“From that point on, I never left the kitchen. When there were no other opportunities, the kitchen was always there. It would always be there. It pulled me in, and I’m so lucky it did.”
I sat down last Monday with Alex Roberts at Ten Belles, a café just off the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th. Alex is the creator of Doughmade, Paris’ first portable doughnut shop. We discussed the development of his business, comparisons between New York and Paris, and the happenstance involved in finding what you love to do. What you're meant to do.
I ask Alex how it all began, not necessarily the motivation for something as specific as doughnuts, but what drove him to the kitchen in the first place. It’s a story closely-tied to his upbringing, influenced by and interwoven with the environment in which he grew up.
“Being from North Carolina, I was raised by a bunch of southern women, and I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother. It was post-Depression-style cooking, canned foods and such, but they would make fried chicken from scratch and bake sometimes as well. My great-grandmother cooked everything from memory, there was no book, no collection of recipes, but she had an understanding of the kitchen, it was all in her head.”
“And so my first job in high school was a little cookie shop in the mall. It was just an after-school job, but then I graduated and realized that at 18 I wanted something bigger for myself. I still didn’t know I would be cooking, but I moved to New York, originally planning to go to fashion school. I look back on that and realize that it wasn’t me at all.”
“So I was looking at Craigslist one morning (Alex cites this as the source for most of his kitchen jobs, even some in Paris) and found a post saying ‘Vegan Baker Wanted.’ I thought I would just apply, telling them I worked at a cookie store. They asked me to come in for a trail, which at the time I had no idea what it was. So I came in dressed up, assuming it was just a job interview. It’s actually a trial work shift. So they gave me an apron and had me do a few recipes. Luckily I had enough technical knowledge for it to work, but it was just simple cookies and things.”
Alex says this, and I immediately understand that he’s always conscious of the serendipity in what he’s achieved. He sees what he’s accomplished almost as an accident, understanding becoming a baker as being inextricably tied to the situation and circumstance, an unexpected product of unrelated decisions. “I’m not sure I could have made a career from this in North Carolina. I know I couldn’t have gone this far if I hadn’t left.”
Alex says this with a tone divided between sentimentality for where he’s been and an enthusiasm for where he’s going. But that’s his story, an acknowledgement of past occurrences and people met along the way who have impacted him, making his current success possible.
Alex worked at the vegan bakery for a few months, after which he met Crystal, who became his mentor. “She’s just a year older than I am, but she had already gone to culinary school and was a pastry chef. I was desperately looking for a job and when we met, she asked if I could start tomorrow.”
Alex worked with Crystal on and off for two years, learning the fundamentals of brioche, pastry cream, everything. “I worked the line, four in the afternoon to one in the morning. It was at a hotel in the Meatpacking district of New York, a nice place, a new restaurant, a big kitchen. There’s always places like this in New York, starving for new chefs. So many people go to culinary school and think they’re going to become a chef immediately. The reality is that you’re still making ten dollars an hour even with the degree. I think so much of it is tied to the fact that it’s becoming cool to know how to cook. It’s Instagram perpetuating the belief that anyone can do it, that anyone can make beautiful food. But you still have to learn, you have to work from the bottom. A lot of people drop out of culinary school because they find that they hate it mid-way. They hate the kitchen and leave to do something else.”
After leaving the restaurant, Alex moved onto another bakery, Bakeri, where he met Shuna Lydon, a celebrated pastry chef who has worked in New York, California, and London for the past twenty years. She describes her approach to the kitchen as “tough, thorough, methodical and efficient.” The ideal teacher.
Alex cites Crystal as responsible for teaching him technique and production, while from Shuna, he learned operations, organization, and how to take the skills he already had and apply this focus on efficiency. It’s a direct application of Shuna’s methodology. He began understanding his role beyond focusing upon one plate, as only one cook. “Before, I never thought it mattered. I put my work in and then I’d be out. But in the bakery, I was pulled into a larger role. I was Shuna’s sous-chef, her right-hand person. Now she knows everything about what I’m doing in Paris, and I think she’s proud.”
Alex worked at Bakeri for about a year and a half. It’s owned by a Nina Brondmo, who came to Brooklyn from Norway to begin the project. “Their first location was very very small,” Alex tells me, “I couldn’t even fit; I was too tall to stand up in the kitchen. The other location where I ended up working was brand-new, bigger, with new mixers. I was excited.”
It was at Bakeri that Alex began developing his niche, his own way of conceiving recipes and of producing confections. “Nina promoted personal creativity among her employees, which isn’t something you find often in the kitchen. Instead, the chef has a vision, and they want it to be exactly as they see it. At Bakeri, if we had extra time at the end of our shift, Nina said that if we could sell it, we could make it.”
With those guidelines, Alex began making macarons, choux, French-inspired desserts. “I filled in the blanks, everything that was missing from my repertoire, I worked on it, and thankfully I had Shuna to help. I’d ask, Why are the macarons hollow, why are they cracking? She answered all of my questions.”
“I think Shuna and I have a similar approach to baking. We want to share our knowledge with other people. She’s a teacher, she wants to inspire other cooks. Today, it’s harder to find someone who is so interested and passionate about it, because for so many people it’s what they do while they’re on the search for something else.”
What Alex says embodies my understanding of France. There’s a certain investment in what you do, not to the extent that it defines you entirely, but to the length that you dedicate yourself to it without the thought that you could be doing something else. Education is invested in. There’s a perpetual interest in the learning process, in making yourself better for personal fulfillment and to be able to share it with others as well. This education can take any form, whether it be formal or less so. It may be in the kitchen. Or maybe a conversation.
But listening to what Alex is telling me about Shuna, about what he learned at Bakeri, I see it's a phenomenon that applies to the States as well.
When Alex first came to Paris in August with his French husband Leo, he began looking around at other bakeries, for possibilities to work in one of the many coffee shops populating the métropole. “I came to Ten Belles, but again, I couldn’t stand up in the kitchen. I tried to tell myself that it would be okay, that I could make it work, but five days a week standing like this,” Alex gets up to model a hunched position that looks not only uncomfortable but impossible to bake in, “I couldn’t do it. But then I started freelance recipe writing. Doing it for various brands and blogs for a few months.”
It’s with that reference to social media that I direct the conversation towards Alex’s aesthetic interests. “I almost pursued photography professionally, and I suppose it really could have gone either way. I could have been a photographer and cooked as a hobby, or of course, what I’m currently doing, baking and doing photography as a hobby. But that’s the reason I love Instagram and social media, it allows me to keep a visual record of my progression in baking. It’s good to look back and know that this is where I was then and this is where I am now. Over time, as my cooking got better, my photography did as well.”
Alex then relates this to Doughmade, citing social media’s impact upon his business. Though he uses Instagram to promote his brand, he still explores the outlet in a personal way. I’ve noticed this recent progression in our use of online sources. Despite beliefs that social media isolates us, I’ve seen it used instead as a way to promote community, as an outlet for those who would otherwise have no means to communicate their creativity and passion. In our media-driven, fast-paced world, social media is the first step in connecting us with new people, to new ideas.
And Alex agrees, “When people are laughing at me taking a photo of what I’m eating or what I’m baking, I don’t listen. I value what it’s done for me.”
It’s true, Alex’s personal Instagram account is a beautifully curated compilation of Paris’ streets, scenes of daily life around his neighborhood in Montmartre, and of course, what he creates in the kitchen. But he runs the Doughmade page as well, and though it focuses more so upon the day’s doughnut flavors and AeroPress coffee, the aesthetic is consistent. His interest is stated in every caption, his passion displayed in every photograph.
“Once I find something I like, I become obsessed with it, immersing myself completely until I get to where I find that I’m happy with it. So the macaron for instance, it took me almost a year to master. Again, it was trial and error, trying to get it to where I could produce something consistent every time. Yes, maybe they’d be delicious and maybe they’d look good, but I would just see the air pockets. I get incredibly nervous about the slightest imperfection.”
I then ask how this translates to doughnuts, how this interest in French patisserie transferred over to something so charming in its imperfection, rustic in its presentation, something so clearly American.
“There were two bakers in the morning at Bakeri, the bread baker and the pastry baker. The bread baker would come in at 4 am and the pastry chef at 5. Working these early mornings, I became best friends with one of the bread bakers, talking, listening to music, and having our first coffee of the day together.”
“Sometimes, they would have a little extra brioche left over, and I would make brioche crescent rolls and things, until one day I realized I could fry it. So I started cutting it into doughnuts, and eventually I was in charge of brioche production so that I could take extra brioche and make doughnuts every weekend. It dropped off a bit when I came to Paris, until one day I was having coffee with my friend Frank, one of my first friends in Paris. He makes cakes and it was something I was envious of but inspired by. He told me people had been asking him if he could make doughnuts, and when he said no, he asked if I could. Maybe it was fate, I’m not sure, but it certainly worked out. Two days later, I had a logo and an idea for a business.” Alex laughs, “Yeah, I guess once I say I’m going to do something, I end up doing it.”
“When I told everyone in North Carolina that I was moving to New York, they didn’t seem to believe me. Then later, when I told everyone I was going to Paris, they said, ‘Okay, but you’ll be back.’ And maybe I will, I’m not sure.”
Alex talks to me about these transitions, about leaving his family in North Carolina, the family he found in New York, and coming to the family he now has in Paris. He talks about the isolation, about the awareness of your distance from the life that goes on in the city, that’s gone in Paris for years before you arrived. I can empathize with this move, one that so many other twenty-somethings invest in. We see ourselves first as individuals separate from the community, from the lifestyle and practices, but months later, we begin to see ourselves in relation to them, as a part of everything that isolated us before. We contribute to this life, to the city’s culture, to its food.
Talking to Alex today, it’s clear he’s found this as well.
The conversation continues at The Hood, a recently-opened coffee shop in the 11th just off the Rue Saint-Maur. Only a three-minute walk from my apartment, I’m surprised it’s taken me a few weeks to try it out. I walk in around 9:00, still early enough on a Tuesday that the morning crowd is just beginning to trickle in. Things happen a bit later in Paris; while Americans are already fast-walking to the office, Parisians are waking up, only just beginning to think about their morning coffee.
The café functions as an element of this morning routine, and Alex’s baked goods are at once a habit and an indulgence of this custom and practice. He brings me over my own doughnut, the first I’ve had of his. He runs again behind the counter, and I take a count of the café, noting a pair of women by the window accompanied by two coffees and a cinnamon roll for each. On the other side, a group sits around four bowls of granola, waiting with a decreasing restraint to gorge on lemon poppy seed and matcha doughnuts.
As I’m watching this scene of happiness and delight, I’m reminded of the doughnut sitting in front of me. It’s filled with Alex’s strawberry-rhubarb jam, both an evocation of the season as well as a celebration of one of his favorite pies. Finished with a dusting of powdered sugar, the doughnut is humble, modest, nonetheless a beautiful contrast to the buttered tartines constituting my breakfast for the past ten months. I take a bite and am immediately elated, thrilled by the perfect ratio of dough to jam to the dusting of sugar on top. I feel myself smiling, thankful that this moment, this simple extravagance, is taken in solitude. The sugar coats my face and jam drips gracelessly from my mouth. I’m a mess, but happy that the French elegance enforced at the table doesn’t apply here, not in this context, not in this moment.
Alex comes over again with two cups of filter coffee, setting one in front of me while taking a sip of the other. He asks me how I liked the doughnut, and my eyes grow wide to signify everything I felt in that first bite.
I love the doughnut. I love its simplicity. I love the lack of pretension tied to this square of fried brioche, tied to what Alex does, to what he’s done.
I love the story.