Sebastien Chiono, head baker at AOK Kitchen and Bakery, on his relationship with food
Interview: Ellie Costigan
1. I started baking at 15 years old. I didn’t like school, so I decided to get a job and just get on with it.
2. I am from Burgundy in France and there, when you come from a very poor background, you do everything for yourself. Everything you eat is done from scratch. We didn’t really go to the supermarket to buy things. Every summer I would be podding peas, digging out the potatoes.
3. There are a lot of different ways of working. Some bakers choose to make bread in the space of two hours, but the quality is not quite there. It depends what you want to deliver: as many products as you can make in an hour, or quality? I opt for quality.
4. London is a beautiful city: so many cultures and different people. The food scene has changed immensely since I first came here—back then, it was all kebabs and fish and chips. In the space of 20 years, London has moved to the forefront of culinary development.
5. At the Arts Club, the world’s oldest private members’ club, I worked with executive pastry chef Claude Lamarche. He has a talent and passion for food. And he taught me to be more organised. I don’t think I was too bad before, but I have been baking so much better since I started working with Claude.
6. Modern wheat is bred to provide better yields—to be stronger and more productive—but it’s not good for us. We cannot digest it properly. I believe this is why people are increasingly intolerant to gluten.
7. Consistency is the most important thing in a bakery. If you go to a place and on Monday the croissant you buy is good, the next day it’s burnt, the day after that it’s not baked, you won’t come back. If you can be consistent, people will recognise the quality of the products that you make and naturally come to you.
8. One of the main ingredients I use is a flour from the Gilchesters Organics mill. Their wheat is English-grown, organic and stone ground, which means it keeps all of its nutrients. It’s much healthier and more digestible.
9. The concept at AOK is to find a healthier approach to food. There is no refined sugar at all, and we try to cater to everyone, all dietary requirements: gluten free, dairy free, vegan. But we are very particular. Every supermarket now has a gluten-free shelf, because there is a market for it. There are some specialist gluten-free bakeries. But I tried these products and I thought, I wouldn’t be able to eat this. When you first take the knife and you cut it, all the stuff stays on the knife. Is that some type of glue? The problem is when you tell them it’s no good, they say, “Oh, it’s because it’s gluten-free.” It’s not because it’s gluten-free. Make it good, or don’t sell it. That’s it.
10. There should only be four ingredients in bread: flour, water, salt and yeast. Then you wait 72 hours. Most of the ingredients listed on the back of supermarket bread are preservatives or emulsifiers. What is the need?
11. Sourdough is based on fermentation and acidity. The fermentation is long and when you prove bread for longer, the yeast eats up the gluten. It means, even though the bread still rises, the gluten is much weaker, so it’s more digestible. I am sure that there are some people who are intolerant to gluten who would be far better off eating it.
12. On my first day of work at 15, I said to my boss: “What do you want me to start with?” He said: “You see those two bags of flour? You put them in the mixer.” Each bag was 50kg. My weight at the time was 48kg. I look at the bag, I look at him, I look at the bag, I look at him, I say: “I can’t, I’m too small.” He says to me: “If you don’t want to work, go back home.” You don’t need the gym when you’re a baker.