A clock dangling crookedly from the wall reads 7:00 am; like many of France’s 8,000-odd bread-making professionals, Takashi, 34, has been at it since four a.m.
“Right now I’m working the oven,” he explains without looking up, his batter-webbed fingers whirling symmetrical lengths of paste onto a stretcher-like table. “Over there I’m making baguettes for tonight,” he continues, nodding diagonally to a countertop across the room; “oh, and this here is for tomorrow’s sesame seed baguettes,” his voice adds, his trim body having already glided over to confront a mixing machine in the corner. He flips a switch, twists a knob, and the dough begins to heave.
Swirling his attention back to the stretcher, Takashi reaches for a handful of flour, and with a flourish of his wrist, coats his neat rows of pre-baguettes in a blanket of white. He glazes them with surgical precision before ruthlessly hurling the tray along the stretcher into the oven’s mouth. The wheel catches his t-shirt — which reads ‘Boulanger Artisanal,’ meaning artisanal baker — and he lets out a startled cry, before pulling the cotton free and carrying on. “It’s like that here,” he shrugs. The dough in the corner begins to gurgle, and Takashi slashes at it with a machete-like blade.
France versus Japan
Six years ago, Takashi arrived in France on a working holiday visa to learn the art of the French boulangerie. He cut his teeth with a year-long apprenticeship and several years’ employment at high-end artisanal chain Eric Kayser before accepting his current role as chief bread man at La Boulangerie Christophe François, a neighbourhood bakery on rue Custine in Paris’ 18th arrondissement. Six mornings a week, the Tokyo native and jazz guitar player turns out 500 to 700 traditional baguettes and countless other forms of French loaf. He shares the hot, fragrant space with Sallim, a Tunisian man with mischievous, Charlie Chaplin eyebrows, and Vincent, a sweet-talking French pastry chef.
“Come watch me for a while,” Vincent beckons from dessert land, where he is decorating glistening rounds of chocolate mousse, “pastries are more interesting than bread — and the French are better chefs than the Japanese!” he adds playfully, causing Takashi to glance up from his writhing blob and yelp his disagreement.
While both nations are renowned for their spectacular cuisine, restaurant appraiser Michelin has once again ruled that Japan takes the culinary cake. The French 2012 Guide awards the highest 3-star rating to 16 restaurants in Tokyo, and to 32 across Japan while France, the guide’s home country, lags behind with a total of 25 top-tier restaurants, 10 of which are in Paris. There are two areas of the kitchen, however, in which France has managed to hold onto its historic prestige: Japan still defers to France for the je ne sais quoi of upper crust bread and crème de la crème pastries.
Dominique Descamps, Director of the Ecole de boulangerie et patisserie in Paris estimates that there are several hundred Japanese chefs who come to France each year to study French bread and pastry-making. His school alone welcomes 140 students from culinary schools in Fukuoka and Tokyo for an annual crash-course in French pastry. “The Japanese have a particular aptitude for all things gastronomy and cuisine. It’s not by coincidence that Tokyo is where you find the most Michelin-starred restaurants,” he says. “Japanese chefs bring an artistic quality to the skills and knowledge they come here to acquire about French cuisine and gastronomy.”
The Mecca of bread
For Takashi, the decision to come to France was an easy one. “I wanted to become the best baker possible so I asked myself: where is the Mecca of bread?” So entrenched is Japanese respect for French bread that the word for bread in Japanese is the French term pain. Having shed his checked pants and clogs for a bomber jacket and poor boy cap, Takashi leans over to draw a triangle in my notepad. “Let’s call this the pyramid of boulangers,” he says, filling in the summit with black ink; “this is the top tier, and everyone in it is French.”
And pain, for this man, is a calling.
As a penniless sociology student in Tokyo, Takashi subsisted on france pain, a humble, mid-‘80s Japanese simulation of French bread, which pre-dates the 1990s baguette boom when French bread brands Paul, Eric Kayser and others swooped in to saturate the Japanese market. Bringing his modest daily loaf to the student canteen, he would ask the cooks to fill it with leftovers. “They put all kinds of things in there — whatever they had! Sometimes fried potatoes, sometimes fish. I had no money, I didn’t care.”
His decision, a few years later, to devote himself to bread stemmed from this appreciation. “Bread saved my life. I wanted, in my work, to make something modest that everyone eats, that contributes to society,” he says. “Bread in France is like rice in Japan; everyone can afford it, and it is eaten at every meal.”
Takashi feels that the French passion for pain can, however, be taken to extremes. He laughingly recounts a conversation with a French friend who complained about the lack of baguettes (the French word for chopsticks) at a Paris sushi restaurant. “’What do you mean there are no chopsticks, of course there are!’ I told her —” his face crumples in dismay; “but she didn’t mean chopsticks.”
“Without bread, Japanese people would survive,” he concludes, “but the French… I’m not so sure.”
During a four-minute break on the job, pinching a home-rolled cigarette between his guitarist’s fingers, surveying Montmartre dawn through dusted spectacles, Takashi brings up the future. “It’s physical work,” he confesses, “By 45 I won’t be able to continue at this pace.” He muses that he might like to start a bakery of his own some day, or perhaps become a teacher, and help to form France’s next generation of boulangers.
For now, however, he is at peace. “My goal is to bake bread in the morning and play jazz in the evening,” he tells me. “And sleep at night,” he adds as an afterthought. And so he does, even if a ‘night’s’ sleep comes in two three-hour intervals.
The four minutes are up. Cigarette half-smoked, words hanging on his lips, Takashi disappears in a puff of flour to attend to his traditional French loaves.