This is a different kind of Meet the Baker story. One I wish I never had a chance to write and yet one that warms my heart. Full of sorrow and full of hope. Also, only a short one, hopefully an introduction to a more in-depth version next time I visit Paris. Let me go back in time and explain.
Back in December 2013, I met an remarkable young baker named Guillaume Viard. Guillaume was a visionary and an idealist. He was also a pragmatist. Le Pain par Nature, the bakery he had opened with another baker, his partner Luc Poggio, at 12 rue Cavallotti in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, was launched on solid grounds and soon became a favorite among les gens du quartier (the neighborhood people). Everything was home-made with sustainable ingredients. Almost everything was organic. Guillaume and Luc shared the same passion for flavor, nutrition and the environment and they were both very hard workers. The bakery thrived.
Fast forward three years. On the morning of March 31, 2016, Guillaume didn’t show up for his early morning shift. He had passed away during the night, two weeks shy of his 35th birthday. The shock was brutal and the grief incommensurable.
Flowers, poems, letters were left in front of the closed store. One of the messages said: “It is beyond understanding that you should be gone. The only possible explanation is that they needed a very good baker up in heaven.”
Guillaume had dreamed of one day going back to his family home in Central France and opening a school where aspiring bakers would not only learn their trade but also be taught first-hand the importance of responsibly sourcing ingredients. Meanwhile he lived and worked by what he believed in. He wanted to put his mark on the world and make it a better place.
He didn’t get to do all he had hoped to achieve but I am happy to report that today his legacy lives on: the bakery reopened on May 3 with Luc firmly at the helm. Luc describes the first two weeks after Guillaume’s death as harrowing: overwhelming feelings of emptiness and despair, visions of a bleak future. Unexpectedly the tears dried up on the day of the funeral when he realized it was up to him to keep Guillaume’s dream (his dream as well) alive. The idea of re-building provided a way out of the darkness. Plus les gens du quartier (the neighborhood people) had become des habitués (regulars). They loved their bakery. He couldn’t let them down.
It always takes a village and Luc has help. Guillaume’s parents have stepped up to the plate, offering support and affection. Guillaume’s dad even came to work at the bakery in the first days after re-opening when one of the workers was out sick. With no more experience than that of a home cook, he started churning out quiches lorraines and other lunch items while Luc mixed dough and baked bread and viennoiseries.
Luc’s own family is helping out as well. His dad is thinking of taking over the books and other administrative tasks and his mom is coming over next week to help develop a rhubarb tart recipe. His brother will be remodeling the living quarters.
If the decision to re-open was the first step out of despondency and gloom, the arrival of Nicolas was the second and decisive one. Aged 22, Nico is the son of a customer. Trained as a cuisinier (a cook), he also has a basic degree in pâtisserie (pastry arts). And as it happens, he was looking for a job. His mom mentioned it to Luc who agreed to interview him. It was an immediate fit. Nico is dedicated to his work and eager to learn. He is already shouldering many of Guillaume’s tasks. Luc himself is putting in very long days (from 4 AM to 8 PM with an afternoon nap) for a total of more than 80 hours a week and, while the schedule is tiring, the energy behind it motivates everyone to give it their best. Luc plans to hire an apprentice baker in September when business picks up after the summer slack.
It was about 12:30 PM when I arrived at the bakery. Luc was in the shop, filling in for the sales person (another Guillaume) who was on his lunch hour. He was busy helping customers and I stayed out of the way. A man came in. We chatted while he waited his turn. He told me he had been coming to the bakery ever since it opened back in 2013: “Leur pain, il est top. Trop bon. D’ailleurs j’adore tous leurs produits.” (Their bread is excellent. Really good. In fact I love all their products). As he turned out, he was the grocer next door, come to get bread for lunch. His name was Moustapha. He said that he had had a chat with Guillaume on the eve of his death and, as he remembered it, all was well. There was no inkling of any health problem. He shook his head at the tragic unpredictability of our shared condition. A few minutes later he smiled goodbye and left, clutching two baguettes to his heart: “Still warm!,” he said as he walked by me.
Luc ushered me into the kitchen, sat me down among covered racks of pains au chocolat and other croissants, talking in bits and pieces in between customers.
He said he and Nico were working their way through Guillaume’s recipe folder. Nico was more of a cook than a pastry chef and he himself had never done pastry before. But they were learning as they went. For instance it had taken them the best part of a week to try and reproduce Guillaume’s Paris-Brest because they couldn’t get the crème au beurre pralinée just right. Today they felt they had nailed it. They couldn’t call it a Paris-Brest because it wasn’t shaped like a bike wheel but it was close enough to be called chou façon Paris-Brest (cream puff à la Paris-Brest). Luc gave me one to take home and sample.
The almonds had been caramelized in-house, then some had been ground and incorporated into the buttercream, giving it a delicate crunch and taste. A refined dessert despite the rustic look. Sure to be a hit.
As we talked, Luc kept checking the mirror up on the wall and rushing into the shop when customers came in. I heard snippets of conversation: Bonjour, un sandwich végétarien, s’il vous plaît. Au revoir, merci. Bonjour, une baguette, s’il vous plaît. Au revoir, merci. Bonjour, un pain complet, une quiche et une bouteille d’eau, s’il vous plaît. Au revoir, merci! I could hear the smile in Luc’s voice. No impersonal service here, no au suivant! (Next!). The customers know the baker and the baker knows his customers. He knows his providers too. A tall helmeted guy came in. It was the butcher doing his round of deliveries on his moped. Out of his wearable cooler came a brown-paper package of ham and another one of chicken breasts. Both responsibly sourced. The ham wasn’t labeled organic because it had been baked in an oven also used to roast conventional items but of known origin and from responsibly raised animals. The chicken was farm-raised and organic. Luc has kept all of Guillaume’s carefully selected sources.
I could have asked many more questions but Luc had been up since 4 AM. He still had twenty minutes to go in the shop and Nico was expecting his help downstairs. I picked up my backpack. Luc walked me to the door: “Guillaume has left a huge gap in our lives but the bakery goes on. I have changed my life around. No more partying on week-ends, no more beer or wine with dinner on weeknights. The neighbors are as supportive as can be. So is my girlfriend.” We kissed on both cheeks à la Parisienne. “I am very optimistic. Guillaume taught me a lot. If I hadn’t worked with him all these years, it would be very difficult.”