Bread is actually one of the oldest foods that we still make and eat today. Every culture has its own style of bread and their own style of baking.
And today, in a globalized society, we have the opportunity to share these different kinds of food with each other, regardless of what we’re used to and what we grew up with.
And for those of us who are not gluten intolerant, that’s very good news.
You might have heard the term microcosm back in a high school lit class. On a very basic level, it’s something small that can be used to represent a larger situation or idea.
Cultural diversity is a good thing. Just take a look at bread. Maybe you grew up eating French baguettes. Baguettes are great, but they only represent a small corner of the world of bread and baking in general.
And if you only ate baguettes for the rest of your life, you’d get bored. You would be denying all the other wonderful kinds of bread that are out there.
Food may seem very simple, but experiencing different kinds of food can be a step toward understanding other cultures and perspectives.
With that in mind, let’s talk about a baker who uses this idea to her advantage.
The Good Bread
Melanie Legoupil is a professional baker, originally from France. Long before entering the culinary arts, she was a student of Chinese history, but she quickly realized that she was unhappy with her career path.
In many ways, baking was something completely different. It was tangible and immediate rather than theoretical and abstract.
Most importantly, it gave her joy, which was enough to inspire a major career shift.
Now, Legoupil is an award-winning baker. She and her husband, also a baker, started their own bakery in France before moving to Canada and then the U.S., where she currently works with Chef Daniel Boulud, creating bread and desserts for his New York restaurants.
We tried some of Legoupil’s creations long before we had the chance to speak with her. Suffice it to say that we were impressed and suddenly reminded of just how enjoyable truly good food can be. It can change your day for the better and open your mind to new experiences.
We met Legoupil on a Thursday afternoon, in a little coffee shop with a few dozen of those trendy Edison bulbs.
She had brought some sweet treats for us. In an attempt to maintain journalistic objectivity, we saved them for after the interview. (They were great. Thanks again, Melanie.)
In person, Legoupil was incredibly comfortable with herself, more than willing to talk about her craft to people like us who can’t bake our way out of a paper bag.
Her Own Bakery
As a start, we asked Legoupil about the experience of starting her own bakery with her husband.
To us at least, this seemed like one of the greatest opportunities a baker could have.
And according to Legoupil, it certainly was. But it was also a huge undertaking, one that required a lot of time and a lot of effort. But for her, it was all worth it.
“Establishing the bakery was a long process, from designing the interior to the creation of the menu. It was a great experience. Testing the recipes and the evolution of the menu was complex but very creatively fulfilling. And to be able to have the feedback of the customers was very constructive.”
That immediate feedback was the perfect way to find room for improvement and individuality. It was a chance to perfect her own personal baking style and artistic voice.
And while Legoupil can create all kinds of pastries and desserts, bread remains her favorite. It turns out to be a very broad term, one that can refer to more foods and desserts than you might think.
In fact, she even taught us a new word: viennoiserie. It’s a specific type of baked goods that have a dough similar to bread, which is then enhanced with additional sweetening ingredients.
Croissants are a good example of viennoiserie. It’s puffy, sweet and savory, and has very fine layers.
“I prefer making bread and viennoiserie. I am a bread kind of person! Working on the fermentation is complicated and very interesting. And regarding the viennoiseries, making croissants is challenging because you have to create perfect layers.”
So many different elements come together to create something unique, and for an artist, that’s a fascinating process.
International Baking Methods
Having lived in several different countries throughout her life and career, Legoupil has also developed some insights into how different countries and cultures treat baking.
And of course, different countries have their own favorites when it comes to breads and other sweet treats.
“I think that Canada and the U.S. are quite similar in the approach of baking. The rustic breads and the use of older grains are very appreciated. In France, it is a little bit different because people are more likely to stick to the traditions and keep making and eating more common types of baking products.”
In other words, there are different appetites (pardon the pun) when it comes to inventiveness versus old favorites.
Maybe it’s America’s love of cooking competitions that has encouraged this apparent support of new, creative recipes and culinary ideas.
We expect culinary professionals to constantly be coming up with something new, rather than perfecting age-old methods.
It’s not inherently good or bad, just a very different way of thinking about food.
Room for Experimentation
So where does Legoupil find room for experimentation in her work? After all, baking is a scientific process, relying on basic chemical reactions and precise temperatures.
But for Legoupil, there are still plenty of options when it comes to changing up recipes.
“Making bread is very open to variations. You can change flours, add ingredients, you can change the type of kneading and the process of fermentation to have so many different results. For viennoiseries, you can make seasonal danishes with seasonal fruits, different pastry creams, or add textures. Flavors are unlimited.”
These simple changes can take something familiar and make it new and exciting, something that proves to be difficult in many other lines of work.
Making the Switch
Before we wrapped up our conversation, we wanted to ask about Legoupil’s rather drastic career change. Was it caused by a lifelong love of the culinary arts? Was she dissatisfied with her trajectory?
“What I was doing was very interesting, but I think that I didn’t really feel satisfied while studying Chinese. It was about history, not creation. I needed a way to express myself and I found it in baking.”
It’s a sentiment that we’re definitely familiar with. Trying to force creative tendencies to lie dormant while committing your time to strictly non-creative pursuits can cause friction.
Advice for the Young Ones
As a final question, we asked Legoupil whether she had any advice for young folks (or adults who find themselves in an unsavory career) looking to transition to the culinary arts.
“This career may be difficult, but keep your passion intact. Find a good school and a good working environment where you can learn a lot and have fun doing it.”
And the good news here is this advice applies to almost any career path you could think of, especially when it comes to the arts.
Melanie Legoupil was unhappy with the direction of her career and devoted herself to something she truly loved.
And now New York gets to benefit, enjoying Legoupil’s delicious baked goods in Daniel Boulud restaurants.
And in times like ours when so many different elements of our culture seem to be in flux, it’s nice to know that there are people who spend their days making foods that make people happy.
It’s an honest career in a world of largely abstract and digitized jobs and communities.
And no, we’re not advocating a mass migration of the job market to careers that have immediate tangible results, but it’s certainly not a bad idea to take a moment to appreciate the artisans who make our lives a little bit better with their craft.