It all started three years ago with a need to find good organic, non-processed bread for her family. Originally from Normandy, France, Isabelle Halle missed the taste of home and began looking for ways to bring French-style, bakery-fresh baguettes to her table. Halle experimented with a few recipes until she found one she and her family liked. Then she invited friends over for a taste test. They not only approved, but encouraged her to sell the bread at Vincent’s Farmer’s Market in 2017.
Halle started with a basket of baguettes along with some homemade butter. “I had never done anything like this and felt terrified. The sweltering heat didn't help either,” she says. She pushed through the Phoenix temperatures and her own fear, and it turned out that people loved her bread. “I feel it worked because I make it with my heart and from my home with simple, organic ingredients: flour, salt, yeast, and water,” she says.
But there may be more reasons. “French people, in general, don’t know how to make proper baguettes. Why would we make it at home when we can go to the bakery down the street? It is time-consuming and a lot of work," Halle says. "Here in the States, we have the ingredients, but not the corner bakery, so we have to bake it ourselves.”
She spent a few seasons at Vincent’s market, yet she felt nothing could match the experience of eating bread fresh from the oven. By the time a customer took a baguette home, it was just not the same. For a brief time in 2017, she experimented with delivering homemade bread and butter in her neighborhood in Tempe. However, she didn't get the response she desired.
Eventually, Halle decided to offer a home baking workshop to create the baguette experience. And she certainly makes it memorable.
The workshop starts with coffee and homemade crêpes, the recipes to which she emails to the students later. As they eat, the guests introduce themselves. Since hers is an Airbnb class, people from all over the states and world have a chance to meet and connect with each other.
Finally, the students begin making the yeasted dough.
“At 11 [a.m.] and not a minute sooner, we have Champagne,” she says. Even opening the bottle is a special affair. “It’s called sabrage, which is uncorking champagne with a sword. I buy the small bottles so everybody can saber his or her own. It is technically reserved for bubblies only, but I saber Champagne and beer and cider. I do it all," she says. "People really love it. After sabrage, we do a Norwegian celebration or toast.”
The last part is an homage to the years she lived in Norway from 2000 to 2004 with her family. “By now, the baguettes are ready," she says. "We make butter and set the table with French cheeses, charcuterie, a simple salad, and of course our homemade bread and butter.”
Her house is on a private lake, The Lakes in Tempe. Weather permitting, she serves lunch on her patio. "All in all, it becomes something beyond just baking.”
Things didn’t always go smoothly, though. She's had setbacks and failures. She's tweaked the recipes, ingredients, and techniques until she found the best ingredients. That along with the simplest techniques to encourage people to bake bread at home.
Ultimately, she chose the overnight fermentation technique. Slowing down the fermentation allows for a better depth of flavor, plus more freedom with respect to time. Now the students didn’t have to dedicate a full day to baking baguettes. Also, the dough is easier to shape. Adding steam makes for that golden, crunchy crust. Every step was meant to yield the perfect crust and crumb.
Her program, La Baguette, has evolved in other ways, too. During one of her workshops, a leadership coach asked her if she would offer the class to workgroups. Halle accepted the challenge and enrolled in team-building courses at Arizona State University.
“I learned that when a team is created, the first experience of team bonding should take place off-site," she says. "People do better when they get to know each other personally before working together.” By adding discussion and activities, Halle invites more vulnerability in the group. “We elevate and connect them.”
One of her favorite questions is: What's a little secret from your childhood? When she says the word secret, there’s a spark in her eyes. It’s this uplifting energy and her levity that allows people to feel safe enough to share. “Suddenly, everybody talks about it. Then, it’s not taboo anymore.” To help people along, Halle started with her secret. At 17, when her parents divorced, her father gave her €1,000. She took the money, bought a plane ticket, and traveled to the far edge of Madagascar. She says from this, people start opening up about their relationships and lives.
Therefore, Halle sees herself as a passionate entrepreneur more than a chef or baker.
There are two ways to get into her classes. Individuals book through Airbnb, business groups through her website. So far, she’s had glowing reviews from her students on her Airbnb and website. Her Airbnb class, held mostly on Saturdays, is three hours.
During the team bonding class, held Wednesday through Friday, she gives an hour break for the team members to resolve any outside work issues, whether together or individually. High-speed Wi-Fi is available to those who need it. As such, depending on the team’s need, she may stretch the class up to four hours.
The maximum class size is six people. For groups larger than six, she has a helper. Students do what they are comfortable doing. If you don’t feel comfortable making the dough, you can pair up with someone and watch. “I like to put people at ease,” she says. "But they always do the kneading, because I want them to get dirty. No aprons in my house. You gotta get down and dirty."
Individual class prices are $75 per person, while group class prices are $100 per person. For more information, visit the French Baguette Experience by the Lake website or the La Baguette by Isabelle Halle.
Editor’s note: This article was updated from its original version.
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