Lunch with Alain Coumont



With a Languedoc garden full of fresh vegetables and herbs, the founder of Le Pain Quotidien, Alain Coumont, is never far away from his next gastronomic creation.  By Lucie Young

‘You ought to leave a great restaurant feeling healthier than when you came in. If you spend $300 to eat too much cholesterol and food that’s bad for you, that is all wrong,’ says Alain Coumont, the founder of Le Pain Quotidien, a chain of organic cafes that serve everything from organic tea and wine to their signature tartines (open sandwiches) and hot dishes like tomato and ricotta tart. ‘My feeling is that all the exotic ingredients have been discovered and molecular cuisine is over. The next thing is vegetables and simplicity and organic food,’ Coumont says.

His ‘slow fast food,’ as he calls it, has proved so popular that there are now 18 Le Pain Quotidien cafes in London and 150 in 18 countries around the world, with new countries being added annually (Brazil is next). The company has a current turnover of over 170 million euros. It also has a celebrity following that includes Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Reese Witherspoon.

Visitors to Le Pain Quotidien eat around a long communal table or little individual pine tables in an egg-yellow Provencal-style setting, surrounded by pine dressers and low hanging metal lamps. It is a look that Coumont loves so much he has adopted it for his own dining room in France where he has the exact same 110cm-wide communal table and dressers.   ‘It’s the perfect width for conversations,’ he says then adds with a bemused look; ‘But my wife thinks it is a little too similar to what I have in the cafes.’

Coumont founded Le Pain Quotidien in his native Belgium in 1990 as a small artisanal bakery selling three types of bread and a few cakes and sandwiches. The company got off to a shaky start when his first premises collapsed before he had even opened. ‘I was bankrupt before I had sold my first loaf’ he jokes. But he quickly raised more finances and within the first year he added three new locations. The first US Le Pain Quotidian opened  in Manhattan in 1997, and Coumont expanded into London in 2005. ‘The Marlybone High Street cafe was packed from day one,’ Coumont says. ‘On the opening day, one guy brought in his girlfriend blindfolded. They used to live in New York, and when she saw the place, she became hysterical.’

Being organic wasn’t Coummont’s original mission. His first bakery used conventional flour and eggs. But when he moved to the US in the late 1990s and began to read up on the problems with conventional farming, he became pro-active. ‘At first I bought organic food for myself and I kept worrying that I was poisoning 15,000 people in New York everyday with my restaurants. Our first organic products were flour, coffee, milk and sugar. It took us seven to eight years to add eggs, cheese and ham,’ he says.

His cafes are organic, in varying degrees. His 50 American cafes are 75 per cent organic and he claims he is the biggest restaurant purchaser of organic food in the States, (he spent $13-14 million last year on raw ingredients). His French cafes use 89 per cent organic ingredients, and the ones in London are 83 per cent organic. ‘It is a matter of availability of produce on a large scale,’ he says. France has the most progressive organic farming programme. ‘The French minister of agriculture wants 25 per cent of farming to be organic in four to five years time. It is very ambitious’.

For the past 10 years, Coumont, his wife, Louella and their eight-year-old daughter, Ines, have lived 45 miles outside Montpellier in the wine-growing region of Languedoc-Roussillion in France. ‘They produce more wine here than in all of Australia,’ Coumont tells me. He bought his 1750s country mansion and 100 acres here in 2001 so that he could start grow organic vegetables and wine.

Today Coumont , 50, is preparing lunch for four friends. Despite having a table that can seat 14, he likes to keep numbers low. All meals start with a trip to the vegetable patch to see what is available. Coumont is such a passionate gardener that he started planting the garden as soon as he moved in and only got around to doing up the house a few years later. (‘For the first three years we lived with only a few pieces of furniture, lots of roof leaks and patchy electricity,’ he says). The two generous growing areas are now filled with rows of every kind of green leafy vegetable, tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, garlic, leeks and herbs. Once a year his chefs fly in to brainstorm ideas for the restaurants using Coumont’s garden and kitchen as their main resource.

Where once, 25 servants looked after the estate, now it is just Coumont, a caretaker and a gardener. On a tour of the grounds, he stops to sample a few wild fruits and pull up some weeds. ‘We do the weeding by hand. ‘The problem with pesticides is that you don’t have to drink a glass of them before they harm you. We know that they subtly affect the nervous system. Something so efficient at killing an ant or insect can have a cumulative effect on us.’

At home Coumont is ‘beyond organic’. He eats only raw cheeses because he believes milk pasteurization kills vital enzymes, he has a water ionizer which produces alkaline water which he claims is better for you than mineral water, and he puts a couple of pinches of turmeric and cinnamon (‘they are strong antioxidants’) in his morning coffee. He also eats mostly vegetables. ‘I use meat as a condiment,’ he explains.

Today’s starter is courgette carpaccio, basically raw sliced courgettes garnished with tomatoes, herbs and cheese. ‘It’s like opening a window,’ he says of this simple dish. ‘People are always shocked when you serve them just vegetables because there is a perception that value is linked to animal protein so everyone wants the best bit of beef on the planet. But for me, vegetables are the healthier and more valuable choice.’  For those interested in eating organic, his advice is simple: ‘The things you eat everyday in large quantities are the most important. If you have coffee or wine or milk everyday, get organic’.

Coumont walks back to the house with a huge basket of vegetables dangling off his arm. His kitchen and dining-room take up the whole ground floor of what was originally a silk factory that adjoins the main house. Mulberry trees, the silk worm’s favourite food, grow abundantly in this region. His kitchen is full of pots of homemade vinegar, jam and other items that he is experimenting with. He has snipped off a branch of fig leaves and is now steeping four leaves in rapeseed oil. ‘Leave it for two days, or even overnight, and you have a beautifully flavoured oil for salads, cheese or pouring over fresh figs,’ he instructs. He has picked far too many tomatoes for lunch, but says he will cube the extras and freeze them, ‘so we can have fresh tomatoes in winter.’

Coumont works super fast. In his twenties, he was an apprentice with Michelin-starred French chefs Alain Senderens, Georges Blanc and Michel Guerard, (he co-wrote the book Minceur Exquise with Guerard). Cooking, gardening and catering run in his blood. He grew up in the town of Huy, 50 miles south of Brussels. His mother’s parents ran a hotel and restaurant called the Hotel du Nord.   ‘They never went on holiday. They never even saw the sea and they died in their fifties.’ His paternal grandfather had a similarly hardscrabble life. As a 9-year-old boy, he regularly walked 30 kilometers to sell homegrown vegetables. As an adult, he ran a grocery store, which Coumont’s father inherited and transformed into a gourmet store selling the finest produce in the town. ‘We sold caviar, foie gras and famous Bordeaux wines,’ Coumont says.

Aged three, Coumont was having cooking lessons from his Aunt Simone. ‘She would stand me on a chair while she was making pastry and I made apple turn-overs with the scraps of dough.’ Soon he was experimenting with éclairs and cream puffs and inventing his own desserts. At the age of 17 he enrolled in hospitality school, where he learnt to cook in the classic French tradition and was trained in the art of hospitality.

Before the guests arrive, Coumont has a glass of homemade rose chilled with a couple of ice cubes, ’so I don’t stress everyone out’ he says. It is his fourth year producing wine on his estate. He has labeled it, ‘Vin de Pique-nique (picnic wine) his version of vin de pays. And ofcourse it is organic. ‘Most wines now are manipulated with lots of additives, which don’t have to be listed on the label,’ he says. ‘But ours is just organic grapes and very low sulfites, 20 mg whereas typically, wines have between 100 and 200 mg of sulfites per liter. It’s the sulfites that give you the headache.’

As bottle after bottle of Vin de Pique-nique is placed in the terrace fountain to chill, Coumont and his guests relax into a long laid-back afternoon sitting around the communal table. Coumont wears his success lightly, dressing in jeans and a rumpled white shirt and driving a dinky bashed up Peugeot 107. ‘To me good food is more important than a big shiny Aston Martin,’ he says. After a moment’s reflection, he adds: ‘To really appreciate simplicity you have to have tried luxury first and know it doesn’t make you happy’.

© 2011