In the past year, Gontran Cherrier has added ooh la la to the breadbaskets of Paris’s elite tables via his “Laboratory”, an experimental bakery—photographed today for NOWNESS by Toby Glanville—that supplies hotels and restaurants with innovative, richly flavored baguettes, brioches, focaccias and naans. Not only a culinary genius but, with his debonair looks and typically Gallic charm, something of a gourmet heartthrob, 31-year-old Cherrier is a celebrity in France, famed for hosting Canaille +, his own food program on Canal +, as well as his six best-selling cookbooks, which include Toastés and Les Bon Plats de Gontran. He's set to open his first
boulangerie in Paris this year—which will finally give his adoring public a chance to get a piece of him (or at least, his fine breads). We caught up with the suave young baker early one morning in a café in the city’s 15th arrondissement.
Did you always want to be a baker, or was it a fait accompli?
I have lots of childhood memories linked to bread, as I spent every summer holiday with my grandparents, who had a bakery by the seaside in Luc-sur-Mer. Also, I used to love helping my dad out. I even used to invite my school friends to come and watch him work. We would stay up, watch films, and when he got up at 2 or 3am to bake, we’d go bake with him. I never really wanted to do anything else, and when I began studying it, I realized how much I loved doing it. Patisserie is fun too, but there is something incredibly sensual about baking.
You seem to relate to the sexual character of bread…
Bread is the basis of all food and is very charged as a historical and religious symbol. In the olden days, women who thought they were possessed by a sexual demon would eat a phallic-shaped bread roll to exorcise it. There are lots of ex-voto breads in Italy and lots of sexual breads that look like male and female sexual parts—baguettes and breads with cracks.
There aren’t that many gourmet bakers. Why is that?
Bread baking is usually not that creative, and baking students aren’t encouraged to experiment. Patisserie yes, bread not so much. But I like to conceive it as a dish, and bring in atypical ingredients such as soya sauce; or I’ll add yogurt to give it a slight sourness, which is an Indian technique used for naans. But the classics, such as the traditional baguette, are kept the way they have always been.
Your boulangerie won’t just offer French breads, right?
There will be rotating series. Rye bread with miso, focaccia, naan, chickpea flower bread typical of the Mediterranean region, chestnut flour breads which is a Corsican recipe. There will also be Nordic breads with molasses, to which I like to add candied ginger. I get a real kick out of mixing flavors.
Can you still eat bread or are you sick of it?
Yes of course, I love it. When I go to the lab, I make mini baguettes with cereals, that I precook. I then leave them in the fridge and in the morning I slice them in two and toast them. Bread is good for you and it’s not even fattening.
No? What do you think about the Atkins craze in the States?
Bread doesn’t you make you fat, you should just watch what you put on it. This whole issue of bread making you fat comes from the industrial revolution of the bakeries in the 70s, when supermarkets began making their own bread. These are made with very white, very poor flours, which are not left to rise: these breads have little nutritional value or taste. If you take time to make good bread which is healthy, full of nutrients and bran, it can only be good for you.
And if you hadn’t been a baker?
I love working with wood, so perhaps boat design; I’m also very drawn to smell, which is a definite influence in my cooking. Who knows? But for now, I’m just having a blast making baguettes and croissants.