After one too many twelve-course lunches, an American bon vivant in Paris turns his attention to simpler pleasures—and signs up for the early-morning shift in a busy bakery kitchen.
Not long ago I found myself sitting in a neon lit bus shelter at 3:30 a.m. The sidewalks of Paris were black and shiny after a hard rain on a winter’s night. I passed the time waiting for the bus, half reading a magazine and eavesdropping on a pretty African woman with intricate black-cherry-soda colored braids who was chatting in a beautiful, lilting creole with a friend in faraway Mayotte, a French island near Madagascar.
After she ended her phone call, I could feel the lady staring at me. When I looked up, she smiled and asked, “Why are you here?”
“My job,” I answered brightly. “I’m going to work as a baker.”
She chuckled and arched her eyebrows. “Now that is some good honest work,” she said.
Once on the bus, I wondered at my new friend’s amusement: Did I really look so implausible as a baker? After all, I had once worked in a bakery—though that was a long time ago, in a New York kitchen where a messy mishmash of English, Spanish, Haitian French, and Yiddish was spoken and we drank beer and smoked joints all night while producing improbably decent scones and muffins.
As we churned along in the night, it struck me that I’d begun a new cycle of earnestness in my life. After years as a food writer in Paris for many illustrious publications and hundreds of meals in the most exalted restaurants of France, what I really wanted was good, simple, honest food. You see, the most important thing I’ve probably learned about French cooking is that its guiding reflex is an infallible preference for simplicity. Which is why I was headed for my first shift at a bakery on a quiet street in the city’s silk-stocking 16th arrondissement. This working kitchen is one of several in Paris that belong to Frédéric Lalos, the baker who in 1997 was the youngest ever to win an M.O.F. (Meilleur Ouvrier de France), a supreme distinction of talent awarded to the country’s best artisans.
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