The naked truth: To Bake or Not to Bake

March 14th, 2011 | Posted by greg in Daily life...

I wrote the below article for a publication (that I will keep confidential). It has been censored gently turned down as it was exposing an inconvenient truth happening in the world of bakery.

Seeing a money-oriented cartel destroying our craft saddens me. I had to share it.

Countless nations are tangled in what seems to be a never-ending whirlpool of the bakery trade globalization.  Sadly, this inglorious situation isn’t particular to Hong Kong alone.

The baking craft, our craft, is dying.  Today, most youngsters have more interest in graduating from university, wearing a suit and carrying a smart phone to make them look good. Teenagers, nowadays, are no longer curious about one of the oldest trades known to support humanity, which also provides one of the most consumed staple foods in the world.

Working overnight, getting a lower than average salary and producing goods that most of the time are given away for free in hotels and restaurants, this also keeps away potential bakery recruits.

I’m not blaming the young generation.  We are the ones to be blamed as our generation has created the missing link.  Today, there are just a handful of bakers passing on their passion to tomorrow’s bakers in Hong Kong.

Far too many food and beverage professionals are stuck in the nineties (or earlier) mindset to cut cost and maximize profit by outsourcing bakery products.  Yet, every day when they try a croissant, they complain about its quality.  I ask myself the question: Is it really low food cost or poor management that compels their decisions?

Industrial bakeries haven’t done anything wrong, they simply capitalized on a bleeding wound we’d opened and have ever since struggled to contain the hemorrhage.  In other words, the food and beverage industry created its own monster, slowly eating away of what is left of the bakery trade we once knew.

It’s our goal as responsible and passionate bakers to sustain our craft.  I could fill a whole book with arguments I’ve heard from people explaining why they’re not having an in-house bakery production facility and the staff that goes with it.  The number one being: “Mmhh … we’re not a 5-star hotel, so we’re okay with a lower standard.” Spot on!  It fits right into the nineties mindset.  This is bland thinking, surfing the wave of our industry globalization, just go with the flow …

We just turn numb to feelings, quality and passion. Efforts are too few and willingness is fading; profit is the nerf de la guerre, sadly.

Baking your bread in-house offers great advantages and gives you the opportunity to be different, to be unique, to show off quality, to differentiate your operation from that of your neighbors.  Don’t you hate that feeling of a déjà-vu with your breads?

Being a baker is not the end of it all.  Like with any other career path, there are endless opportunities to flourish, develop and put all your passion into building creative business ventures, remodeled production schemes that can sustain quality and tradition in today’s demanding environment.

We can speculate on whether a bakers’ association, a baking school, baking demonstrations and other courses would help reshape the poor status of baking interest among youngsters.  But after all, will any of them actually build a career upon it?

Well, perhaps, yes!  If we don’t try, we’ll never know if the art of real bread will be rising and rising again, will we?

NB: Photos are taken from my upcoming baking book! :)

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27 Responses

  • pickyin @ LifeIsGreat says:

    The quality of a restaurant’s bread is important to me and I’ll pay good money for a place who bakes their own bread.

    That said, the path of baking as a trade is a hard one and only those with a baker’s heart would be able to follow it. I’ve baked a stone hard sourdough after cultivating a starter at home for three weeks using expansive organic flour. I am not deterred from giving it another go but to do this professionally will probably not even pay my rent. That’s the reality we face today.

    • Anonymous says:

      I completely agree with your views on restaurants baking their own bread. And yes… baking is not an easy path, but artisan breads that have been crafted with care are so much better than any industrial breads… :) Thanks a lot for your insight!

  • Matthieu N says:

    agree. bread is the way i judge hotels and restaurants.
    bread is the base of my meals, thanks to food education in nice parts of france where fresh breads, baked few times a day with secret yeast taught me flavors….
    as you said, the craft is losing its appeal, even in France….maybe we will have to rely on korean or japanese bakers in the future to teach us what we start to lose in France…

    • Anonymous says:

      Matthieu: Wow! Well spoken! …only word of truth there!

      • Tom W says:

        I stumbled across a small cafe in the backstreets of some industrial town near Hakuba. It looked cool so I went inside and found a guy and his wife doing just 2 things. Coffee (her) and wood fired bread (him). They had basically given everything up to devote themselves to it.

        The passion was inspiring but… the bread, a revelation – a wood fired crust and then a sour doughy interior.

        Any other country would have an ethos which says that this is stupid, unprofitable. Phew for Japan (and good thoughts to them now)

        • Anonymous says:

          Very much so… I admire people who can live their passion without worrying about what the rest of the world thinks. I love this kind of places and people! Just unique…
          Japanese are amazingly passionate people – all my thoughts go to them.

  • Pierrick_boyer says:

    Great pictures Gregoire

  • Fina says:

    You are so right. Kids think they can get food from restaurants and supermarkets. They are eating what is available, not what they want. Even my husband believes I am wasting my time on baking.

    You can organize more baking class to train people baking their own bread.

  • Thanks for this post Gregoire, very illuminating. I’ve also been writing about this issue`; Training machine minders to make bread. Make it stop!’ http://thecraftbaker.co.uk/?p=297

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi Angela,
      Your article is prompting and very very well showing the situation. It is a worldwide problem. In France, Switzerland, Hong Kong, UK and so on, the bakery trade faces the same issues. I believe, like so many people expressed in these reactions, that spreading the passion and the knowledge is the key. We’ve been to schools (http://www.gregoiremichaud.com/archives/778) trying to spread the word and show what is good food to kids. The way to go!

  • Teresa says:

    In Hong Kong, I think there are several reasons why people don’t bake or didn’t want to join as basker. First, as you mentioned, the starting salary is not high and make most youngsters turn away from this job. Young people today are so well protected, just like inside the greenhouse. Secondly, most customers don’t aware what they are eating. They believe most of the the bread or cake they ate are good for their health and it is so cheap and convenient to buy from local bakery shop. Until I took a bakery class and then I realise we should cook our own food or bake our own bread. Therefore, I think letting public aware what they are eating are important. Also, I found baking makes family stay closer, if you bake good bread, cookies or meals, kids and the other half love to stay home to eat and share the joy. The rent in HK is crazy, I enjoy food that cooks with heart, however, I found the small restaurants that I like disappered very quick and most of the time that come from the increasing of rent and not really on food source:( Well, when I have a chance now I always tell my freind how easy it is to bake and give them a receipe to try. Let encourage more people to bake and have fun! Teresa

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience Teresa. I agree with you totally.
      Developed countries all work on an economic model where artisan crafts is not encouraged. Global production schemes, extreme productivity with the lowest cost possible – never mind the quality – is what kills our trade!

  • yvonne says:

    All the good handicraft are dying not only in bakery world. It’s quality vs quantity. Cut cost is the main theme to boost production and profit. Customers are used to accept what’s available on the market with attractive prices. When it’s too convenient and numerous choices, it seems not economical in terms of time and money to cook or bake yourself. Hope to see more passionate chefs not only in 5 star hotels or retaurants but round the corner in the neighbourhood just like Japan.

    • Anonymous says:

      Very well said Yvonne…
      Our society does not encourage a similar culture like they have in Japan or like we used to have in other countries long time ago. Profitability is the only concern and it’s very sad.
      I like it when you say: “Hope to see more passionate chefs not only in 5 star hotels or retaurants” It’s so true!!! :)

  • Jeremy says:

    Reminds me of all the wonderful bakeries we have in memory that are closed….and when young people who do love bread want to start, money is the issue, rent, costs…how could food be a commodity, why do money lenders want to rob us of our most important nourishment, bread, holy and sanctified and stamped in all our memories of what is good….

    Thanks for you insight and inspiration chef!
    Got to get your books!!

    Jeremy

  • Graz says:

    Well I agree with you. Most of the youngsters prefer to grad from degree (at least) then get a high-paid job. Well, for me, a associate degree holder, working for 5 yrs, feel a bit upset with the field I’m working in, too. I find that I don’t really love in working in the garment industry, and it is dying, too!! Since too many factories close down or move to China, or even Bangladesh or any other 3rd world counries… And I start to ask myself if I really want to change the field.
    Actually I want to be a trainee / apprentice of making bread/pastries but what I concern is I can’t afford my life with low or even no salary and I don’t have enough strength to work overnite:( ? I’m afraid I’m too old to be an apprentice tho…
    That’s what I’m worried abt.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for your input Graz. I can totally picture your situation and I understand that changing career like that isn’t easy and imply great financial sacrifice. I guess a good starting point, that everyone could do, is to buy bread from good small artisan shop to support the local economy.

      I always believe “when there is a will, there is a way.” Home-grown businesses are popping everywhere… Some people make great jams and sell them through Facebook and so on… It may be small, but it’s already a step in the right direction. :)

  • Hemant says:

    Buddy ! thanks for the books … i am making our pastry guys try out some of your work, and keep trying until Michaud like breads out of the oven … cheers !

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for supporting the pastry and bakery craft! Let me know if your team has questions! BTW, I am travelling to Mumbai in June, would be nice to meet for a cup of tea! ;)

  • Spencer says:

    I think some of the responsibility lies in the owner of a bakery.  I have seen some owners who have become careless or lazy by using shortcuts.  For example, instead of maintaining and using a real sourdough for a bread production, a ready bread-mixed base is use for making sourdough breads.  The owner does this because there is no sourdough to maintain, and the time it takes to mix the bread mixed based to baking the final bread product is within a couple of hours.  Also time is money.  Although it is cheap to make this bread, the ingredients in this ready bread-mixed base has chemicals in it that gives the bread the sour taste and makes the fermentation go faster.  I’ve seen owners used cheap margarine that has been sitting on a shelf (room temperature) instead of butter because it is cheaper.  I have seen owners who removed butter from a bread dough recipe because now they’re claiming their breads are fat free!  In reality it’s an excuse to say butter is now expensive!  I have seen owners use a bread shaping technique to make their 500g bread dough proof bigger!  However, my 500g bread dough proofs bigger than theirs because I remember to observe the fermentation principles.

    The owners need to lead by example and need to have pride in their jobs.  One way is to actually get out on the baking floor and start making bread with the rest of the bakers. The owner needs to show the workers that he/she really cares. The owner needs to observe and respect principles that we learned in baking school and never to stray away from them.  Although times are tough today, it doesn’t mean we have to give up on using ingredients we cannot afford.  The owners can designate every Tuesday as “Brioche” day or Friday as “Raisin and Walnut” bread day!  Also owners need to be creative and inventive!!  The owners need to get back to the basics…like respecting the sourdough and to make bread naturally.  I think if they observe all of these principles, the customers will take notice!

  • Spencer says:

    I think some of the responsibility lies in the owner of a bakery.  I have seen some owners who have become careless or lazy by using shortcuts.  For example, instead of maintaining and using a real sourdough for a bread production, a ready bread-mixed base is use for making sourdough breads.  The owner does this because there is no sourdough to maintain, and the time it takes to mix the bread mixed based to baking the final bread product is within a couple of hours.  Also time is money.  Although it is cheap to make this bread, the ingredients in this ready bread-mixed base has chemicals in it that gives the bread the sour taste and makes the fermentation go faster.  I’ve seen owners used cheap margarine that has been sitting on a shelf (room temperature) instead of butter because it is cheaper.  I have seen owners who removed butter from a bread dough recipe because now they’re claiming their breads are fat free!  In reality it’s an excuse to say butter is now expensive!  I have seen owners use a bread shaping technique to make their 500g bread dough proof bigger!  However, my 500g bread dough proofs bigger than theirs because I remember to observe the fermentation principles.

    The owners need to lead by example and need to have pride in their jobs.  One way is to actually get out on the baking floor and start making bread with the rest of the bakers. The owner needs to show the workers that he/she really cares. The owner needs to observe and respect principles that we learned in baking school and never to stray away from them.  Although times are tough today, it doesn’t mean we have to give up on using ingredients we cannot afford.  The owners can designate every Tuesday as “Brioche” day or Friday as “Raisin and Walnut” bread day!  Also owners need to be creative and inventive!!  The owners need to get back to the basics…like respecting the sourdough and to make bread naturally.  I think if they observe all of these principles, the customers will take notice!

    • Wow, thanks for sharing your opinion! I totally relate to what you say and 100% agree. You seem to be an experienced baker to know all these details of the trade! :)

      Owners are solely responsible… if they have the right ethics, it will reflect in their product for sure!



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