Monday, November 11, 2013

Meet the Apprentice: Loïc Pinel

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."


(Above photos reproduced with Loïc's kind permission)
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 !

20 comments:

  1. Beautiful breads! I will use them as inspiration for my next baking day. The little bats are just lovely!
    And it is admirable when someone follows his dreams like Loïc does. Thank you for this "meet the baker"!

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    1. Thanks for visiting, Stephanie! I can't wait to follow Loïc in his new career and maybe one day do a Meet the Baker post on him!

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  2. What a beautiful, heartwarming and inspiring story. And beautiful breads too. Lots of ideas to try out.

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    1. Hello, Euan! I can't wait to see some of these breads appear on your gorgeous blog!

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  3. The most wonderful, beautiful write up. The pictures are great but the human experiences and kindness are so wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing MC.
    Mantana

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    1. Mantana, you are too kind! As always. Thank you! But yes, Loïc's story is inspiring and heart-warming. I am looking forward to one day follow up on his story.

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  4. MC, what a beautiful beautiful story.
    The pictures are just wonderful but my heart still resonate with Loïc's words and thoughts.
    I am too considering a career switch...who knows, his story gives me hope.
    What a lucky coincidence for all of you to meet and all this to happen.
    Thank you so much for sharing.
    Have a wonderful evening
    Lou

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    1. Thank you, Lou! Whole books could be written on the role of coincidences in one's life, right? It makes my head spin, really. Best of luck to you! Please keep me posted!

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  5. Here I am again, crossing my fingers that this time my comment won't disappear...

    Loved this whole post, you are such a natural writer, taking your readers on amazing virtual walks with you! Perhaps my favorite line was "la gentillesse et la patience incarnées" - some expressions simply do not translate, but this one has the exact counterpart in my mother language - "a gentileza e a paciencia re-encarnadas" - I opened a huge smile when I read it...

    The dough with the squid ink made me intrigued, anxious to see what it would do to the taste and the crumb of a bread.... what an amazing addition to a dough!

    I will stop here, afraid of saying too much more and losing it all again.... the gremlins might be hard at work today!

    gros bisous, one day I hope I could walk the streets of your home town with you!

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    1. Hello Sally! And thank you for trying again even though the Blogger gremlins ate your first comment. What meanies! I know you would have loved meeting with Loïc and maybe one day, who knows, we will be visiting Parisian bakeries together and documenting the experience for our blogs. That would be such fun!
      Re: squid ink bread. I had a taste of Gontran Cherrier's squid ink baguette with nigella seeds last month and didn't particularly care for it. But I think it was because of the specific taste of the seeds. Also I don't think it was meant to be eaten by itself but to accompany strong-tasting foods such as smoked meat or fish. It is apparently very good with speck.
      Bisous too!
      MC

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  6. Dear MC,
    I’m struck by how, on your flight, a chance meeting, friendly conversation and the extension of hospitality to a virtual stranger – have awakened a new dream for Loïc. Your friends Larry and Gerry certainly are bonnes pâtes :^)
    Your photos take us along on this part of Loïc’s journey. The breads, all those beautiful shapes!, all so lovely to behold; the pastries he made specially for you, weightless layers of butter goodness. This makes me think of the ballerinas and how they must float weightlessly across the stage, and how nice it was Loic’s kindness could be shared with them. The last photograph is so poetic, the ballerina’s skirt with all of its ‘layers’...
    Thank you for sharing this story and I wish your new friend success, and every happiness.
    :^) breadsong

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    1. Hello breadsong and thank you so much for pointing out the "feuilletage" (laminated layers) on the tutu. I love it...

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  7. Hi MC,
    Thanks for sharing this amazing story. One never knows the role one will play in someone else's life. How a little hospitality has gone a long long ways and is continually being extended to others now that Loic is baking and passing on what was so generously given to him. He sounds like a fine young man that will do splendidly well in the next phase of his professional life. How fortunate are those who love the work that supports them.
    Thanks again for such a heart warming story.
    Take Care,
    Janet

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    1. Oh, thank you, Janet! And you are so right, it is amazing that a chance encounter can make such a difference in someone's life. I am pretty sure the Tree-Top bakers never thought they would alter the course of Loïc's when they invited him over... Hugs, MC

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  8. Hi MC,
    Ah but had I known you were there at Ferrandi, I would have loved to say hi. Who knows, maybe i did cross your path on the school's premises that day?? I've read your blog for a long time and as I mentioned before, I really enjoy your posts on artisan bakers. Always been thankful (even when I don't leave a comment) on your generosity in sharing and meticulously documenting your visits. The last example being the kneading conference. (actually I did leave a comment but I think it disappeared??). I wanted to say such conferences are great and how lucky participants are. I like this open, DIY-ish approach in the US, which I find lacking in France. If you ever come to know of such bread conferences open to amateurs in France, could you kindly let me know?? Thanks!

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    1. Hello, bread and quinces (I couldn't find your first name, sorry!)! I would have dropped by and said hello if I had known you were at Ferrandi. Are you teaching/studying there? If you don't feel like answering in a comment, maybe you could send me a little email. I love your blog and its beautiful pictures and it'd have been fun for our paths to cross. Next time?
      Unfortunately I know of no such bread conferences in France but I will post soon on a very talented woman baker who gives bread-baking seminars near Paris. Attending one of those might be a good starting point. Who knows? You might even start a group...

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  9. What a wonderful world it is when a chance meeting like the one Loic had onboard results in his change of direction! Thank you for this story and I wish him all the best. The breads he's made are beautiful! I always thought bakers had to be people's people, just like flight attendants. I know from experience. Be well, MC. X Julia

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    1. Loïc said he always thought being a flight attendant was one of the best jobs in the world. But he has several lives in him and now time has come to move to a new one... His story is indeed one of hope and trust. I am glad it had a special resonance for you. :)

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  10. A truly delightful adventure . . . thanks so much for sharing ! It's always a tremendous pleasure to float through your prose over a nice piece of buttered toast, and to experience so intimately, through your eyes and your words, your travels and your stories. I've really enjoyed your blog and hope that you continue to dazzle us adoring fans !
    It's also so coincidental: just a day ago, I was telling my friend (who hails from Aix-en-Provence) about my desire to move to France in order to pursue a CAP. She sent me a link to the baking program at Ferrandi, of which I've been dreaming ever since. This story certainly buoys my hopes !

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  11. What an amazing coincidence indeed! Wow! I am glad. It sounds like an omen, doesn't it?
    Thank you so much for your kind words regarding Farine. I am glad you enjoy it.
    Best of luck, and in case you switch your life over to France and the baking life, please keep me posted!

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