Jean-Pierre Chesnel, one of Salt Lake City's premier bakers, is really an artist at heart. A renaissance man. A student of life. A man of many professions. A world traveler.
And he is only 41.Pierre, who presides over Pierre's Country Bakery at 3239 E. 3300 South, is the quintessential Frenchman, originally from Normandy, but a 15-year resident of the United States. He is thin and energetic, a French moustache slightly shrouding his open face. His accent exudes charm.
In France, he worked as a jockey but quit because 6 feet is too tall. Then he became a landscape gardener in the tradition of his father, but curiosity got the better of him.
So for seven years he traveled the world, becoming intimately acquainted with 55 countries. He had little money, but he was willing to work as he tried to establish a "proximity" with the people. So he worked mostly as a salesman and as a commercial artist (self-taught), sketching people all over the world.
One woman taught him that "you have to give time and attention to people when they ask." After that he managed to get close to the people. He found "proximity."
Even though the United States was last on his list, he came here, too. In Montana he met an Indian medicine man who virtually adopted him into his family, representing a turning point.
In Sun Valley, Idaho, he became a "gardener for the rich and famous," while painting on the side. He lived "the good life," rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars and "people with helicopters in their back yards." It was intoxicating.
But there was something missing. Bread, for one thing. In the United States, he could not find more than a dozen good bakers. He felt a need.
"People put a ton of yeast in their bread, then mix it so long that there are no nutrients left. Then they add chemicals. You don't tell bread what to do. You do nothing to bread. The quality of bread is most important - in its natural form. Looks come second."
Sensing that baking was in his genes, Pierre left Sun Valley 21/2 years ago. He contacted Eugene Lebreton, one of the three master bakers of Paris, and asked if he would teach him how to make French bread. Lebreton agreed, and so Pierre went to Paris to learn the art.
He chose Salt Lake City because of its character. "I look out over mountains and the ski resorts are close, just as in Sun Valley." And so he settled here and established a goal. "I wanted to become the best baker between New York and San Francisco."
In the search for a distinctive flavor, Lebreton came to Salt Lake City to put his hands in the dough. He and Pierre talked to millers and farmers in a steadfast effort to capture the essence of French bread.
When he made his bread in Salt Lake City, Pierre was "disappointed at first," because it didn't equate with the memory he carried from France. But then it miraculously fell into place. The bread blended with the environment and altitude, becoming the best it could be. It became "a bread that belongs to Salt Lake City. It has taken on a quality that people like."
He explains it this way: "The palate and tongue are sophisticated. People here are very supportive. A family culture is a good place to offer such bread. Bread is the cornerstone of the traditional family. Give people something good and when they see it they will say, `THIS is BREAD!' "
Already Pierre's reputation has become national. In May, Time Magazine included Pierre's Country Bakery as one of four outstanding local bakeshops in the country. The others are in Berkeley, Chicago and Seattle.
Will he stay here? Has he settled down for good?
"I don't know what life has in store for me. I don't guide my life. I want to make bread for the sake of art. I'm not a businessman. I just want to become a very good baker. I want to contribute. But whatever I do has to be creative."
He says it with authority, and you believe him.
Besides, "Baking bread is a work of love."