Pastry chef Francois Brunet loves making bread, and as head baker for all of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants in New York City, he loves where he is. “New York was always my dream city growing up,” he tells the Voice, “and when I came to visit a friend in 2009, I knew I wanted to work here one day.”
Brunet was born into a bread-baking family; both his grandfather and great-grandfather were bakers. He didn’t grow up actively involved in the trade, but while preparing to get his bachelor’s degree, he recognized that he was “passionate about the story of bread.” He then spent a week working in a bakery to see if the early mornings and long hours were truly something he wanted to commit to. “By the third day, I knew it was what I wanted to do,” he claims.
He set out to study the craft, working as an apprentice in Paris and then getting his certificate in bread making at the Institut National de la Boulangerie Pâtisserie, in Rouen. He then spent several years as the chef boulanger at Boulangerie Artisanale Denfert Rochereau, in Paris, and in Australia at Vue de Monde. His first job in the United States was working with Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Brunet continued to hone his technique at each of his stops, striving to execute exceptional products day after day.
“When you work for Robuchon,” he says, “you have to be extremely particular and follow everything they ask you to do, exactly as they ask you to do it. The bread basket there has 25 different kinds of bread, all made by hand — it’s the best bread basket in the world. It was a great job but, of course, it was also a lot of pressure. I learned a lot about myself as a manager, and how to work within a big company. With everything you do, you learn.”
Brunet was introduced to Daniel Boulud through a chef he worked with at Robuchon, and in 2014 he found himself taking over the role of chef boulanger for Boulud’s Dinex company in New York. For two months, he stayed true to the recipes he’d inherited. And then he changed 95 percent of the program, finally bringing his extensive experience into the spotlight.
“People say making bread is easy — it’s just flour, water, and salt after all. But it’s the most difficult thing to do, too. The simplest things are often the most difficult,” he says.
All of Brunet’s bread is made with a sourdough starter that’s refreshed daily; the process encourages alcoholic fermentation and the growth of beneficial bacteria, producing dough that’s incredibly flavorful and bread with a relatively long shelf life. “That’s very exciting,” Brunet says, “to create life with only flour and water until one day, something happens. It’s super cool.” The starter is used mostly in sourdough variations (half the breads he makes are sourdough), which are slowly fermented for 48 hours. As a result, they require less heat to produce an exceptional crumb and crust.
“When you work in France, 90 percent of the breads you make are baguettes — that’s what French people want,” he says. He prefers the competition in New York, where the melting pot of cultures means bakers have to do different styles of bread, some of which he didn’t know existed in France: “There’s a Jewish pastry chef in our kitchen who showed us how to make babka and rugelach, which were very delicious and very tasty,” he says. “There’s always something to learn how to do.”
Brunet’s raspberry bread, with cherries and golden raisins in a sourdough base, might be his most outside-the-box classic preparation. He created a signature raspberry levain that begins the process, resulting in a product so special that he only makes it to accompany cheese at Daniel.
Brunet doesn’t come off as one who has romanticized notions about his work. His croissants and breads exhibit striking geometry, with intricate layers, crosshatches, and ribbons of chocolate, fruit, or nuts, but ask him to describe how satisfied he is with perfecting those details and he goes back to the guest experience: “For chefs like Daniel, I think maybe the best thing is for someone to say, ‘I had an amazing meal at your restaurant.’ If someone says that about my work, I’m very happy, too.”
The work itself, and the possibilities for how far it can go, seems to excite him the most, as do the city and boss who keeps him employed. “Working for Daniel is an amazing experience, every day,” he says. “He works very closely with us, which is important, and he tells me not to be scared to use my style and try something. It’s a very great challenge, and not something I’ve been able to do before. And being in New York is just so wonderful. Just to be a part of all of this.”