread and any person’s homemade attempt is the stone oven we use, and of course the steps included in making the bread. The one thing surely that could be difficult to recreate at home is sourcing the quality flour required, as well as the wheat and following the correct starter process to create naturally occurring yeast. Bread has been around for more than 5,000 years, in different ways and forms, so spending a little time at a bakery like Le PQ is worthwhile.
What’s your favorite baked good at Le PQ?
To me I love bread; I’m not a fan of sweet goods, yet I enjoy bread in all its forms. I love a nice piece of bread because it’s versatile. You can have it as savory with butter and salt, or you can make French toast. Using sourdough bread to make French toast is great as it is thicker and the batter soaks through slowly but then the final taste is fantastic. If I don’t have bread within twenty-four hours I start going crazy!
How would you describe your experience in the Middle Eastern market?
When I first came here I was very uninformed about the region, yet I discovered that the food climate is special and caters to a highly developed food culture. Baking the daily bread in the desert is a pleasant experience, and I’m very proud to be adding this experience to the rich food market in Kuwait and the Middle East. Doing business here has been a pleasure, it is easy and simple and people are welcome to new ideas.
What’s your favorite kind of cuisine?
I love trying local cuisine everywhere I go, and I find it so interesting to see how bread is included in different cultures.
For more information about Chef Alain Coumont and Le Pain Quotidien, please visit www.lepainquotidien.com .