Flavors: Le Fournil: Baking up a Life’s Dream Project
Francois Morin has brought new foot and food traffic to downtown Billings. Opening up Le Fournil in December of 2017 fulfilled one of Morin’s life dream projects. The realization of his vision has brought artisan baguettes, breads and croissants and sometimes special orders of cheese to Montana’s Trailhead. In Singapore, where he lived before moving to Montana, he learned the art of bread baking.
From William Woo at Bakerz@Work Academy, Morin spent a month learning the subtleties of kneading, proofing, shaping and baking the perfect loaf. From the class, Morin secured the sourdough starter he continues to use at Le Fournil.
“I dried it and I put it in my suitcase,” he shares. “I revived it as soon as I arrived and I have been using the same starter since, for almost 10 years.”
“Le Fournil is a very common appellation for bakeries in France,” Morin says. “The name comes from le four, the oven. Le Fournil is the place of the oven, so traditionally it is the place where people from the villages brought their own dough to bake.” Many of the bakeries in France take on the name Le Fournil. “We are proud to be Le Fournil of Billings,” Morin declares.
The 24-hour process of creating a baguette is a labor of attention. With Morin’s education in biology and agricultural engineering, and working in the IT field, he works with numbers and facts. The 11% protein flour he purchases from Utah provides him the right gluten and flour combination to make light baguettes with a crispy crust.
For Morin, he speaks with conviction, “In the French tradition, the French need to have crust. Bread without crust is not bread.”
After loaves of baguettes are shaped and allowed to rise, loaves are placed on plywood boards readied to transfer into the Polin three-decked Italian oven. Before they go in, Morin dusts with flour and scores the bread with a lame, five times with diagonal slits, to control expansion during baking. The boards are plywood boards he has fashioned to move bread in and out of his oven.
Once the bread goes into the oven set at 500 degrees F, Morin injects steam. Morin says, “If you don’t put steam to protect the dough it will bake too fast. It will rise too fast and you don’t have a nice shape, and also the shiny effect of the bread comes from the steam you inject.”
The baguettes bake for 20 minutes while larger loaves such as his country loaf take longer, 50 minutes. He sets a beeper to sounds one minute before completion time. The cooked baguettes cool on a large rack. As they do, the crust crackles sounding like small thin pieces of glass breaking.
“That’s a good sound,” Morin confirms. “That sound means you did something right.”
Over the years, Morin has modified his hours to accommodate customer traffic. “We open from Wednesday to Saturday,” he shares, “I decided to reduce the time and increase the quality. We have baguettes and country loaf, freshly baked every morning. On Wednesdays we also have the cereal and levain bread, sourdough, and croissants and pan chocolate.”
For the breads with a puff pastry shell filled with chocolate, Morin clarifies, “We don’t say chocolate croissant, because it is not in the shape of a croissant so the normal term would be chocolate rolls or chocolate bread.”
Continuing on to the weekly schedule: “On Thursdays we have the same, baguettes, country loaves, cranberry walnut bread, and on Fridays, in addition we have ciabattas with or without olives, focaccia.” He finishes the week with the addition of challah and croissants and chocolate bread.
Mostly Morin runs the bakery mostly on his own. He says, “So far it’s a one man show so I bake, I cook, and I do everything.” When his children, Marcel, Clemence and Emile are in town, they inevitably come in and help with mostly cashier work. When his wife Marmee is not teaching French at Senior High School, she is usually there working with customers.
When Morin embarked on his want to open a bakery, he realized setting up shop in Singapore would be too expensive and competition too high. He decided to return to his wife’s home state of Montana to begin another career.
Of finding the current space they are in, next to the Big Dipper and Rocket Burrito, and across the street from the Northern hotel, Morin says, “It was pure luck because we met Jeremiah Young from Kibler and Kirch who happened to manage this building. He proposed this space. It was unused. It was a storage room, unfinished with no door. There were only two high windows opening onto the street.”
With Young’s help, the open space with a high ceiling, mosaic tiled floors and breadboard walls allows for Morin to bake while being able to see who comes into his shop. “Usually in the bakery all the stuff is hidden, and you just see the baker coming with the bread out from behind a curtain. I didn’t want the bread to be baked in a closed space. And I like to see the customer even when I am not at the cashier.”
Already after being in business for almost four years, Morin is making an impact. His work has been noticed making “The Best 100 Bakeries in America” list for Food and Wine magazine in 2020.
Does Morin believe the foodscape has changed in Billings? He answers, “I wanted to be downtown. I’ve seen downtown improve so much for the last 10 years, especially on Montana Avenue with all the food and eateries downtown. I wanted to be a part of it, and I wanted to be part of the food traffic. The foot and food traffic at the same time.