Richard Bertinet, The Bertinet Kitchen, Bath

The Staff Canteen

Richard Bertinet is the owner of The Bertinet Kitchen, a cookery school specialising  in baking and pastry and The Bertinet Bakery. He began his career in France, the land of his birth, before moving to the UK 25 years ago. Stints at Chewton Glen Hotel and Rhinefield house in the New Forest followed before he won the Egon Ronay Pub of the Year as head chef at the Silver Plough in Salisbury. After some time as a consultant, he opened the Bertinet Kitchen in Bath in 2005, in the same year releasing his first book, DOUGH which won a host of awards. He has since published CRUST, COOK and PASTRY and has a fifth book, Patisserie Maison, coming out later this year. In 2010 he was voted BBC Food Champion of the Year. He is also a newly-appointed Callebaut Ambassador.  

How did you first get into baking and pastry?

At the age of 13 or 14, I knew that school was not for me. The local bakery in Vawnes [in Brittany, France] where I used to go every morning to buy bread for the family always fascinated me by what was going on behind the scenes – sometimes you could see the door open and see what was going on. One day at school they asked, what do you want to do when you’re bigger and the word ‘baker’ came out of my mouth and that was it; I went to do a stage for one night at the bakery and then I went on to do what we call in France a ‘pré apprentissage’ where you do two weeks at work and two weeks at school, so when I started my apprenticeship I was well on my way.

How did you first come to the UK and why?

I came for a two-week holiday because of a girl – of course! – I was doing a ski season in Meribel and I met an English girl who was coming back to the UK so I came for two weeks – that was 25 years ago and I’ve never left. I fell in love with the country but not the girl! It’s the best thing I’ve done in my life, moving here. I believe all the pieces of my life are like a big jigsaw and they all came together to create what I’m doing now.

As a baker and pastry chef from France coming to the UK 25 years ago, didn’t you feel that the scene was a bit backward here?

The baking and pastry scene here 25 years ago was just dire. Food was just starting to get on the map with the Roux brothers, Raymond Blanc and those guys but the reputation of England wasn’t particularly great. But God knows it’s changed so much. You eat better in the UK than you can in France now.

You have worked as a consultant chef/baker for some big companies; how did that work out for you?

In 1996 I was offered a job as new product development manager for a bakery at the time, which was owned by Rank Hovis. It opened my eyes to baking in this country so I realised there was more to bread than we were led to believe. There was a massive change happening in the supermarket chains – better breads, fancy kinds of bread – bread is very fashionable now but the trend started a long time ago, and changing the way we eat bread started from there really. It was fascinating to see it on such a big scale where you’re doing thousands of loaves a day. 

You were partly responsible for changing the eating habits of a nation.

Yes, I guess so. Also before you change the people, you’ve got to change the buyers. I really believe you’ve got to put the skills back into people. It’s too easy all the time to bypass the skills and replace them with one powder for this and another powder for that. I really believe that you can make great products on a big scale if you make people understand what they’re working with. It’s a long way of doing it but it does work and that’s why we now supply Waitrose from our bakery. I don’t use any improvers, I don’t use ascorbic acid, so it’s all clean label but we spend a lot of time on skills and training.

Do you think more supermarkets will come around to that way of thinking?

Yes, there’s another big wave of change coming up now. The big thing with food now is all about trust. There’s been so many food scares, too much misleading of people, too many words have been abused like ‘organic’ and ‘artisan’. We put too many labels on food that people don’t understand. If you put the label ‘artisan’ on a product, people don’t really know what that means. My aim would be to have my bread all over the UK freshly delivered every day with a very clean label and properly artisan – made by people’s hands and never compromising on the quality. It’s a different way of doing things but I think it’s possible.

How has the operation here in Bath developed since you first moved here in 2004?  

When we first decided to open a cookery school we took the gamble, sold the house in London and invested everything into here. The rest is history really; we’re still working bloody hard but we employ about 48 people now so it’s grown from just my wife and me to a very busy place. Then the bakery started three years ago. We had a big impact when we first opened the cooking school. The book [Dough] was launched the same week as the cooking school opened so it was a good vehicle to promote the school, and the book won lots of awards in the UK and America and it just snowballed from there.  

What sort of people attend your courses?

We do a five-day bread class where people come from all over the world. Last week we had someone from the Galapagos Islands. We also train a lot of chefs and a number of brigades from well-known restaurants. Sometimes we’ll get a chef who comes and does a course for me, like Angela Hartnett and I’ll train their boys in return so it’s a relationship we build up. Recently we had the guys from the Great British Bake Off come in and do a class; we had Lizzy Yarnold the Winter Olympic champion; we do cooking classes with a lot of the rugby players for the senior team at Bath Rugby Club; we have actors, all sorts of people and we mix them all together, professionals and amateurs, that’s the beauty of bread-making; you can have a housewife with five children working with a chef who’s got two Michelin stars.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th May 2014

Richard Bertinet, The Bertinet Kitchen, Bath