The royal blue exterior of Au Levain d’Helios stands out against the brick buildings on the Boulevard Georges Clemenceau. Many bakeries line this street in Perpignan but this one is difficult to miss. Both the sun-washed yellow walls and the delicious smell of bread invite the people of Perpignan into the store to see the unusual varieties of bread.
Owner Christian Renard is in the kitchen, hands deep in a fresh batch of sourdough. He is intense in his work, making sure that the measurements and consistency are just right. Although his hair color has faded to white, he works with youthful vigor, lifting heavy boxes and pushing equipment around with ease. Every so often, he looks up with a smile.
This welcoming atmosphere is a stark contrast to the sterile laboratory where Renard started his professional life as a microbiologist.
“I was a scientific engineer at the beginning,” Renard said. Soon after he took a job with the France-based global supermarket company Auchan as a commercial chef. It was this job that sparked his love for baking. “I always liked it and that’s why I become a baker.”
It was while he worked at the Institut Pasteur as a microbiologist, however, that he discovered an appreciation for a specific type of bread: sourdough.
“The job I used to have at the Institut Pasteur was microbiology and we used to control food and do research also,” Renard said. During his time at the Institut, he studied bacteria and yeast, two integral ingredients for making sourdough bread. The special yeast gives sourdough its signature flavor.
Ten years ago Renard discovered a way to combine his passion for baking and knowledge of yeast into a joint venture. He opened Au Levain d’Helios.
The bakery mainly produces sourdough bread, which is created using a sensitive process because the bacteria need to be maintained carefully.
Renard’s experience working in the science of food has enabled his success in this delicate culinary art. “I am a microbiologist so I know it well.”
His expertise hasn’t gone unrecognized. About 500 customers come to Au Levain d’Helios each day to buy a baguette or pastry. Renard must use 400 kilos of wheat flour a day to keep up with the demand.
The kitchen comes to life before dawn so that sourdough baguettes are ready for the morning customers. Renard and his staff run around from station to station, preparing the dough for the oven. They never stop moving, but they work quietly. A comment is made here and there, but the most consistent voices come from the radio, perched on a windowsill.
The early hours don’t bother Renard. “We don’t work at night so it’s okay. Otherwise, if I had to work at night, I wouldn’t be a baker.”
Self-employment suits Renard. “I do what I want to do. And I don’t have a boss. Except me,” Renard said with a smirk. His family helps him run the business so he takes every other day off and works limited hours. The job sometimes exhausts 55-year-old Renard. “I work 20 hours a week and I am just waiting for retirement.”
The Renard name will remain in the bakery after Christian retires. His son Johell has his heart set on taking over the family business. “That’s the only thing he wants. My son asked me to take it.”
Johell credits Christian with teaching him how to make the bread and to run the business. Johell’s interest in the culinary arts turned into talent under the watchful eye of his father and mentor. “My father made his own recipes here and I wanted to pursue that and to get new techniques and to learn new things,” Johell said.
Although Johell doesn’t have a background in microbiology, the passion for bread has been passed down through the generations from father to son. Perhaps down the road it will be passed down father to daughter, as Johell has a 4-month-old baby girl. Only time will tell.
Neither Christian or Johell pay too much attention to the future of their business. The future is uncertain, but they continue baking, one day at a time.