CARY — Even though Lionel Vatinet has been in this country for 22 years and is now a U.S. citizen, his words serve up more than a soupçon of his native France.
On the first night of a two-day sourdough baking class, a dozen students gathered around tables in the kitchen of La Farm bakery and leaned in to make sure they could understand every word the Paris-born master baker was saying. Vatinet, 47, who owns the French bakery-cafe, was cracking jokes, but most were falling flat. His students ears hadnt yet adjusted to his strong accent, in which seam is pronounced thim and thumbs are tums.
But theres usually a moment in his classes when its like a switch flips on, everyone understands and begins to laugh. This time, it happened after students struggled to make a rounded loaf out of a sticky ciabatta dough. Said Vatinet: Now were going to make a baguette, pronouncing it bag-whet.
Bah-GET, one student said, gently correcting him.
Is that how you say it? Vatinet deadpanned.
And that was it: Everyone laughed. He had charmed another class.
Vatinet is as passionate about teaching as he is about breadmaking, and thats what prompted him to write a cookbook: to help more home cooks produce artisan bread in their own kitchens. A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker has just come out, and Vatinet has a series of upcoming events in the Triangle to promote it. The 296-page book is filled with hundreds of step-by-step photographs, which help convey what Vatinet teaches in his popular baking classes.
He says, To teach is to learn twice, his wife, Missy Vatinet, said. He has a sense of appreciation for what was given to him and a need to give back to others.
At this point in his career, Vatinet doesnt have to teach. La Farm, which he and Missy started in 1999, has grown exponentially. It began as a small bakery near the entrance to Carys tony Prestonwood neighborhood selling eight kinds of bread. The Vatinets had just one employee.
Today, LaFarm is a retail bakery and a 60-seat cafe that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in the tradition of an authentic French boulangerie. The couple operates stands at several local farmers markets and runs a wholesale operation that serves seven Whole Foods stores across North Carolina. They have a staff of 70. In addition, Vatinet travels around the country consulting at bakeries and other food operations.
But he has always taught hands-on classes and has no intention of stopping. Even in Southport, N.C., where the couple has a vacation home, Vatinet occasionally teaches. Missy spreads the word via Facebook or her mom hangs a flier at the yacht club.
Cary cookbook author Sandra Gutierrez has seen La Farm grow from the start and how Vatinet connects with his students.
He removes that intimidation from bread baking, she said. Theres no arrogance in him. Hes a gem of a man. Hes a genius of a master baker. You put those two things together and hes a master of a teacher.
Vatinets passion for teaching was on display in his recent sourdough class. He took pains to offer hands-on guidance to those who were struggling, to answer questions fully and to make sure his students understood every nuance of the lesson. For everyone, there was kind and gentle teasing especially for his repeat students, and there were many.
Vatinet lived in Paris until age 13, when the family moved to La Rochelle, a town on the western coast of France where his father grew up. His parents owned a newsstand and small cafe. Although Vatinet was good in school, hes the first to admit he was known more for cracking jokes than being studious.
As he approached age 16, when students in France decide if they want to go to university or study a trade, Vatinets mother asked tradesmen who came into their shop if her son could shadow them to see what trade he might like to pursue. Vatinet followed a plumber, an electrician and a mechanic. Of the latter, he said, It was too greasy for me.
But after one night in a bakery, his career choice was set. I loved it, he recalled.
A cousin was a member of an artisan guild called Les Compagnons du Devoir, which trained bakers and 22 other trades. Accepted as an apprentice, Vatinet spent the next seven years working for master bakers all over France. Only a fraction of students complete the lengthy apprenticeships and then, only about 10 percent are accepted into the guild. Vatinet was one of the few, which helped him land jobs in Martinique, London and the United States.
He came to the U.S. just as artisan bread was taking off here and in 1991, worked with renowned baker Mark Furstenburg to bring artisan bread to Washington, D.C.
Opportunities created by a guild connection, Michel Suas, would bring Missy and Vatinet together. Suas was selling French baking equipment in the U.S. and urging his customers to hire Vatinet to show them how to use it, which resulted in temporary gigs in Fort Collins, Co., Atlanta; and Fresno, Ca. Then, in 1996 Suas asked Vatinet to teach at his new baking school, the San Francisco Baking Institute.
Vatinet was demonstrating how to bake bread and giving out samples at a trade show in Chicago. Missy, who has a hotel and restaurant management degree, was working for a Richmond, Va.-based restaurateur who sent her and two co-workers to study with Vatinet at the school.
Missy and Lionel hit it off and dated long distance. He charmed her parents, who lived on an 80-acre farm in Virginia with his humor and his cooking skills. (Theres a joke in Missys family that Lionel won over her father by making chocolate mousse. All her reticent Norwegian father will say about it: Thats pretty good stuff.)
The couple married in 2004 and have two daughters, Lea, 4, and Emelie, 3, who are biligual because Lionel speaks only French with them. The family splits their time between their home in Cary and their home in Southport, where Missys parents have retired and have a house across the street from theirs.
After Missy and Lionel decided to pursue their mutual dream to open a bakery, they considered many locations: San Francisco, Seattle, Colorado, Chicago, Austin, Colorado and even Washington, D.C. It was Lionel who suggested North Carolina. Missy wasnt so sure that a bakery could succeed here with so little artisan bread being produced in the state at the time. Her first thought was: Too much education.
For Lionel, whose first love is teaching, that made North Carolina the ideal place to open their bakery.
Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl