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June 14, 2011

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French baker calls teaching a recipe for success

FRENCH "baking technician" Thomas Kalkhoven has a soft spot for young people in need - first inner city kids in Lille and now poor kids in Shanghai. Sophy Nie reports.

French baker Thomas Kalkhoven teaches baking and pastry skills to disadvantaged Chinese youth so they can build a kitchen career and make some bread.

The native of Lille been teaching Western baking for almost two years with Shanghai Young Bakers (SYB), a nonprofit organization providing job skills to orphans aged 17-23.

The 34-year-old Frenchman has lived in Shanghai for five years and is fluent in Mandarin - he also teaches in Mandarin.

The organization was founded more than two years ago and uses a French model of training. After completing a one-year course, students are hired by prestigious hotels or bakery chains in Shanghai and across China.

Every week, Thomas gives three classes to 18 students. He is now the only French teacher at SYB. Together with other two French people, Thomas is also one of the key organizers in SYB, assisted by around 20 expat and local volunteers.

Thomas began volunteering in 2003 to help inner city children in Lille with their studies and social skills. He then began to study French baking as a way to reconnect with his family tradition.

He knew that baking would provide him with a skill that he could use anywhere around the world. At that time he was already thinking about China.

In 2005, when he was 28, he began studying Chinese and a year later he arrived in Shanghai for three months of intensive Mandarin study. He initially planned a short visit, but the idea of living overseas and exploring Chinese culture changed his mind.

"Since I came to Shanghai, I have never moved. I love this nice city. Here there are too many things to enjoy," says Thomas.

He started to work, doing some marketing and sales and teaching English, French and math. In the summer of 2009, a French baker friend Loic Ledru introduced him to Shanghai Young Bakers.

"Loic needed an assistant who knew French bakery skills and spoke Chinese. I was the only one qualified," he says.

Though Thomas knew his way around a kitchen and had teaching experience, he had never taught bakery skills, certainly not in Chinese. While still working himself, he started teaching a once-a-week class.

"I spent a lot of time and energy to prepare my class, going over homework and checking the technical words in Chinese," he says. With his enthusiasim about baking, charity and teaching, all went well.

In November 2009, the French yeast maker Lesaffre offered him an opportunity to contribute more to Shanghai Young Bakers - and get paid.

Lesaffre is one of the sponsors of SYB and paid Thomas a full salary as baking technician, while allowing him to work part time as a baking teacher.

Thomas is very busy these days, joking that he doesn't have time to play the piano, work on his Chinese, go swimming or work out at the gym.

"I have been so busy I don't have any time for myself, and I don't even have a girlfriend," he says laughing. Over the Dragon Boat Festival he went with baking students and teachers to Shanghai's suburban water town of Zhujiajiao.

Thomas knows about big cities, such as Paris, Tokyo and New York and says they provide more job opportunities and "energy of life." But he finds most urban areas too noisy and crowded.

Maybe that's why he chose to live in Shanghai's Pudong New Area - it's cleaner, there's less noise, less pollution, fewer people and more space.

He enjoys nearby cities of Nanjing and Suzhou in Jiangsu Province and Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province.

"Maybe in five to 10 years I will move on to the middle-sized cities like Hangzhou or my home town Lille," he says.

Thomas Kalkhoven

Nationality: French

Age: 34

Profession: Baking technician




Favorite place: Pudong

Strangest sight: Some dealers charge more to foreigners. Some Chinese talk about me in front of me in Chinese.

Worst experience: None really, but it's not easy for foreigners to live in China. Troubles because of cultural differences are unavoidable.

Motto for life: Sometimes no, sometimes a lot.

How to improve Shanghai: Improve the public transportation, and reduce the cars.

Advice to newcomers: Chinese food is good but it might be difficult to have on regular base. Just hang on with the Chinese local food, and one day you'll realize a meal without rice isn't complete!


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