There are few careers more honest and vital than that of being a culinary artist. Food itself is, of course, a necessary component of everyday life. But it’s also a unique artistic material.
Paint, of course, can look lovely on its own, but it takes a real artist to use it to create something even more wonderful.
This is the job of every chef, prep cook, dessert chef, and baker the world over: to make eating a pleasurable and memorable experience.
It takes a great deal of time and care to make food interesting. And it takes even more time and care to make food that has something unique to offer.
And baking, in contrast with cooking, includes an extra level of difficulty. There is chemistry involved with just about every single recipe, and changing the proportions of different ingredients can have either disastrous or groundbreaking results.
Many different factors need to be considered before making any changes to a recipe. But experimentation is also key to finding wonderful new creations.
For example, the chocolate chip cookie was originally a mistake. The chocolate didn’t melt properly, leaving the finished cookie with little dots of soft chocolate. And what was once a mistake has since become a classic.
A Love for Loaves
As with any other art form, an artist can never stay content with making the same works of art again and again. Each artist needs to progress, finding new combinations, cooking methods, or visual presentations that improve the dish for the customer.
Melanie Legoupil is one such artist, a baker with a career that spans continents. And most importantly, she has been perfecting and improving her methods for years.
After finding her love for baking in Normandy, she studied the art of baking in Paris. Soon she was working in a Maison Kayser bakery, where she met the man who would become her husband.
She then worked as the head baker of a small bakery in Vancouver, Canada. She also worked with the illustrious Chef Daniel Boulud as a sous chef baker.
Legoupil opened her own bakery in France with her husband and later returned to the U.S., where her work has won several awards, including multiple wins at the World Bread Awards.
We were very excited to speak with Legoupil last week about her unique perspective of the baking industry, as well as about how baking is viewed by the public, here in 2019.
• • •
Legoupil’s Beginnings with the World of Baking
Taking a look at Legoupil’s entire career and her immense skill, it may be hard to believe that at one point in her youth, she wasn’t involved with the culinary arts in the least.
“At first, I was studying Chinese history, but I really didn’t know where my life was headed. Somewhat suddenly, I decided to change my career path and work in a bakery, which was something I’d always wanted to try but never had.”
Setting this goal and pursuing it with gusto was a crucial first step for her culinary career. And it wasn’t easy, either.
At the time, the field of baking in France was largely dominated by men. Having no prior culinary or baking experience, many bakeries simply refused to offer her a training position.
She had to convince the head bakers of each shop that she was passionate about baking and that she would commit herself to learning the craft, even if it took years.
Eventually, a small bakery decided to give her a chance. For Legoupil, the satisfaction and passion she felt while baking hit immediately.
“The day I was hired and I touched bread dough for the first time, I felt so happy and knew that I had found myself. Baking is a great way to express yourself. And the fact that you work and create something with your hands makes it very sensory and tangible. It’s difficult to explain with words the way I felt when I realized what I wanted to do with my life and how good it feels when you love what you do for a living.”
And once she had experienced that feeling, of getting the chance to do exactly what she wanted to do with her career, the sensation was habit-forming. It would be impossible for her to switch gears and return to a field she felt nothing for.
So what about the process of baking itself? We wanted to know whether there was a specific stage in the baking process that Legoupil enjoys above all others.
But she was quick to explain that it’s difficult to elevate any step over another. On a practical level, it just doesn’t make sense.
“Every part of baking is important, from choosing the right ingredients to searching for great recipes. Mixing and kneading dough are crucial to the overall bread quality. Cutting the dough and watching the bread grow in the oven is magical. But I think the most satisfying moment is watching people enjoy what you’ve baked.”
It’s the moment when all the hard work pays off. In fact, Legoupil told us that she likes to set aside time each day so that she can rest in the seating area of a bakery and watch as customers take the first big bite of one of her creations, seeing their faces light up with surprise and joy.
Adjusting to Accolades
Now that Legoupil has made such a splash in the baking world by taking home so many different awards for her work, we wanted to know whether these accolades have affected how she sees her work.
“Winning these awards represents a big step in my career. The World Bread Awards was the first time I won an award of any kind, and it made very proud to be a part of the competition and to represent Epicerie Boulud. And being surrounded by contestants from New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California was really motivating.”
She has used the awards as proof that when you pour your heart and soul into something, other people take notice, and if you’re lucky, they’ll even express their appreciation.
While awards are never the end-goal of talented bakers, they can be a great way to attract positive attention and develop a much wider audience.
Baking in Media
In just the last few years, baking in itself has become kind of a superstar. Suddenly, producers started creating many different baking competition and showcase programs.
As a result, the general public has a much better sense for the ins and outs of baking on a very immediate level.
“I think that, recently, bakery has evolved beautifully. People noticed the change and started to take a lot more interest.”
Now, the average member of the public has a much more discerning taste when it comes to baked goods. They’re curious to try inventive flavor combinations and can tell when a bake has gone wrong.
This awareness has also been able to eliminate invisible barriers that previously existed around the culinary arts, making people feel that they needed to be upper class just to enjoy good food.
“Everyone needs to eat. There are restaurants and bakeries all around the world. But recently, thanks to social media, competitions, and amazing chefs, baking and the culinary arts no longer have borders. Everyone can enjoy them.”
It’s no longer off-putting to spend your time researching different restaurants and bakeries. There’s no stigma attached to the love of food, which is to the benefit of all of us.
The Uniting Power of Food
And this universality of food is absolutely vital to Legoupil and her baking career. She doesn’t think that food should ever be used to create situations of exclusivity. Rather, in the right context, it can be a powerful tool that can help bring others together.
“Food has the ability to reunite people. For example, during my childhood, dinner time was very important and represented a moment of conviviality. In French, the word ‘friend’ is ‘copain’ which means ‘to share bread.’ It is a beautiful way to explain how bread and food, in general, can convey feelings and emotions.”
And Legoupil has been chasing this ideal for the entirety of her career, working in many different countries and bakeries, all to find how best to serve her customers and give them a small source of joy.
If Legoupil has inspired your own interest in baking, then we highly recommend consulting with some online resources.
A great start would be to explore different recipes, of which you can find thousands online.
Whether you’re interested in baking professionally or just at home as an amateur, it can also be helpful to watch the kind of baking shows we were discussing earlier.
No, they won’t be a great guide on how to execute specific recipes, but they will introduce many of the core concepts of baking, as well as many of the common problems that tend to arise.
• • •
Melanie Legoupil is the sous chef of pastry chef and baker Francois Brunet.
Links to Legoupil and her work can be found here: