In the late-afternoon quiet in the Languedoc region of southern France, Alain Coumont, the 48-year-old founder of Le Pain Quotidien, is madly pulling together a fistful of lavender from his garden for a dinner party.
Alain Coumont. Photo © Martin Morrell.
For most of the year, Alain is on the road. But from May to September, he, his American wife, Louella, and their young daughter, Inès, live in their house on a hillside about 30 miles outside of Montpellier. The stone house is an 18th-century bastide, a grand hideaway originally designed for aristocrats who wanted to live off their own land. With 100 acres on which to grow fruits, vegetables, herbs and wine grapes, Coumont uses the house not only as a retreat, but also as the testing ground for pretty much everything, including new dishes, sold at his steadily expanding line of cafés.
Le Pain Quotidien, a French phrase meaning “the daily bread,” began in 1990 as an artisanal bakery in Coumont’s native Belgium. At the time, Coumont was the chef at a restaurant in Brussels called Le Café du Dôme; frustrated with the city’s breads, he decided to make his own as a sideline. At a communal table not unlike the long wooden one at his Languedoc house, customers ate simple salads and sandwiches made with fresh, local, organic ingredients and terrific whole-grain bread. Over the past two decades, Coumont has opened more than 100 Le Pain Quotidien cafés in 15 countries, all with the same rustic feel (he still employs the same furniture maker who designed his first shop). “LPQ was originally a hobby,” Coumont says. “Now it’s a business.” A business with a unique selling point: a menu that is increasingly, quietly, vegan.
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“I think it’s the future of food,” Coumont says. “Every time we bring in a vegetarian or vegan item, our customers jump on it.” Along with tofu versions of popular mainstays, like their curried chicken salad, LPQ has gradually begun introducing vegan desserts, including an apple mousse made with cashew butter and a brown rice pudding made with soy milk and agave syrup. Coumont’s goal is to make 30 to 40 percent of LPQ’s menu meat-, egg- and dairy-free.
Coumont wants the vegan options to succeed, and not just because they taste so good: He believes that even a partly vegan diet is healthier and more environmentally friendly. But he does not want to be known as a vegan missionary. “The vegan dishes have to be fun, and fun to eat. When we taste-test these products, we don’t tell the staff that they’re vegan,” Coumont says. “We just want to be sure they’re fantastic.”
As with most every decision he has made about LPQ, the semi-vegan approach is how Coumont chooses to live himself. “Our kitchen doubles as the R&D department for LPQ,” he explains. He’s quite rigorous about it: Four times a year, he invites LPQ’s leading chefs to the bastide for a week of culinary experimentation. He calls them his “flying chefs,” because when they’re not in the Languedoc, they’re flying to LPQs around the globe on quality-control missions. “I lock myself up with the flying chefs for four to five days,” he says. “No mobile phones, no Internet. On the last day, a team of tasters comes and either raves about—or kills—our recipes. We’re not afraid of experimenting. We’re not like a super-high-end restaurant, where every move can make or break you.”
Coumont, who counts world-renowned chefs like Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Dan Barber as his friends, has invited several chefs to road-test their own restaurant recipes at the bastide. “It’s a good place to develop dishes,” Coumont says, “because there’s nothing else to do. You can pick vegetables in the garden, then drink wine until 3 or 4 a.m.” In 2005, the founder of Manhattan’s Fig & Olive restaurant came to plot his menu; Fig & Olive’s current chef, Pascal Lorange, is among the guests for dinner tonight.
© Martin Morrell
The Coumonts so love to cook for friends, they maintain an open-door policy—literally. “I don’t have a key to the door, because someone is always home. People just come in,” Coumont says. As a result, he regularly finds himself foraging for dinner at the last minute—often in his abundant garden, where he grows everything from pears to figs to olives that a local press turns to olive oil. “There are quick tricks,” he says, as he snips off stalks of basil for the savory tomato sauce he’ll drizzle on a tangy vegan salad of baby artichokes braised with carrots and bay. “Organic brown rice and whole wheat pasta are both easy main dishes,” he says. “Just choose a few aristocratic vegetables, like artichokes or wild mushrooms, to serve with them. They will trigger conversation around the table and will also do everyone good.”
For one last errand before returning to the house, Coumont takes the quick walk from the garden to his winery. The Languedoc region has a reputation for iconoclastic winemakers, and Coumont is no exception. In the 19th-century stone barn on his grounds, he recently began producing 150,000 bottles of wine a year. They are called RN13, for Rouge National, 13 Percent. The wines, a red, a rosé and a white, are all blends marketed as VdP, or “vin de pique-nique,” a play on the French regional classification vin de pays. The wines are sold at LPQ, in glass bottles with resealable flip tops resembling classic French lemonade bottles. Typical of the natural winemaking techniques in vogue with some producers in the Languedoc, they’re made with minimal sulfites. “Sulfites are necessary in very small amounts, so that the wine can travel,” Coumont says. “But it is such a small amount, you can drink two bottles of this stuff, and you won’t have a headache the next day.” Clearly intent on testing his theory, he grins and grabs a dozen bottles before heading back to the house to greet his guests.
© Martin Morrell
Along with Lorange, tonight’s other dinner invitees include Gilles Valeriani, Coumont’s business partner in his wine operation, and Alain Allier, a neighbor and fourth-generation vigneron, who brings the Champagne. Once everyone is seated, Louella carries out the first course, a chilled, silken soup of pureed zucchini from the garden topped with zucchini ribbons and sprigs of purslane, a crisp, lemony wild green. For the main course, Coumont brings out the braised artichokes and a steaming bowl of buckwheat couscous, a newfound favorite grain. “Make sure you drink one glass of wine for every glass of water,” he advises his guests as he passes a basket of whole-grain sourdough bread, perfect with the warm, basil-flecked goat cheese filling in the side dish of oven-roasted tomatoes.
After dessert—luscious figs and apricots, pan-seared in honey that’s been infused with the lavender blossoms Coumont had gathered earlier in the afternoon—Damien De Lepeleire, an artist friend of the Coumonts, lays out some recent prints on the graveled courtyard. Covered in a maze of colorful small dots, they resemble something between 1960s psychedelia and Australian Aboriginal art. The guests admire them under the moonlight; someone suggests that the prints would make great wine labels.
The next morning, proving his theory about low sulfites in wine, Coumont is full of energy. As he finishes preparing a restorative brunch, he dashes around his vast kitchen, dodging the large wild mushrooms drying from meat hooks overhead, as well as his many Le Creuset pots. Everyone has stayed the night. As his guests emerge, bleary-eyed, he brings out thin egg pancakes seasoned with parsley and mint from the garden and a tomato salad, while Louella sets out a large bowl of a citrusy brown rice pilaf studded with chopped Lucques olives. The creamy rice is exquisitely vegan, except for the aged Provençal goat cheese Louella shaves over the top. “That’s why we need a choice,” Coumont laughs. “Cheese and cream are hard to resist.”
Rebecca Rose is the deputy books editor for U.K.–based newspaper the Financial Times. She lives in London.