Alain Coumont opened the first Le Pain Quotidien on Rue Danasert in Brussels, Belgium on October 26, 1990. He sought to create a place that guests could adopt as a second home, and be served food and bread that adhered to the principles of simple cooking and slow living that he found – and still finds – so important. Now, 25 years and over 200 restaurants later, we sat down with our founder to talk bread, farming and what makes LPQ so special.
25 years after you first begun, your vision is still being carried out – and on a pretty large scale! What’s your secret?
It was an easy story. It was a hobby – so there were no business plans. It was just about the passion for bread and basically making a product that I didn’t find for my [previous] restaurant. Bread is very simple – 3 or 4 ingredients – and we’ve been doing this the same way for 25 years. There are revolutions in a lot of things but I think that in food less technology and focusing on the ingredients is better. I think we kind of try to do retro-innovation.
What do you mean by that? Why the focus on retro-innovation and simplicity?
For example, this morning we went to bake at Food52 basically in a home kitchen – we bake them bread, take it out of the oven, cool off for 10 minutes, a nice stick of unsalted butter – it’s so simple, and it’s like you’re eating bread for the first time in your life. We forget – you take a piece of bread, some butter, crank some black pepper over it, and you rediscover the flavor of black pepper.
I think there is a creativity inflation sometimes – but I think the more sophisticated thing can be going back to the simple origin. At my house we have a spring. At home we cook, we drink, we shower with water straight from the spring. I even forget that in some places there is chlorinated drinking water! We have people that come to our house and drink a bottle of Evian and say – compared to your house, this tastes like tap water!
What is your favorite memory over the past 25 years? How has the experience changed for you?
It goes fast, let me tell you! There is still so much to do. The business part – we have a great team, so now I can focus on the little things that don’t look important, but are. Human beings have been eating bread for thousands of years – it is a basic food, and now I can really get into the details.
For a recent memory, in July, I harvested my first wheat! I was surprised that we even got any crop at all!
What is your ultimate goal in terms of the wheat harvesting? That’s a pretty unusual hobby!
I think that what I would like to do is to basically grow our own wheat [for Le Pain Quotidien]. There is a new movement in France that they call the “Farmer’s Baker” where they grown their own wheat, this very ancient type of wheat. I met a baker who’s doing this, and I think it’s very inspiring.
“Le Pain Quotidien” means “the daily bread” – do you really eat bread every day?
Yes. If I’m flying to, say, Australia and I’m stuck in a plane, I usually don’t eat bread in the airplane. I will wait until I get to Australia and eat the Le Pain Quotidien bread there made with the local flour!
You were at the forefront of the vegan/vegetarian movement before it was trendy. Why did you get into that?
I’m a part-time vegetarian, and I think it’s mainly because I’m involved in agriculture. There is a big debate about carbon emissions, and I think that meat has a very poor record on carbon emission. You need a lot of grains, tractors, oil and fertilizer to produce it. If you eat less meat your carbon footprint is much lower.
If you eat more vegan – at least part time – you’re contributing to catching carbon. Vegans should be subsidized for carbon offsets!
Our vegan LPQ guests around the world will love to hear that! Speaking of around the world – there are now Le Pain Quotidien restaurants in 18 countries. Do you have a favorite LPQ?
Could you pick a favorite child? I have 237 kids at the moment and I am sure more this year! They all have their own character. There are different countries – big cities and small cities and the countryside. I think every one should be nice and cozy. I’m sure the best one is still to come!
Do you have a philosophy that you live by in the kitchen? In business?
In business – when people say “don’t do it, you’re crazy”, if you have enough passion, I think you should do it.
For cooking – I don’t serve anything I wouldn’t want to eat.
Find Alain as interesting as we do? You’re in luck – this isn’t all that we learned from him during our long anniversary chat! Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more content including some of his latest on-the-fly recipes (including a healthy take on decadent chocolate ganache) and unique perspectives on agriculture and ancient wheat-growing. There is truly no one quite like Alain!