The story of Chef Alain Coumont begins in the small town of Huy, near Liège in Belgium where he acquired an appreciation of fine food from his family; his father trained as a chef before working at the family’s grocery market, his grandfather would visit local farms on a horse-drawn cart, buying butter, cheese, honey, eggs, and all sorts of fruits and vegetables which he would sell in town, and his aunt Simone, who baked tarts that the family would enjoy every Sunday. Growing up in a family of cooks and surrounded by food culture, he decided to study at the hotel school in Namur, France just as his father had done. Upon graduating he wrote letters to ten of the top chefs in France and in 1982 he got his first job as a pastry chef working for Georges Blanc, who had been impressed that Alain had worked for Schevenels, the best patisserie in Liège, Belgium.
In 1987, Chef Alain opened his own restaurant ‘Le Café du Dôme’ in Brussels. Unable to secure a steady supply of bread from France, Chef Coumont started baking his own. Soon his oven was producing many more loaves than his restaurant required, and so he opened a bakery he called ‘Le Pain Quotidien’, French for “the daily bread”. Today, Le Pain Quotidien has 200 stores on 5 continents, each serving up their daily bread in addition to a menu rooted in Belgian tradition, and enhanced with local specialties. Far from your typical bakery chain, Le Pain Quotidien makes most everything entirely from scratch, offering many vegetarian- and vegan-friendly choices. The foods are prepared fresh on-premises every morning, and their simple, pure approach results in a taste that is hard to find outside of Europe.
Walking into Le Pain Quotidien I was instantly greeted by the warmth of an active bakery, and the sight of its long, wood and glass display cases filled with tarts, croissant, and pain au chocolat triggers a rumbling deep within me. I proceeded to a long, communal table to sit among other hungry guests; this reminds me of the small, local restaurants and cafes of Europe, and is a welcome alternative to eating alone at an isolated booth or table, and encourages mingling and friendly conversation. Don’t worry, if dining alone is not your thing there are also plenty of regular tables to choose from. I admire the rustic, hand-built imported Belgian table briefly while waiting for my coffee to arrive. When the little ceramic pot arrives I pour some into my coffee bowl, cupping it in my hands to enjoy its warmth while I look around to notice the jars of jams and spreads on all of the tables; if yours doesn’t have the fig jam you’re looking for, perhaps ask a neighboring table to pass theirs to you. And if you aren’t looking for fig jam, you really should because you are missing out. I also recommend the brunette spread which is like nutella minus the cocoa, which suits me as I’m not really into chocolate. Other outstanding selections included a strawberry-rhubarb jam, a delightful tart, but not-too-sweet morello cherry jam, a white chocolate ‘blondie’ spread, and last but not least, a speculoos spread which is prepared from imported European spice cookies, which are quite new in the States but a classic flavor to the European palate. All spreads and jams are 100% organic and all are available for sale by the jar. I really enjoyed drinking from my little coffee bowl, and was pleased to see they are available for purchase at the front of the store. As I look up, the food is starting to arrive. Here are the items from the menu that I had the pleasure of sampling:
Organic Baker’s Basket (100% Botanical/Vegn):
Baguette, Whole Wheat, Rye, Walnut, French Rolls (2), Hazelnut Flûte, Spelt or Five-Grain Raisin; served with organic jams, butter and spreads.
Baguettes are long, slender, and classic. The same you will find in various parts of Europe. With a crisp crust, and a tender, supple crumb these baguettes are made from organic wheat flour, sea salt, water, and yeast and pair perfectly with their fresh fruit jams or spreads.
Walnut bread is rich and nutty and benefits from organic walnuts, organic whole wheat flour, sea salt, water and levain (starter). This hearty and slightly sweet bread pairs nicely with a spread of speculoos.
Whole wheat bread is what they are known for. It’s made with organic whole-wheat flour, sea salt, water and levain, our all-natural fermented starter. You will find it served alongside soup, salads, a hearty farm-egg breakfast or used as the base for their signature tartines.
Petite flute, shaped after its namesake, begins with organic wheat flour, sea salt, water, and levain (starter). After shaping it is rolled in hazelnuts and raisins. This bread pairs nicely with a cheese plate and apricot jam.
Quiche Lorraine with Gruyère cheese, Paris ham and leeks; served with green salad
Croque Monsieur made with imported Paris Ham from France, dijon mustard and warm gruyere’ cheese. This is exactly how I enjoy my croque monsieur without the béchamel sauce.
Tartine. Grilled chicken and local mozzarella tartine with diced tomatoes, arugula, herb dressing and tomato salsa. Tartines or boterhammen (in Belgium) are slices of rustic bread with spread, often soft cheese or quark, served on a cutting board with a variety of sliced vegetables such as thinly sliced radishes. Perhaps even topped with fresh shrimp, lox, herring, pancetta, pork loin or fresh vegetables such as fresh peas. While living in Germany we made these two or three times a week. Tartines are very popular in Europe.
Pain au Chocolat is croissant dough with one or two pieces of dark chocolate placed in the center
Crossaint and Pain au Chocolat
Cheese Almond Danish
Coconut Macaroon (gluten-free) with Organic Carrot Cake Muffin
Belgium Chocolate Scone with Coco Nibs
It was because of simple, delicious European food like this that I started this website. I was so inspired by the European approach to eating and living, that I wanted to share the experiences with anyone who is interested. Le Pain Quotidien brings an authentic artisinal cafe bakery experience to Chicago, one that you should not miss. The menu includes a variety of soups, tartines, salads, platters, breads & pastries, breakfast dishes and organic beverages, in addition to fine, organic imported wines, including three that Chef Coumont produces himself! This is my new and favorite bakery, one that I can head to and be drifted back to Europe.
West Loop: 135 North Clinton Street, Chicago 60661
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