Jean-baptiste Roger is head baker at the prestigious Connaught hotel in London. He comes from a family of bakers in Gien, France. We met on Instagram, both of us posting about various breads. Roger consistently impressed me with his thoughtfulness and knowledge. So I decided to invite him to share some of his thinking on Stir the Pots. Here's our interview.
How did you become a baker?
I come from a family of bakers for as long as we can remember.
Since I was very young, the vision of the wood-fired oven, the smells ( especially that of hot croissants in the morning when I wake up in my grands parents house) have always fascinated me.
When I was born, my great-grandmother told my parents that I had bakers hands ( she was herself a daughter, wife, and mother-in-law of bakers). It was like a benediction. In addition to loving bread as food, I also love everything that revolves around it, in particular bread's history, which is closely linked to that of man. So it was only natural that I got into the profession at the dawn of my 15th birthday.
How much time does it take to become a baker?
As my grandfather used to say; "It takes two years to graduate, and ten years to be a real baker." Obviously, it depends on the passion we have for the job, the encounters made, and the variety of techniques learned during the trips. The more we get involved in the job, the faster it is.
Describe your current position?
What has the pandemic done to the business?
How different is it to bake in a hotel than a boulangerie?
They each demand completely different approaches to the profession. The skills demanded of each are not the same, and the same with the mentality. The size of the products you produce are radically different, which calls into question the cooking, conservation, delicacy of the shaping ( larger is the product, greater is the margin of error). In the hotel industry, each product must be strictly identical, any defect (even minimal) excluding the product from the bread basket. The big advantage to work in a hotel is the access to certain rare and expensive ingredients that are not used in classical bakery shop.
What has Brexit done to the French or European relationship culinarily?
Since the Brexit, it is difficult to import certain ingredients or utensils (from France in particular), which pushes us to turn to local suppliers, which is a good thing.
How long has the Connaught been making bread?
We started making our own bread at the Connaught in early 2020, with the creation of the bakery laboratory. The pastries and scones have always been homemade.
Does England have CAP for bakers?
There is no English equivalent of CAP. in UK, students start later (18yo against 15yo in France), and they have a more general culinary training, bakery being a part of this training.
Who influences you?
Pierre and Lionel Poilane, for the rusticity of their products and the link made between bread and the arts ( through their various collaborations with Salvador Dali, Jacques Prévert,…)
Paul Bocuse for its example of the French living art.
St Matthew who wr0te the simplest and most widely read bread recipe in history
The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
And of course my family, whose teaching helps me daily.
I noticed you play instruments, which do you play?
I play ( from the first learned to last learned):
Is playing music the same as learning a skill like breaking bread?
In both cases you have to love beautiful and good things, love sharing them, and practice relentlessly without forgetting that the absolute is impossible to perfect there.
Like Juvenal said "bread and circuses!"
What did you grow up eating in France?
The classic "roast chicken with garden potatoes", "hachis Parmentier", "pot au feu", horse meat, leg of lamb with flageolet beans, apple pies…
Is bread going through another renaissance since the pandemic?
Many people became interested in bread during the pandemic. Through their research, they realised what was a good bread worthy of the name. They realized that simple food, made up of only three ingredients, is more difficult to make than it seems. Note that in the event of a major disorder, man instinctively turns to bread…
Is bread still popular in France?
As everywhere, people eat less and less bread, due to the variety of accessible foods and diet ( 900g / day in 1900, 120g/day in 2020). But the bread is always available at the family table, for free on all tables in French restaurants.
Consumption habits are changing, more and more French people are looking for ethical, high quality bread, made from local and endemic grains. It s always well anchored in the habits of French to stop by the bakery on the way to work or on the way home.
The French expression "triste comme un jour sans pain" ("sad as a day without bread") still has all its meaning. Watch out of the big mills which play the authenticity card, by creating self-assigned labels and pushing for the standardization ( sometimes international) of products by the sale of ready-to-use flour. There is nothing sadder than finding the bread we eat daily 12.000km from home…
What is the hardest bread to produce?
The one that will delight the taste buds of those we love