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On the Job With: Grégoire Michaud, baker and pastry chef

By Alisa Chau 6 July 2022

Welcome to On the Job With, an interview series on Localiiz that chronicles the highs, lows, and unexpected quirks of various lesser-explored occupations around Hong Kong. From paint-toting plumbers to beer brewers, every job has more to it than meets the eye. For our latest exploration into weird and wonderful jobs, we chat with Grégoire Michaud—a baker and pastry chef extraordinaire—about what it’s like to work with your hands every day.

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“I grew up in Switzerland in the Alps, in a small town called Verbier. It is a mountain area, so there weren’t many things to do. We were farmers before, and I spent most of my summer helping in the vineyard, harvesting potatoes, strawberries, raspberries—everything. 

“This was not harvesting for fun to cook dinner, it was harvesting to sell to the market, to customers. I learned the importance of quality ingredients. Because if it’s not nice, you can’t sell it, and if you don’t sell it, you don’t have money. And then the work you did out in the field the whole year—turning the soil, cutting leaves—it’s useless. This was my childhood.”

Photo: Grégoire Michaud

“When I was about eight years old, my father brought me to the village communal oven. So there is an oven in the centre of the village where everyone comes together to bake bread. Before the war, each family would bake once for six months. It’s a rye bread that is very hard, like a stone, that you keep in dry storage. And then when you eat it, you break it and soak it in milk or in water or in soup. What we do today with bread, it didn’t exist then, because there was no refined flour, there was no commercial yeast. It was a dense bread.

“And my father brought me there to bake bread and then we would mix the dough by hand in a big wooden crate with all the people around and then we would bake it in a woodfire oven. And the first time I eat this bread, I spit it out, because I’m like, ‘Wow, this is not what I’m used to.’ It’s not your everyday white bread. It’s a stone. But then you have to understand the history, where it comes from, why it’s like this, and the tradition behind it.

“These memories really stay with me because it’s my father who brought me there to do this. It’s the same as the crêpes—the crêpes were with mom in the kitchen; the bread was with dad at the oven and this really influenced what I became, I guess.”

“I love eating candies, but my mother and father didn’t want to give me money to buy candy. At home, everything is homemade. Jam, cakes, bread, butchery products, everything.

“I learnt very early—when I was about eight years old—how to make crêpes. I discovered that mixing raw ingredients—flour, sugar, eggs—and cooking them made something I could eat with sugar and lemon. It was like replicating candy. It’s free. I didn’t have to go to the store, I didn’t have to ask for money. But I always wanted more food. When I was around 12, I tried to do an internship in a wood factory. And I hated it, maybe because I couldn’t eat it.

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“Remember when you were 15 years old? What did you do on 2 August? Me, on 2 August, when I was 15, I woke up at 1 am. I took my bike and I rode it for 15 minutes to go to the bakery. My shift started at 2 am. I started working and cutting apricots to make an apricot tart. I put the bread and the tart in the shop. And at that point, I was alone in the shop in the middle of the night. And I look around and was like, ‘Wow, this place is cool. People will come and buy the bread I made.’ And at that moment, I wanted a shop. I pictured myself: I make bread, I put it here, people come to give me money, and they get bread. And from that moment on, I have always wanted a shop. But it took 28 years to do it.”

“I like school, but I don’t like authority. I’m bad at following authority. I thought I was extremely good at what I was doing. I graduated first of my year in pastry and baking classes. But then when I went into the working world, I discovered that I knew nothing. I came back to my senses like, ‘Wow, actually, there is a whole world out there that I have never seen.’ I had never seen a mango. And then the more you travel—I travelled the world working—the more you discover when you open your mind.

“After I completed my military training, it was the first time I accepted authority. I thought I could have a career in the military, but I was watching American TV shows and the American Dream was calling me. I applied to work in the US and I flew there not speaking a word of English besides, ‘Hello, how are you? Good, thanks, bye.’ And it was a living hell for me because I couldn’t understand what they were telling me to do. I had a lot of funny episodes—it could have been a movie. But when you get shouted at, you learn very quickly. You become resilient and strong, and you don’t give up. It wasn’t an option for me to give up because I didn’t have the money to fly back. Eventually, you get used to it.”

“I was in the US, working in three different places. I discovered culture, new ingredients, and got to practise recipes. And then I thought, ‘I know Europe, I know the States, I want to go see Asia.’ I sent my email to 20 hotels in Asia randomly and a few replied. One of them was The Regent in Hong Kong. I packed my suitcase and I landed here at night. When I woke up and opened the curtains, I saw the city for the first time through the window.

“It’s impressive, the scale. Scary. But anyway, you go to work, and then the rush hit me—the pace of working and the hours of work were like nowhere else. For the first six months, I didn’t like it, because I had no personal life. And it was just work, work, work, work, work. After six months, it started to come in, this thicker skin and not thinking of giving up, trying more. So I carried on doing and I’m still here. I have been here for 23 years now.”

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“I always tell myself, ‘Do good for others.’ In anything I do, I want to do good for others. When I make bread, I make the best bread I can. It’s not about the way people respond to your product, it’s the way you bring your products here. For me, the respect I have for the people here is: I bring you authentic products that I know how to make. I don’t come here and say, ‘You know what? People here like soft bread and sweets, so I’m going to change my bread to please you.’ But this is wrong. Because if I do that, I’m not honest with what I do. When it comes to the food, I saw the people embrace it, and the response has been overwhelming. I am very happy that people understand the products.”

“I am interested in baking anywhere I go. One of the last fun ones was in Iceland, baking bread in the hot ground using heat from lava. You dig a hole in the soil, put your dough inside the box, put it in the soil, and then come back later. And then you have Icelandic-style bread. It’s mind-blowing. It’s not the bread itself. It’s the way you bake it that is very funny.”

“When I was working in hotels, I had one day off. Half the day was for sleeping and half the day was to look after my son. The first years of starting your business are very difficult. You sacrifice a lot, but you know what you are sacrificing for. If it works, it’s great. If it fails, you can stand up again, and you know what you need to do to make it work. We’ve been doing this for nine years now. I could stay home and do nothing, but I don’t.

“You can control your day, you can start at the time you want. But then it’s about your own personal behavioural integrity towards your colleagues. I think if you are just lazy, you lack respect for yourself and also for your colleagues. Something my father always told me, ‘You can do whatever you want. But don’t be lazy.’ It covers everything.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Alisa Chau

Editor

Always down for an adventure, Alisa’s general approach to life (and anything, really) is to “just go with the flow.” She believes that the most unforgettable moments are the most spontaneous ones. One thing she will always be certain of, however, is her love for the band My Chemical Romance and potato-based food.

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