Olivier Favrel has a lot of miles under the bonnet, and the face of a man who has truly lived. His hand and arms are scarred from a thousand scorching oven doors and he deports himself with that twitchy energy so often found in life-long kitchen dwellers.
Chefs are one thing—but bakers! Bakers are quite another. They have the stress, the heat, the prep and the pain, but they do it all when the rest of the world has been long asleep. These are the men and women with a passion so all-encompassing that to not be kneading dough at 3am would be anathema.
Two facts about Olivier: he left school at 13 with no qualifications and set out to do a pastry apprenticeship. At 16, while fishing, he smashed his leg on some rocks, spent three months in bed and a year in a wheelchair. He was told to give up his dream of baking but instead, did a year’s worth of work in four months and passed his apprenticeship with flying colours.
Less than a decade later, he arrived in London with £50 and not a word of English. He booked into a B&B in Blackheath above (I love this detail) the Cactus Pit bar and nightclub and started working for Didier’s Patisserie for the princely sum of £700 per month for six, 12-hour days per week.
The man is a worker, like his father (a fisherman), before him. There is a zeal in him—an unshakeable self-knowledge that if you just work the hours, strive to improve and keep going hard every day, you’ll be okay.
From the days of the Cactus Pit and Didier’s Patisserie, Olivier worked his way up and through some of the finest kitchen and bakeries in London—from Conran’s Bluebird to Flour Power City, where he ultimately managed the bakery. He met his wife Valentina, decided to go it alone and Olivier’s Bakery was born, on a market stall in, of all places, Nottingham.
As you enter the new shiny premises in Surbiton, you are hit with the warm tang of yeast and a waft of bitter chocolate. As we survey the vast ovens, Olivier tells me that he has a few wholesale customers but “when you do a lot of wholesale, you damage the product”.
This is a market business, through and through. It is vital for Olivier that he has regular customers who talk to him—as at Borough. “They said our sourdough was too acidic, so I changed it,” he shrugs. He is constantly getting feedback from his various market stalls and tweaking recipes. His product is developed for one thing and one thing only: the customer.
It’s why his pain au levain snaps into bubbly shards with moist almost nutty bread beneath the crust. It’s why his brownie mountain is demolished every Saturday morning and it’s why he still gets his hands dirty at stupid o’clock, making sure that this week’s organic flour behaves the same way last week’s did; that those making his croissants have the same passion that he had as a 16-year-old on the Brittany coast.
The customer is why Olivier keeps on keeping on, producing some of the best bread that you will ever taste. I’ve gone on record before about not quite ‘getting’ the fuss about sourdough bread, but on tasting Olivier’s I feel suddenly foolish and misty eyed. I’m a true convert; for it is, quite literally, stunning.