Joël Defives, chef boulanger (head baker) at la Boulangerie Thierry Marx in Paris 8, has sure come a long way since his early days. Orphaned at 5, he knew by age 7 that he wanted to become a baker. His reasons? The baker was the richest person in the village and he was determined to raise out of poverty. Also, being a baker would mean working nights and mostly by himself. That suited him just fine: he was a shy boy, wary of social interaction.
His life took a turn for the better when he started his apprenticeship. His maître d’apprentissage (apprenticeship supervisor) was terrific, the first to talk to him as one would a normal person. Thriving under his supervision, the youngster learned to trust himself. After two years, in 1982, he got his CAP de boulanger (certificate of professional ability). Then he joined l’Union des Compagnons du Tour de France des Devoirs Unis (Union Compagnonnique). (In the early days compagnonnage was typically limited to the building professions. It opened to bakers in 1811.)
L’Union became his family. To this day he proudly wears attached to both ears tiny gold rondelles (not sure what the exact translation would be, maybe “washers”?) which, unlike regular earrings, cannot be removed. Their circularity symbolize the freedom of movement that has traditionally be granted to compagnons since the Middle Ages. They also symbolize belonging and commitment.
Compagnons help each other every step of the way throughout their lives. “Les Compagnons, c’est ma famille. On te tend la main. Le travail en lui-même, c’est une valeur. Travail, honnêteté, fraternité, partage, entraide entre gens de métier.” (Companions are my family. A helping hand always at the ready. Work itself as a value, honesty, brotherhood, sharing, mutual assistance between craftsmen.) It is no accident that Boulangerie Thierry Marx is run by two compagnons (more on Thierry Marx in this interview – in French.)
As a compagnon, Joël travelled all over France, meeting bakers who helped steer him towards the right career path. He soon earned two more certificates of professional ability: pastry (1984), cuisine (1991), then in rapid succession, three brevets de maîtrise (master’s qualifications): Boulangerie (1992) , Pâtisserie (1994) and Charcutier-Traiteur (butcher/caterer) (1997).
When he passed his brevet de maîtrise boulangerie, the president of the jury asked him to come work for him. He accepted. The president’s son was training for the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) competition. At the time Joël didn’t even imagine that such a title might one day be within his reach. But working alongside the young baker every day, he slowly realized that there was no magic involved and that the only requirement was the will to work hard. The president’s son became MOF in 1994. Joël started dreaming.
For a shy young introvert, putting himself in the running meant taking risks, overcoming his shyness, working on his verbal skills, and learning to interact with others, especially with other MOFs. Joël started participating in other competitions: he was a finalist at Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (World Cup) in 2002, won second place at Championnat de France and first place at Championnat d’Europe (European bread championship) in 2003. And he worked, worked, worked.
In 2004 he won the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France. It changed his life. Wherever he goes, he now gets the red carpet treatment, especially in Asia, and this, despite the language barrier (he doesn’t speak English), to the point that he must make a conscious effort to keep a level head.
And he has become a people’s person. A self-described saltimbanque de la profession (itinerant baker,) he works with people every minute of every day, traveling the world as an instructor for l’Institut National de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie (INBP) and as a consultant.
He has worked all over indeed: continental France, La Réunion, Japan, Colombia, the USA, Germany, Spain, etc.) and he knows with absolute certainty that way back when he was a little boy, he made the right career choice: “Mon métier, c’est ma vie. Et j’ai envie d’apporter à mon métier ce qu’il m’a apporté, cette joie, ce bonheur. C’est aussi grâce à ce métier que j’élève ma famille, d’où beaucoup de satisfaction de ce côté-là aussi.” (My job is my life. And I want to give back to it what it brought to me: joy and happiness. It also made it possible for me to raise a family and given me a lot of satisfaction in that respect as well.”
The profession has evolved tremendously – for the better- since he was young. In the old days bakers worked nights. Everything was baked before 10 AM. Things started to change in the 80’s. Today bakers can have a family life and even some spare time for hobbies. They mix one day, shape and bake the next. The bread tastes better, it is more digestible and the baker’s quality of life has improved.
Bread consumption is going down in France however and the profession has reached a new milestone. To survive, bakers need to emphasize la petite restauration (snacks, sandwiches).
And in a testament to the creativity and savoir-faire of both Joël Defives and Thierry Marx, Boulangerie Thierry Marx offers something I have never seen in a bakery before: bread makis.
Makis come with different garnishes (gambas, BLT, salmon, grilled cheese, etc.) and are assembled right in front of the customers.
Maki dough is regular pâte à pain de mie (sandwich bread dough) leavened with commercial yeast. It ferments quickly (about an hour) and bakes for 90 minutes in big metal pans.
Then the bread is sliced and left to dry out for a day or two. At assembly time, the slices are toasted on one side on a teppan (Japanese iron plate.)
…before being garnished and rolled on a traditional makisu.
Since I visited the bakery in late morning and was expected for lunch in another part of Paris shortly afterwards, I didn’t get to sample any of the makis. But going back to check them out is definitely on my agenda for the next trip.
Downstairs in the lab (roomy by Paris standard, squeaky clean and beautifully organized) dough was being rolled out for brioche feuilletée cappuccino.
The bakery -which opened in May 2016 – only makes naturally leavened bread. It uses a firm wheat starter for the larger pieces and a liquid starter for everything else, baguettes included. To keep acetic acids in check, Joël uses water at 40°C/104° F when he refreshes his firm levain. Then he sticks the levain back in the fridge at 4-6°C/39-43°F. He has found that this combination of temperatures (the warmth of the water and the cold of the fridge) creates the optimal environment for the balance of flavors he is looking for.
The bakery offers seven different breads out of six different doughs. “Une gamme courte permet de faire des pains top.” (Limiting the offer makes it possible to offer high-quality products.) Everything is baked on the premises.
(Sorry about the quality of the pictures. I only had my phone with me and lighting wasn’t ideal. The only reason I got decent pictures of the brioches feuilletées is because I bought a couple to take home. I would have loved to load up on bread but I had a busy day ahead of me and schlepping loaves all over Paris didn’t sound like a good idea.) The baguette looked very tempting though. As expected, it is the bakery’s best-seller (baguettes account for 70% of all bread sales in France.)
Another best-seller is la tourte de meule (miche made with T-110 stone-ground wheat flour).
All flours are organic and come from Moulins de Brasseuil, less than 200 km/125 miles away. Incidentally the bakery sources most of its ingredients from farmers who practice sustainable agriculture less than 200 km away.
Are French bakers interested in milling their own grains and sourcing them directly from the farmers? Joël shakes his head. Historically the relationship between millers and bakers in France has always been an uneasy one. But millers represent very powerful economic interests and most bakers find it very much to their advantage to work closely with a miller. Contrary to what might be the case in the US, millers offer a wide variety of grains and flours so that bakers have no incentive to start milling for themselves.
“Si j’ai un conseil à donner aux jeunes, c’est de prendre plaisir à leur travail. Le métier de boulanger prend énormément de temps sur la famille et les loisirs mais il offre de grandes récompenses ensuite.” (My advice for young bakers is to enjoy their work. The profession requires a huge time investment -time you won’t have for family or leisure- but it brings huge rewards down the road.)
“Les jeunes, c’est l’avenir de la profession. Il faut employer les bons mots, être là au bon moment pour eux. Si un jeune me dit, “c’est grâce à vous que j’ai démarré dans la profession”, c’est sûr que ça va me toucher droit au coeur.” (The young are the future of our profession. We need to find the right words and be there for them at the right time. If a young baker tells me: “I have you to thank for choosing this profession,” that will go straight to my heart for sure.
Years ago somebody clearly found the right words for the young Joël Defives.