It’s shortly before midnight and the scene could not be more familiar: a girl meets a boy in one of Old Town’s cosy cobblestone streets, they head to a nearby low-lit bar, have a drink and a little chitchat… Except that this encounter is far from all the simultaneous dates dotted around the city: the boy is Nima Hemmat-Azad, the head baker and pastry chef of Hotel Josef’s fancy new French bakery, the girl (also known as historically the first girl to ever show up at a Roberto Cavalli party in a baking outfit of jeans and sneakers) myself and there is next to zero drinking involved. When, after having tried Nima’s sublime signature baguettes and croissants during one lazy Sunday brunch in Hotel Josef, I suggested I would come and spend a night in Nima’s little bakery to witness the whole magic from start to finish, I had no idea that the journey would commence so self-indulgently.
“Going to a bar before work has become a little ritual for me now. True, I’m probably the only person ordering coffee at Buddha Bar at this hour, but I just love to soak in all the energy of the people having a great time and take it to the bakery with me.”
Turns out, Nima’s sweet little bar chore is just one of many things setting him apart from a textbook image of a baker. For one, there is his fairytale lifestory of how he chose to abandon a promising career of a successful businessman, sell his company and follow his passion for breadmaking; his extremely brainy frankness and his unexpectedly bubbly, sociable nature.
It indeed is precisely his enthusiasm that strikes you most when he comes over to say hello during your brunch, getting carried away about the French habit of dipping croissants in coffee to make the butter in them reach its melting point and become a little wonder. “Croissants are butter at its best,” says Nima and I find myself going all Pavlov’s dogs even though after having given in to the beautiful temptations of Hotel Josef’s brunch creations of salmon mousse with a poached egg, fresh celery and pear juice and salted caramel pancakes, there is literally no space in my stomach.
And so I agree to come back again, happy to sacrifice some beauty sleep to an exclusive V.I.P. pass to Nima’s alchemy lab. With his crazy working hours of 1am to 11am, the whole place is a sole preserve of the baker at this time of the day. It’s just the odd symphony of the kitchen appliances keeping us company as we get down to the strangely reassuring, quiet process of weighing, kneading and rolling. This is exactly why I love baking so much: there’s something so soul-soothing about this little ritual. I find myself thinking of my beloved Sylvia Plath, for whom baking was a form of therapy for her depression, a way of creating order in a chaotic world.
“If you’re feeling a little bit down, a bit of kneading helps,” Mary Berry once said. What also helps is hitting your croissant butter really hard with your rolling pin and thinking of your boss. Repeatedly. And watching a focused craftperson like Nima in full flow, his seamless moves between the different bags of French flour, the way he runs out into the garden to check air’s humidity or sends me for a cup of 14°C water after having made a brief calculation of the temperatures he is working with today.
And then there is the second and third dough to be made, for baguettes and brioches respectively. The way Nima caresses the dough perfectly illustrates the joy he takes in the process. “Of course I love it to bits. It’s hard work, I can’t possibly imagine doing it if I didn’t,” he says and leans over to smell the dough, inviting me to do likewise with a proud grin. I feel superuseful helping him to shape little brioches and lightly brushing them with egg while he arranges the baguettes on linens to prove, with the cloth folded in pleats to prevent the loaves sticking to each other.
At 6am, the daylight starts creeping in through the garden-facing French windows and the kitchen fills up with breakfast shifters. Our nighttime solitude is broken by a world of friendly sounds: the cutting and frying mixes with the clunky steaming of a coffee machine and the sweet banter of the cooks and waiters. It’s well past my bedtime but the first fruits of our night efforts start to turn golden in the proud French ovens and my excitement levels culminate. Someone kind offers to make me a cup of coffee number five and I eagerly try dipping my hot croissant in it. It’s almost falling apart and the smell is unbearably intoxicating. I don’t seem to be the only one being head over heels here, either – there’s a Korean couple pointing at the pastry basket with a child-like amazement, a fit businessman coming for a second of Nima’s eye-pleasing flower brioches with an I-really-shouldn’t-be smile, even cranky kitchen staff begging Nima to make them their favourite vanilla pastry.
Judging from the amazing immediate feedback, the amount of exstatic Tripadvisor comments, even countless proposals from local restaurants to have Josef’s baguettes delivered and cute little love letters Nima receives, there is little doubt that Hotel Josef’s new French bakery is succeeding in making this world a better place, one croissant at a time.
Not having slept for 25 hours and counting, I am now not much help beyond managing to stand on my own feet, manufacturing earrings for the staff out of leftover dough and being in everyone’s way. Unlike me, the croissant man is still oozing energy, moving trays with the perfect focus of a cold war spy, filling up the pastry baskets and preparing for tomorrow’s shift. His eyes lighten up again when he explains he is making pistachio pastry tomorrow out of nuts from his very uncle’s second generation pistachio farm. I watch him scrub the kneading machine and suddenly feel an immense deal of respect for his commitment and dedication. It’s just then that he decides to kill the silence: “Did you know a single croissant equals a 40-minute treadmill session?”
So there you have it. Let them eat croissants, just make sure they have their gym cards at the ready.
Follow Nima on Twitter to find out what’s he baking or just head to Hotel Josef with some socks to be knocked off. Their brunch is open
every day from 6.30am to 11.30am, at 500 Kc a pop.