When I saw Loïc for the first time, he was only a blur walking up and down the opposite aisle from where we sat in an Air France wide-bodied jet traveling from Paris to Seattle. Since he was one of two flight attendants in charge of the side of the cabin across from ours and I slept or read most of the way, I don’t recall even really noticing him. But as luck would have it, our friends Larry Lowary and Gerry Betz from Tree-Top Baking were seated on that side (the four of us were on the same flight home from Europain 2012). They struck up a conversation with Loïc and his colleague Xavier. One thing led to another and they ended up inviting them to come and visit them the next day at their Whidbey Island home and bakery. Loïc fell under the spell of what he could glimpse of their baking life and declared himself eager to discover more.
Larry and Gerry invited him to come back and spend a week with them at the bakery. For various reasons, that didn’t happen until early December when Christmas baking was in full swing. Gerry was making kringles and I went over to observe him and to meet their guest. Cheerful and easy going, I liked him instantly and we soon found ourselves chatting away like a pair of old friends.
When he went back to France to resume flying around the world, we remained in touch via Facebook, which is how I found out, a few months later, that he was contemplating a career switch: he had applied to the baking program at Ferrandi, possibly France’s most prestigious trade school, and had been accepted (one of ten successful candidates out of a hundred). My head spinning from this turn of events (I knew he loved his job as a flight attendant), I asked Loïc what had brought it about. He replied immediately: “My chance encounter with the Whidbey bakers on that flight from Paris” (a flight which, incidentally, was the last direct Air France flight on that route). As to the timing of his decision, he attributes it to two tragedies that struck too close for comfort: the crash of Air France flight 447 out of Rio in June 2009 (which killed passengers and crew) and the Newtown shooting of last December in which I lost my grandson Noah. Loïc had only met me one week earlier. The message was clear: life was too unpredictable to postpone one’s dreams.
When I arrived in Paris last month, Loïc was nearing the mid-point of a sixteen-week training program at the end of which he would obtain his CAP boulanger (certificate of professional competence as a bread baker). To say that he is happy with his training would be a serious understatement. He loves the fact that the group is small (ten apprentices), that he is constantly learning new doughs and techniques and that the instructor, Christophe Moussu, is the kindest and most patient of teachers (“la gentillesse et la patience incarnées”), always ready with a helping hand. With twenty-five years of experience in bread and pastry, Mr. Moussu is both a master baker and a pastry chef. He’s passionate about teaching: “I want the apprentices to develop a real feel for the dough,” but he knows that right now they are just playing at being bakers. No amount of schooling will replace work in an actual bakery where they will have to contend with a rigorous production schedule and where nobody will be holding their hands.
On a cloudy Parisian morning, Mr. Moussu fitted me with a white jacket and snuck me inside his lab for a quick peek at what the trainees were doing.
Under this particular program, the apprentices study at the school from September to December (their training is mostly hands-on but also include a full day of theory per week plus weekly classes in hygiene, security, risk prevention and business law), complete a fourteen-to-sixteen-week internship in a bakery from January to April, come back to the school in May for two weeks of review and take the final exam in June. Having opted for an additional three-week of pastry training, Loïc should be done with school by the end of July 2014.
There is no risk and no cost involved for him in this exploration of a possible new career path: Air France is picking up the tab of his training under FONGECIF (a fund to which companies are required to contribute to finance time-off for training purposes) and he is still being paid his salary. When done with school, he will go back to Air France where his job is being kept open for him. He won’t have to leave the company unless he wants to.
When we met for lunch after school, I asked Loïc: “Why bread?” He replied: “Initially, it wasn’t so much bread per se. What drove me was the keen desire to feed others. But my faith is important to me and I am aware of strong religious connotations (Christ broke a bread open and handed pieces of it to his disciples and said: “This is my body”). Also, bread is part and parcel of the French cultural identity and I feel deeply French.” He added: “Passion isn’t in my nature, so I can’t say I am passionate about bread. It’d be more accurate to say that I am fascinated. When I watched Larry and Gerry at work in their bakery, I had no idea why they were doing what they were doing. But I liked what they had me do. I remember their printing formulas for me. I had no clue how to use them. Now it is all coming together. That’s a great feeling.”
Loïc thought some more and amended what he had just said: “In fact I do have a passion and that’s for learning through experience. I loved my job at Air France. But I have done it now for fifteen years and time has come to discover something new. What I truly appreciate about the bakers I have met so far is that they care deeply about sharing their knowledge and expertise. They are bonnes pâtes.” (A bonne pâte, literally a “good dough”, is an affectionate expression designating a good person.) “They have instilled in me love and respect for le travail du pain (dough handling) and I have found out at school that I greatly enjoy shaping and creating beautiful breads. Also, when I helped Larry and Gerry sell at the market, I witnessed the strength of the bonds they have forged with the community over the years. I want that. I want to settle down somewhere, feed people and get to know them. Some bakers say that you need to be passionate about bread to work the required long hours and exhausting shifts. I don’t see it that way. I am a people person. My hard work will go towards building the customer base that will be my reward. To answer your initial question, bread may be what will carry the day for me but if it turns out to be something else entirely, so be it.”
After I left, as I was walking towards the métro, I got a call from Loïc on my cell phone asking me to come back to the fournil (the lab). He sounded mysterious, I headed back and he came out into the courtyard to meet me, holding a gigantic bag of croissant-dough bats (Halloween was coming up) that he had forgotten to give me. He had made them himself.
He warned me not to eat them all by myself. So, in the spirit of sharing and because I was headed next to meet a friend who works for the Paris Opéra ballet company, I re-gifted most of the bats to dancers and ballerinas. When I later told Loïc, he said it was a great idea because ballet dancers were in a perfect position to work these buttery bats off. I did save one for each of us. They were sinful and since I am not a ballerina, I am indeed glad I ate only one. But they were delicious. Merci, Loïc !