Born in Scotland and raised in England, Isabelle Ma, owner and head chef at Real Bread Cafe in downtown Xinjiekou, speaks with conviction and passion when it comes to her life; cafe and bread. “Being a chef in Europe is something that one can be proud of, to say you’re studying at a culinary school garners respect”, Isabel told The Nanjinger.
However, having spent the earlier half of her career as a high flying solicitor in Hong Kong, she admits her transition into the world of cooking was not easy. “In Hong Kong I needed to prove who I was, my true self. There were depressing and isolating moments, because everyone I knew didn’t understand [my transition]”, she said.
Having spent much time in France and England learning the ways of pastry from some of the world’s finest teachers, Ma has brought her knowledge of bread and pastry making with her to Nanjing, but first she needed to test the waters in Hong Kong. “In the fine dining world, there was a lot of wastage. I’m more of a farm-to-table person, so it didn’t sit well with me. I began baking with sourdough at home, doing a little micro-bakery, and then taking it to the local farmer’s markets. People didn’t understand at first, but once I explained the concept of sourdough and the benefits and such, I began getting regulars”, she said.
Real Bread Cafe is co-owned and run by Ma and her husband, Patrick Ng, who is from Hong Kong. Having met in Hong Kong the pair both left behind promising careers (Ng was in banking) in order to turn passion into profit here in Nanjing.
Upon The Nanjinger’s visit to Real Bread Cafe, it would appear that Xinjiekou’s foreigners are already quite acquainted with the place. Sat quietly working on their laptops upstairs, sitting at a window having lunch with friends or perusing the pastry selection downstairs, customers are cheerful and regular visitors. “I really like it here, this is the second time I’ve come now. The bread is really nice”, Nanjing expat, Alexandra Mayor, told us.
Upstairs features a window allowing for customers to interact with and watch the seven bakers at work, “We do everything from scratch here, I wanted an open kitchen because they are the stars. In the beginning, our bakers started with zero knowledge; we teach them to bake with basics and try to instil a less rigid method. They need to understand that bread is a living organism and they need to know how to treat it properly. I want to sell artisan bread”, said Ma. Fostering a European approach to teaching and managing staff, Ma aims to not only teach her staff the most authentic ways in which to prepare Western bread, cakes, pastry and coffee, but to also instil a sense of purpose in her employees. “I’m constantly asking them if they’re happy with what they’ve made. I want them to become aware of the thought process that goes into making bread, I want to train them to be independent thinkers.”
Perhaps the factor which sets this cafe aside from the rest (along with its friendly family attitude not only with its staff but with customers too), is its sourdough focus. As someone who has long awaited sourdough in Nanjing I was overjoyed when I heard that not only does the cafe produce sourdough loaf and sandwich options but pizzas too. But what about the locals, I wondered. “With local people it takes some time. Here, I believe the locals are pretty cautious… We find ourselves explaining sourdough to people a lot! It’s just something they’re not used to”, Ma said.
Real Bread Cafe truly is a one-stop-shop for bread and pastry lovers; it does not come more authentic than this. Small loaves go for around ¥35; croissants, pastries, cookies, soups, salads, bagels and sandwiches for around ¥20; pizza is ¥68-88. The Nanjinger has sampled most of what they have to offer and our top picks have to be the pizza (for sourdough lovers), the flat white (for Aussies) and the carrot cake (for anyone). Hands down best in Nanjing.