Kim Baker-Brindel is an American pastry chef living, working and selling her American style baked goods in Touraine, France. Ms. Baker-Brindel sat down with Woman Around Town’s Veronica Manlow to talk about what it is like to be an American living in France, why French bread is so good, the differences between French and American pastries, and her own journey which took her from the fashion industry in New York City to the Touraine region of France where she runs Embruns Sucrés, an American organic pastry company.
WAT: Are people surprised to find an American selling chocolate chip cookies, carrot cake, and Fondant New Yorkais in Tours at a local market next to people selling traditional French cheese, bread and vegetables?
KBB: Yes. People are surprised, intrigued and leery. That is a lot to overcome. My baked goods had to look exceptionally good before people would come to my stand. Looking good is the draw; only tasting exceptionally good gets you accepted into this most unusual market culture. I not only live in France, but in La Touraine! After winning confidence with taste, the other important component was the philosophy behind my baking. I live in the region where I sell, am a certified organic baker, and use as many locally made ingredients as possible . . . flour, eggs, yogurt, fruits & vegetables are purchased from my colleagues at the market or in the region; and, of course, I bake with what is in season. If my customers get cranky because the zucchini/lemon/ginger muffins are not yet on my stand, we joke with the farmers and tell them to get things moving! It goes without saying that living in and selling to my adopted community must be done in their language and within their cultural structure . Understanding where I live opens their curiosity to understanding where I come from and my culinary heritage.
WAT: What do your French customers like most, and why? Any dislikes?
KBB: Probably the chocolate chip cookies and the Fondant New Yorkais are the best sellers. Chocolate is the universal comfort food. However the sweet breads and cakes are appreciated for their lighter texture and lesser degree of fat. What does not go over well is anything with too much cinnamon.
WAT: Where are your products made and where are they sold?
KBB: We renovated our barn and in it I have a professional pastry kitchen. It is simple and very functional. My entire menu of pastries I bake myself and sell at our major organic market in Tours every Saturday morning as well as other punctual fairs and markets. A selection of my pastries are sold at certain fine food and organic stores in the region.
WAT: What do you envision for Embruns Sucrés in the future?
KBB: To expand the cultural exchange aspect. I would love to write about getting started here in France and how baking was an essential part of the learning and sharing process. Embruns Sucrés is the most wonderful project that gives me this opportunity to present simple and delicious products not commonly made here, talk about our food culture in America, and help adjust the stereotype about American food attitudes.
WAT: What do you like most about what you do?
KBB: I love to bake . . . I love to eat . . . and I love to talk to people about baking and eating! To know how to do that in two languages and two cultures is great fun for me.
WAT: You had a successful career working for Liz Claiborne in New York City. How did you start an American organic pastry business in France?
KBB: Like so many of my friends and colleagues in New York City our professional lives took priority over everything else. It was an exciting time and I adored (and still adore) the people I worked for, but it was also an exhausting time. After 10 years I asked for some extended time off. An article in the New York Times for a private school teaching French language & culture in Tours is what set my compass in France’s direction. During my studies I stumbled upon the opportunity to learn how to bake European bread. Bread baking provoked a series of personal questions and answers about bringing balance into my life. I spoke to the handful of good bread bakers in the NY region at the time. Based on their experiences and encouragement I realized it was time for a major change. Went back to France for technical training in bread baking with the goal to return to Long Island, open a European style bakery and establish a more community lifestyle. During my second term in France, fate decided differently.
WAT: At 35 years old you become an apprentice to a French baker. What was that experience like?
KBB: Humbling. A true, personal journey.
WAT: Humbling, how so?
KBB: Learning a new profession in a language of which I had only a basic working knowledge is a bit of a confidence leveler. High style New York mentality meant little (although it gave me the punch to jump in and do it); turning out good loaves meant everything. I was voluntarily reinventing myself. That takes a good measure of time and patience.
WAT: Why is French bread so good?
KBB: Believe it or not modern day France can turn out bad bread. The impact of Supermarkets and even Hypermarkets and the idea of one-stop shopping hurt the local bakers, as well as butchers and other artisanal trades. Here they would bring in dough, bake it on the premises as though it was artisanally made. The taste wasn’t there even though it was fresh baked French bread. Fortunately this noble craft is too ingrained in their culture to neglect those baking true French bread. And there are many. The goodness comes from selecting good flour, using good rising agents preferable the “levain” or sour dough method, knowing how to mix the dough without damaging the gluten network that allows it to rise and form properly, giving the dough time to rise, and proper heat and humidity for baking. My very best meal was early morning, about 6 a.m., which was when we pulled out the first batch of bread from the wood fired brick oven. We would take a break and slice up a country bread or a “polka”, spread it with salted butter and pour a freshly brewed cup of coffee. I can still taste the rich, nutty crumb. I was covered in flour and absolutely in heaven.
WAT: Can you explain some differences between French and American pastries?
KBB: Yes, in one simple word . . . texture! Our basic pastry is moist and chewy. Delicious French pastry is either rich and decadent or of a drier, more buttery crumb. In many ways our pastry reflects our culture. We tend to be more relaxed, they tend to be more formal.
WAT: Were you interested for a long time in French gastronomy?
KBB: I was always interested in really good food, but my early experience was mostly American. Being interested in good food, however, always brings you sooner or later to France. Living here and absorbing the French attitude about shopping, preparing, eating and sharing food definitely changed my perspective on balance.
WAT: Explain the French attitude surrounding food.
KBB: French parents spend much time teaching their children to taste and to identify what they taste. Is it sweet, is it salty, is it bitter, is it spicy, what are the spices you taste . . . I found this fascinating to watch but a bit unraveling at first when this experience took place at my stand. I never saw a child dissect the taste of a chocolate chip cookie like a French child.
WAT: What made you decide to make American and not French pastries?
KBB: There are so many wonderful French bakers . . . they certainly didn’t need me to do that. Through all of my apprenticeships and learning phases in France there were many people who took interest in me, helped me understand the nuances of French culture and expression, and they shared their meals and family time with me. In return, I would cook and bake for them. It provoked a tremendous amount of interest . . . dissecting taste, discovering the recipe, analyzing cultural differences. These made for very long meals. I learned a great deal and felt I gave something in return. I loved it!
WAT: Do you feel you are introducing something unique to the world of French gastronomy?
KBB: Unique no, let’s not get carried away, but authentic, yes. Simple, quality-made American pastries respecting their true taste while using French ingredients. A great mix; the story of my life.
WAT: There is a romantic element to your story. What part did it play in your decision to live in France?
KBB: An important part. Romance is an important part to overall balance. Let me explain it this way . . . One day, returning to Tours from Paris on the TGV (that’s the fast speed train), I was seated next to a very handsome man. Having learned in NYC that looks aren’t everything, I was open to discover his conversation. Dates and discovering the Loire Valley (which neither of us are from) followed. Good conversation, good food, good wine followed, paralleled with accomplishing my baking apprenticeship. Many months, many wonderful times and many acquired French ways later I had a choice to make. Go back to the U.S. and start anew, alone . . . or . . . find a way to continue to work in France while giving more time to a relationship which truly seemed to fit.
WAT: Do you find French couples different from American couples?
KBB: Yes I do. My answer will be over generalizing but basically I sense it this way. About French couples . . . woman admitting more their femininity and men appreciating it more.
WAT: What are some of the challenges you faced in starting your business?
KBB: French administration! One of the most challenging experiences I have ever encountered.
WAT: Can you give an example of how starting a business in France is complex?
KBB: The amount of paperwork and personal documents to furnish are staggering and the actual size of my country made certain things impossible to get. For example, to have my business project validated and receive working papers I had to prove to the French government that I had never been convicted of a felony. No problem, the state of New York where I was born and lived would do that. But France wanted proof from every state in America. That was impossible to do. France eventually understood.
WAT: What are some of the challenges you faced as an American woman living in France and raising a family here?
KBB: On that subject the biggest challenge is maintaining my personal identity while navigating and needing to be accepted in my professional and personal circles here. There are many more differences between our two cultures than are apparent. I try to take the best from each culture and blend them into our home and family.
WAT: What are some of the less apparent differences that a foreigner would not be aware of and that you now understand?
KBB: Using the language as a French person, not just speaking French. Knowing the cultural side of the language can be more important at times than using the right vocabulary. The French do not usually come right out and say no. It is a question of bringing you to the point of concluding that they don’t want to do whatever it is that you’ve asked. Compliments are sometimes masking severe criticism, you have to detect it and answer back with an equally shielded snipe. At times it feels like not much has changed from being at court at Versaille. Admittedly, there is always more for me to learn.
WAT: Would you advise women to follow their dreams, and to take risks in their careers, in the hope of achieving something that is far from certain?
KBB: I don’t think we are ever certain about anything. I do believe that choices woman have to make are complicated. If the dream is strong enough, define what makes “your” balance, take risks, preferably calculated risks, and go for it.
WAT: Not everyone is as brave as you are, and perhaps for many women it is impossible to change one’s life completely. What would you say to a successful woman, with a good career, who is not satisfied with her life. What can she do to make it more rewarding, exciting and interesting?
KBB: There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity and at times I wasn’t sure what side of the line I was on. Risk taking is unavoidable. Today there are more lifestyle choices available and acceptable to us than in previous generations. To me, rewarding, exciting and interesting are defined differently throughout the many chapters in a women’s life. Achieving them is possible, through hard work and, above all, balance.
To learn more about Kim Baker-Brindel, visit her at: