Christian Celej + the Anarchy of Baking
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the revolution will not be catered.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Christian Celej sits, his legs crossed, flour-stained Crocs on his feet, in front of a big oven and strums his guitar. With his glasses and wild shock of black hair, he looks like a mathematician. But this 30-year-old, who can shoot the sh*t in four different languages, is a Belgian baker through and through. Interesting, yes, but not a particularly sensible career choice. After all, he’s in a place thick as thieves with great bakers. But when your aspiration is to bake some of the best bread the world has ever tasted, “sensible” is not a huge concern.
And his goal doesn’t seem particularly far-fetched when you look at his pedigree: time with Parisian master baker Franck Debieu, the Mühlenbäckerei’s German master baker Jürgen Zülppel and internships in about 15 other bakeries. Then there’s his upcoming book, two years in the making. It’s part memoir, part anarchist broadside, and it uses bread in broadly allegorical ways, as well as very specific ones. All of which points to great successes. For now he has one bakery in Brussels and will open another in the city center in December — that might seem a skosh preordained, but Celej’s life’s meandering to this very place was anything but.
“You think you are creating, but you are not, you think you are eating, but you are not.”
—Christian Celej, from his forthcoming book
“I could not find a job, so I took my backpack and for 10 months I traveled across Germany,” Celej says. Four years ago, when he graduated from university, the financial crisis had hit, hard, and his seven years of academic attention paid to economics didn’t prepare him for it at all. So he joined a roving and informal band of other recent grads in a search for not only meaning but a way to pay for that meaning. “I couch-surfed about 1,000 places in six months,” he laughs. One such couch belonged to a soon-to-be friend who turned him into an anarchist — as freewheeling vagabonds, they were very close already. He one day suggested Celej wander over to an organic bakery for … bread.
Which is where the tendrils of destiny start to look like something. Something good. Celej hit bakeries in Aachen, Berlin, Vienna, Linz, Poland, France. And he got progressively more driven to do something that it turns out was in his blood. His grandfather had been a baker back in the 1950s in Poland, where the family comes from. The desire for some social elevation led him to leave that work and become an engineer. “That tells us in what kind of world we live,” Celej says, sounding more like the academic he resembles than the baker he is. More and more intellectuals return to manual work, he says, and more and more lower-class families — his father was a laborer and his mother a housewife — send their children to university.
And after four years of baking and wandering, wandering and baking, Celej found himself in Brussels with a piquantly titled bakery, C’est Si Bon. The shop front is a little old and weather-beaten, and so is the counter, so much so that his mother demurs when we want to take pictures of it. There are no frills to speak of at all, but there are touches that set it apart. Most singularly, the prominently displayed chapters of his upcoming book. “Slowly the world is becoming monochrome,” his fifth chapter says in French. “You think you are creating, but you are not, you think you are eating, but you are not, you think you are sharing, but you are not. And you think that you are living, but it is only a thought.”
The book is broken down into three sections that he writes like a TV serial and places out at the bakery and that cover his dream, his apprenticeships and his creation of his Brussels bakery, all part of what he semiseriously calls “artisanal marketing.” Apparently it’s working — self-proclaimed ethical banking pioneer Triodos is backing his play by financing the second bakery. A move not at all diminished by a workday that lasts 20 hours. Even if it might be a little diminished by shadows cast by continuing health and nutrition concerns.
“The heat and hysteria bread is drawing these days is mostly attributable to grains not being so easy for our bodies to digest,” says Dr. Steve Ballinger, longtime athlete and orthopedic surgeon. Though the claims that it can overwork your pancreatic enzymes and contains the antinutrient phytic acid and has too much gluten are not so scientifically driven, he says, the concerns about GMOs might be. This and any number of articles screaming about how nutritionally unsound it is would give a lesser man, a businessman, great pause. Especially when, according to Euromonitor International, with 141 million tons of baked goods sold each year, bread sales themselves are falling.
Facts not coming close to even fazing Celej at all, or apparently his fans. Food critic Richard Sterling notes after a recent trip to C’est Si Bon, “I’ve never tasted such rye bread before. Even the white loaf, which I would normally never eat, tastes amazing and you don’t find yourself being hungry a couple of hours later.” And if the proof of the pudding is in the tasting? Consider it tasted.