The Hands Behind “Le Pain Quotidien”

Anna Nguyen/New University

Jonathan was born in New Jersey and spent his college years in New York. But before baking, he graduated with bachelor’s degree in business administration from Pace University in New York. Yet, something changed. “I realized it wasn’t for me,” Jonathan says, “I couldn’t do an office job. I was going crazy.”

Even his creative escape, photography, began to lose its glamour. Although he had no professional training, his talent didn’t go unnoticed. By age 24, his photos ended up in published magazines and on websites such as “Surfer,” “The Surfer’s Path,” ESPN.com, Surfline.com, San Diego News Network, San Diego Reader, Inter Press Service and several others.

“I was at a crossroads. The photography, I was so frustrated with the business side. So I said, ‘You know what? Let me figure out what I’m going to do.’ Because I was kind of lost for a while,” Jonathan said.

Growing up, his parents always cooked at home. This “food nerd,” as he calls himself, loves cuisine. To pursue this passion, Jonathan attended the French Culinary Institute (FCI) in New York for bread baking.

After finishing up his course at the FCI, Jonathan applied for a job at Le Pain Quotidien on Bleeker Street in New York. About a year after Jonathan first joined the company, he was offered a job at a location scheduled to open in Newport Beach, Calif. On Oct 27, 2011, he started as the head baker of the new Le Pain Quotidien.

In English, “Le Pain Quotidien” translates to “The Daily Bread.” The company was founded in Brussels, Belgium by Alain Coumont in 1990 and has over 155 locations worldwide.
In the restaurant, the kitchen sits behind the cash register booth. Large panes of glass separate customers and bakers. People can see the working hands creating their food. For Jonathan however, the world behind the glass is completely different.

Behind the glass, the outside world is inaudible. The once incessant sounds of conversation have disappeared. The world is seen from an entirely different perspective. The room feels like a world apart from the world. Jonathan says that in New York, the staff would call it a “fishbowl,” as if they were on exhibition. Being on display for the world to see changes the way he works. “You don’t pick your nose, you don’t touch your face, you don’t fix your hair,” Jonathan explains with a chuckle.

At 5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays, he instructs a three-hour bread-baking class for customers. His hand moves over the dough, folding its corners into the center and sealing them with pressure. He uses the base of his palm to push the dough forward, turn it 45 degrees, and repeat the process. The light brown dough is soft and sticky. It works like quicksand as Eng’s fingers slip into the squishy matter. When it hits the table, the dough makes a loud “plop” sound and oozes on the surface. It slowly expands, like lava sluggishly moving across a landscape. It smells of yeast — raw and fresh.

He loves it, but baking is more than a passion for Jonathan. It gave him hope in a dark moment of his life.

When he was 24, Jonathan was living with his sister in San Diego. A friend texted him from New Jersey. One of his childhood best friends, Nate, had been murdered. When Jonathan began college, Nate started to sell weed on the streets. Three high school kids wanted to buy from him. Nate refused. The students came to his home, asked for two pounds of marijuana and $1,000. When Nate refused a second time, they shot him in the stomach. Jonathan flew back that week for the funeral. He fell into a deep depression. Jonathan couldn’t work. He couldn’t focus. He drank and got into a fight. But when he started working again in a patisserie, it reminded him of how much he loved food. It was his escape.

“I’m mad. I’m angry. I’m pissed. But I can’t continue to be angry. When I’m baking, it’s all I’m thinking about,” he says. His passion diluted his pain.

Baking is his life. It is not always easy and it is not always convenient. He explains, “As far as perfection, no such thing exists. A product can be very good or even excellent, but there is no such thing as a perfect loaf of bread or croissant or anything for that matter.”