As holder of the annual title, the French son of Tunisian immigrants will supply baguettes daily to the residence of President Sarkozy
You have to travel a long way to get the best bread in Paris. From downtown, expect to change lines on the city's famed Metro several times. Along the way, you'll get an underground inkling of the city's demographics. The further north you travel, the more diverse the passengers on the overcrowded trains.
Pakistanis and Indians press into the subway cars alongside people from the Maghreb. Ethnicities from all parts of Africa and Asia crowd on. Finally, approaching Porte de la Chapelle, very few white faces are left.
Here, the "City of Light" pushes hard against its suburbs. Beyond the beltway, the banlieue start. But just this side of the city limits, in the 18th arrondissement, you'll find Anis Bouabsa baking the best baguette in Paris. The tear-off calendar in his hot and humid shop still shows February 12. That's the day Bouabsa, the son of a Tunisian immigrant, received a call from the very honorable members of the equally honored jury informing him that they had declared him France's Best Baker of 2008.
Bouabsa, a young, boyish-looking winner, is plying his ovens with long loaves of French bread, slitting the top of the dough and quickly pushing them all into the oven's heat. He uses instinct to determine the exact baking time. To better understand what happened to Bouabsa, imagine that in Germany naming a Turk the country's best bratwurst butcher. Or a Portuguese being proclaimed Pickle King of the Spreewald, Germany's cured cucumber capital. It really is a beautiful, unexpected sensation. One of the windows in Bouabsas bakery faces a small alley named after Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dadaism, who emigrated from Romania. School-kids of all colors press their faces against the window watching the baker with big, dreamy eyes.
Bouabsa waves at them, laughing. Every now and again he slips his admirers a chouquette, a cream puff covered with a thick layer of sugar crystals. His shop is a brightly-lit island amidst a desolate development. A massive, hostile police station is the neighborhood's major landmark.
Bouabsa starts working at 3 a.m. The bakery opens at 5.30 a.m. and closes fifteen hours later, around 8.30 p.m. Its almost as if Bouabsa wants to exemplify some perennial campaigner Nicolas Sarkozy's slogans. Along with his wife, he embodies "a France getting up early and working till late." Cheerfully following the presidential motto of "travailler plus pour gagner plus" -- working more to earn more. "But," shrugs Bouabsa, "we have lived like this long before Sarkozy got the idea."
These days, though, the baker with Tunisian parents will have close ties to the President with Hungarian roots and an Italian-born wife. As the officially maker of the best baguette in Paris, he is entitled to be the exclusive caterer to Sarkozy's Elysee Palace for one year. "Were not talking much," says Bouabsa," maybe around 20 baguettes a day." Then he starts to laugh a bit hysterically thinking about Carla Bruni biting into his luscious bread. "Not bad, not bad at all."
Bouabsa's father came to Paris in 1971, working at first as a bartender and a waiter in the cafés on the Grands Boulevards before sending for his wife some time later. To France they gave three sons and a daughter. Anis, the baker, wants it to be known that theirs is not one of those sad and tragic refugee stories. "Truth be told, my father just wanted a new life," Anis says. "He went to Paris because he wanted to, not because he had to. That happens sometimes."
Like his father, Anis Bouabsa followed his own star. Nobody pushed him to become a baker. It's been his dream since childhood. Entering a bakers shop for the first time, Bouabsa says, he knew right away that he had found his calling. At age 15 he became an apprentice. At age 28 he now is an early master of his trade. Best Baguette of 2008: Quite an accomplishment for an immigrants son.
In 2004, he entered Frances renowned competition for "Best Craftsman" and was elected the youngest winner of all time in his specialty "boulangerie," or bakery. He had to make six different kinds of bread for the exam, including pastries, Brioches, and a whimsical "pièce de fantaisie" with a theme from the movies. Ever since then, his collar patch sports the French blue-white-and red tricolor, a sign of membership in this very exclusive, very French club.
That he wanted to top this award with the "Best Baguette" crown hardly comes as a surprise. In 2006, his bread was ranked 7th out of 156 contenders. Last year, it climbed to number three. Finally Bouabsa beat all 142 of his rivals in the field this year.
The young baker slices one of his piping-hot loaves lengthwise and shows off his art. He can rhapsodize about the fluffiness of his dough and the crispness of his crust the way a music lover might talk about a Mozart sonata. And indeed, to bite into Bouabsa's baguette is to know that a few moments of sheer bliss can bought for a bargain price. "Hey, boss, you like it?" The question is rhetorical. Anis Bouabsa knows the answer already.