Pierre Zimmermann’s soul is Alsatian, and his heart Chicagoan. From Schnersheim to Old Town, on one fine day in 2009, he took the step to sell the family bakery in the Bas-Rhin and move to Chicago. With his wife Michèle and their two sons, the master baker founded La Fournette, with the idea of recreating his own small local bakery here. It was without counting on the American dream! Today, eight years later, this bakery world champion enthusiastically manages a flourishing business which has become a benchmark for chefs and local clientele alike.
HOW DID YOU ARRIVE IN CHICAGO?
Between 2000 and 2010, I’d come to Chicago twice a year to teach at the French Pastry School. Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sébastien Canonne, the founders of the school needed technical advice for breads and viennoiseries. That’s how the story started! At the beginning I jabbered a few words in English, and in my opinion it was a disaster for the students! (Laughs) But, as the years passed, the idea of opening a business germinated in my mind and in my wife Michèle’s. Then one day in 2010 we sold our Alsatian company of over 110 years to come here. We gave ourselves two years to build the concept. Of course to begin with, our idea was a bit smaller and even improvised in a French way of baking bread out the back and producing it out front. But in a city like Chicago, that type of concept doesn’t last long. Faced with a huge demand, we quickly moved on to plan B. In the United States, anything can happen!
HOW WAS THE TRANSITION TO INCREASED PRODUCTION?
In the end, we didn’t go through the small shop stage that we’d dreamed of, because rents are too high to have a production area in the city. So we very quickly decided to split production and sales. We took a large empty warehouse and had everything built on plan. It was a colossal project for us coming from a small village with only four hundred inhabitants! And we opened on the July 14 2012. Today, we have two units. We got our hands on the one next door and we’d like to buy the next one.
HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN LA FOURNETTE’S SUCCESS?
This city had a real need for artisanal bread. Chicago isn’t like Paris where you can go from one patisserie to another. I think La Fournette’s success is mainly due to the quality of our products and the fact that we use natural primary ingredients, even with large scale production. Making fifty baguettes without using improving agents is easy, but when you’re talking about making more than a thousand, then it becomes a real challenge. Also, we have retained a totally artisanal concept, and not mechanized production.
HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN A TRADITIONAL MODE OF PRODUCTION WHEN YOU PRODUCE SO MUCH?
We have only multiplied the number of “arms”: we started out with fifteen and have fifty today. The three thousand breads we make each day are all manually shaped, in a very traditional way; with no preservatives, improving agents or food colours. This also applies to our macaroons; all made with natural food colours. The market exploded and last year we produced one and a half million.
DOES THE MAJORITY OF YOUR TURNOVER COME FROM B TO B MARKETING?
Yes, we supply bistros such as chef Domique Tougne’s (Chez Moi), but also gastronomic restaurants. Our signature is bread and viennoiserie. We also work with hotels for the “VIP receptions” part which represents 50 to 3500 viennoiseries per hotel: Renaissance, Sheraton, Sofitel, Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, Blackstone,… The quality of our products is known in Chicago and many chefs want to work with us as we select our ingredients and try to be as “green” as possible. From local farms and mills I’ve found butter and flour with equivalent quality to French products. Our eggs come from free range chickens, without antibiotics and our products will shortly be guaranteed without GMOs. At the moment, we are working on a new range that is even more natural, artisanal and local. This is our footprint.
SINCE WHEN DOES THIS DEMAND FOR TRACEABILITY EXIST IN CHICAGO AND THE UNITED STATES IN GENERAL?
It has been a very strong phenomenon for the past five years. The customer is of course interested in the chef who prepares their dish but also the ingredients. Fifteen years ago, French chefs were considered gods in the US, and all they said was taken for granted. Today, it’s a very different story. We are not considered credible if we buy flour filled with preservatives while we say that we use premium products. It is necessary to go to the beginning of the chain, and yet the hardest part was to find people with whom to work sustainably. For example, to make macaroons, we buy almond powder directly from a farm near San Francisco. This is because we have specific hydrometric and particle size requirements. Today, we use a crate of almond powder every week!
WHEN DID YOU START WORKING WITH MATFER?
In the Alsace, I already had Matfer equipment. You know, the catalogue is in every bakery-pâtisserie in France! So I continued when I arrived in Chicago, especially since Matfer was one of our partners at the opening of La Fournette: the company helped us greatly with purchasing our equipment. It is an important choice because when chefs come to the laboratory, the fact that we use Matfer, to them, is a true guarantee of the quality of the equipment.
They say to themselves : “this is a specialist, and if he chose this brand, then there is a reason for it!”
WHAT UTENSIL DO YOU PREFER USING?
All of our sandwich bread moulds are in Exoglass. Firstly, the thermal conduction works very well. Then, honestly, there is a real difference between a metallic mould which will always transfer a taste to the bread, which isn’t the case with Exoglass, even with highly hydrated doughs. And for slow fermentation, it’s unbeatable, it doesn’t budge! In the dishwasher, Exoglass holds its own compared with metal moulds. For me, it’s a real advantage. Another advantage with Exoglass moulds is that you can directly shape the dough in the moulds and bake them the same day; you can put them in the refrigerator to bake the next day or even in the freezer before proving. This means you can bake fresh products every morning.
ANOTHER INDISPENSABLE PRODUCT?
What’s seriously missing here, are dough containers, so we had them brought over from Matfer France. Stackable containers are a problem with cooling in the refrigerator due to the insulation, whereas trolleys with eight containers leave enough space with good air circulation which ensures better control of fermentation.
COULD YOU SHARE A CHEF’S TIP WITH US?
To waste less icing sugar on my brioches, I place the Exoglass moulds in such a way that the edges overlap before sprinkling. It’s just a little trick which divides the surface of sugar in two, which is usually lost down the sides of the mould.
AND FINALLY, DO YOU MISS THE ALSACE?
Leaving the Alsace for Chicago was a huge challenge for all the family since we’d never lived there. But Chicago is becoming a little Alsatian; there are a few of us who come together regularly here
“Alsatian mafia” rules! (laughter)
At the age of 15, Pierre Zimmermann started an apprenticeship at Naegel, a patisserie in the heart of Strasbourg where his friend Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of the French Pastry School (Chicago), also made his debut. Two years later, he ‘returned home’ and joined the family bakery in Schnersheim in the Alsace, where he proudly represented the fourth generation. At the same time, Pierre pursued his studies at the Chambre des Métiers d’Alsace and the Lenôtre school in Paris. He sat the Brevet de Maîtrise (Master’s qualification) in pâtisserie-confectionery-ice cream and that of baker, before brilliantly entering the competition arena. In 1996, it’s the Holy Grail: he won the Bakery World Cup. In 2008, it’s he who coached the French team at the World Cup and is yet again victorious. At the same time, between 2000 and 2010, he taught at the renowned French Pastry School, where he proposed the bakery-viennoiserie programme and created the “Bread program – l’Art de la Boulangerie”. In 2010, he founded La Fournette, working with his wife Michèle and their two sons, Luc and Nicolas. Master Baker, Master patissier and Bretzel d’Or, Pierre Zimmermann is also Member of the Académie Culinaire de France (The French Culinary Academy). He also won the prize for “Best Baguette Chicago 2017