On the Line: Jonathan Eng of Le Pain Quotidien, Part One

Categories: On the Line
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Photo by Mary Pastrana

Le Pain Quotidien has been around since 1990, but took its own sweet time arriving in Orange County. They transplanted Jonathan Eng from New York's Bleecker Street bakery to helm the daily breadmaking last autumn. Hungry to explore his dining options beyond Fashion Island, we meet up to recharge over Korean barbeque one Friday afternoon. Despite efforts to record our conversation, playback primarily consisted of doorbells, random Muzak and the sizzle of marinated beef. Fortunately, Jonathan isn't at a loss for words when it comes to completing our questionnaire.

Your earliest food memory:
Picking cherry tomatoes and cucumbers in the garden that my Mom and I would plant every summer. There is nothing like picking a tomato right off the vine and eating it while it is still warm from the sun.

Favorite meal growing up:
Let's just say I've come a long way. I asked my Mom about this question and she said, "I could not keep enough Eggo waffles in the house." I would put butter on them straight out of the toaster and eat them standing at the kitchen counter with no plate. I also liked stuffed shells, and as I got older my favorite dish was the same as it is now: poached whole sea bass served with garlic, scallions, soy sauce and a little sesame oil on top.
Your best recent food find:
At the Lido Farmers Market there is a guy named Dave who owns a farm out by Lake Elsinore, and he brings all different cuts of meats from animals that he raises that he raises on his farm. I have gotten quite a few tasty cuts from him: a whole goose, whole duck, duck livers, beef cheeks, pork cheeks and lamb shanks.

Most undervalued ingredient:
For bread making I would say water. The temperature of water and the quantity used make a huge difference in how the final product comes out. However, do not believe the myth that bagels and pizza are so good in NYC because of the water. It's because the people making them have been doing it for a long time and know their craft.

You're teaching a lot of baking classes, but that wasn't the original plan.
I never thought I would teach anything in my life, but I have found that I really enjoy it -- although it can be challenging at times. I have so much more respect for everyone who has ever taught me. I have met a lot of great people through the classes. Some people come because because they want to improve upon their existing skills and some just want an activity for the afternoon, but I am always happy when people appreciate how much work goes into making bread. Usually by the time we start loading the bread into the oven someone says, "Wow. This is a lot of work."

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
I am still trying to figure that out, but I think there are some good South East Asian restaurants.

What fast food do you admit to eating?
I hit up the drive-thru at In-N-Out occasionally, but I just get the grilled cheese. I have a special place in my heart for fried chicken too.

What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
Beer and scotch. Right now my favorite beer is Espresso Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout by Great Divide Brewery. I get it at Hi-Time in Costa Mesa. I like really smoky scotches so my favorite is Talisker Distiller's Edition.

What's the most popular item sold?
We go through a lot of baguettes because they are sold at the front retail counter as well as cut up and served with different dishes in the dining room.

How would you describe the difference between the way a pastry chef and a non-pastry chef work?

I am a baker, but I would say one of the big differences is that what I do as a baker is all planned out well in advance. I know what I am going to make at least a day in advance. A baguette takes about 4 hours start to finish, so you can't just bake one up on the fly like grilling a steak. Also, chefs are constantly tasting and seasoning as they are cooking a dish, where as I have to wait until the bread is finished cooling before I taste it.

Some of the breads I like to make are a 3-day process, so you invest a lot of time only to taste it and say not enough salt, throw it in the garbage. All in all, I would say that bread baking requires a lot more patience; if the bread is not ready, you cannot rush it.

Any restaurants you've wanted to check out?
I want to check out more Korean restaurants in Garden Grove and Vietnamese places in Little Saigon.

One food you can't live without and why:
Rice, because I grew up eating it every day.

Where was your most recent meal?
My most recent memorable meal was at a dinner party at a friend's house. I braised a pork shoulder, and another friend made dumplings and scallion pancakes.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Buy a digital scale. Measure ingredients by weight, not volume, and use the metric system.

Let's discuss the chia sourdough loaf.
Yes, they are the same chia seeds as the Chia Pet from the 90's. It turns out they are really healthy for you (unlike the rest of the 90's). My boss in NY, Karen Bornarth, came up with the chia seed muffin and I decided I wanted to make a bread incorporating the chia seeds. I knew right away I wanted it to be a sourdough bread as they are my favorite to make because of the final flavor as well as the amount of time invested in making one loaf of bread.

The bread is a two day process: we mix the dough around 5:30 a.m. and let it ferment for 4 hours, then we divide it into 750 gram pieces and pre-shape it. After the rounds rest for 20 minutes, we shape them into batards and cover them in chia seeds. Once coated in seeds, they are put into the refrigerator overnight to extend the fermentation to develop more flavor. The first baker arrives at 3 a.m. the next day and removes them from the refrigerator and we let them proof for 3 more hours before baking them.

While developing the formula, I learned that chia seeds absorb more than eight times their weight in water, which results in a gelatinous substance that resembles caviar. This took some experimentation to get it where I wanted, but I am happy with it now.

What do you think of people who take photographs of their food?
Personally I never take photos of food in restaurants, but I have taken photos of food that I have prepared at home. My feelings on this are based upon my belief that there is a time and a place for everything. When you go out to eat, I think the experience is based upon your company, the food and the space. When someone answers their cell phone or starts texting it takes them away from the whole experience, and I think that stopping to take pictures can do the same.

That being said, there is a difference between pulling out your smart phone at a burger joint and taking Instagram shots at Le Bernardin. Great meals are not about what individual dishes we ate, but the experience and the memory of how that meal made us feel.

Favorite chef.
Eric Ripert. My father and I had wanted to eat at Le Bernardin for a really long time, and before I left New York we decided it was a good time. This was right after the dining room was remodeled and we went for lunch on a Wednesday. I was really impressed that Chef Ripert was there walking the dining room floor for lunch service on a Wednesday. That showed me he is still passionate about his food and the restaurant even though he has so many accolades and could have 100 restaurants by now. And the food was ridiculously good.

Emilio Vitolo. I met him while I was working at Bleecker Street in NYC. He is the owner/chef of Emilio's Ballato in Manhattan. He is at his restaurant 7 days a week, and when he has time he is out exploring restaurants all over the city. He inspired me to be the best at whatever I do and to know what my peers are doing. I admire him because he works hard and lives how he wants to live.

My father is not a professional chef, but I will take his food over anyone's any day. Both of my parents work full-time, and my father commutes an hour-and-a-half to and from work every day, but still puts a hot meal on the table. I never realized how lucky I was until I got older when all my friends would ask me if they could eat over (at) my house.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
I would say that weird is really relative to where in the world you are, but some people may think jellyfish is strange.

Sweet or savory?
Savory. I never had a real sweet tooth growing up because diabetes runs in my Mom's side of the family, so she grew up without sugar or salt in the house. On my Dad's side, Chinese people don't really like sweet things.

Favorite places to eat (besides your own).
Ramen Yamadaya, Kitayama and Marche Moderne.

How early are you up for work?
Most days the alarm goes off at 3:15 a.m. and I snooze until 3:30 a.m. when it goes off again, and that's when my day begins. I live pretty close to the bakery, so I walk in the door around 4 a.m. When we first opened I was there from 3 a.m. to 1-2 p.m. seven days a week. I think I went almost two months without taking a day of. I realized that no time off is not good for me or for the people around me.

You're making breakfast. What are you having?
At work I usually eat oatmeal with soymilk, maple syrup, pecans, flax seeds and berries. If I'm at home, I will usually make soft boiled eggs with a slice of sourdough bread toasted in olive oil all topped with some truffle salt.

Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
I know there are a lot that I do not remember, but never anything too strange. There ae a couple of customers with their quirks that have a special place in my heart.


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Location Info

Le Pain Quotidien

401 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, CA

Category: Restaurant


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1 comments
JB
JB

Mr. Eng's observation about Éric Ripert  ("That showed me he is still passionate about his food and the restaurant even though he has so many accolades and could have 100 restaurants by now") was very thoughtful.  It seems nowadays, a chef/owner will have a hit restaurant and then ceases to be a chef, and becomes a brand...leveraging their [sometimes questionable] reputation into multiple outposts on each coast, and/or concepts the world really doesn't need.  All while the original place loses its way and fades. 

I can understand that big-time chefs may want to take on new challenges...and like all of us,  have to secure their future financially...but there's a reason that Le Bernardin is still not only the best seafood restaurant in NYC, but possibly the best restaurant, period -- years after I was sowing my oats in my hometown back in the go-go '90s.  My dream is to order every one of Le Bernardin's fish entrées over the course of a year...and now also to get invited to dinner at Jonathan's parents' house. 

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