During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, bread definitely had a special moment. Consumers stuck at home had to feed their families around the clock and gained a heightened appreciation for bread as the staple food that it is. Some even turned to baking their own, discovering a passion for sourdough.

It’s this return to baking roots, that Richard Charpentier, chief executive officer of Baking Innovation and Baking & Snack Pro Tip columnist, believes will provide the baking industry with a path for future growth and innovation. 

At the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE) in Las Vegas, Mr. Charpentier will lead an education session called The Future of the Past on Saturday, Sept. 17, at 8:30 a.m. During his session, he will explore the evolution of bread throughout history to better understand future trends and innovation. 

What can we learn from looking at the past and can that influence the baking industry’s future?

Richard Charpentier: Looking at the past to me, historically speaking, is always looking for the answers of where we started. 

When we look through history, from ancient Egypt to Greek and Roman empires through the Middle Ages, bread was always at the core of society because it was the essential ingredient we all needed. We didn’t have any yeast. We barely understood the grains; milling was evolving. By exploring the history of baking through the modern times and the various inventions, such as the commercialization of yeast and the second speed mixer, we can understand how we got to where we are today as an industry. 

By discovering the past, we can explore promising and traditional ways to bake without necessarily using commercialized yeast. By fermenting lentils the proper way, for example, we can get a bread that’s going to provide phytonutrients and better gut health. 

I’m not saying the industry needs to change everything we do, but these are the ways we used to bake. I want to share the knowledge we’ve left behind. We can bake bread however we want, but it's up to us for the future to think about sustainability, clean label and how can we rethink the bakery of the future by thinking in the past. 

It sounds like you’re talking about looking at the past to solve the issues we’re facing today: sustainable agriculture and gut health? 

Yes, all the buzzwords. I come from the industry. I’ve worked at the big guys. The problem isn’t that they don’t want to change, but when you have a ship and it’s going in one direction, it’s difficult to think of the next step. 

The core concepts that I hope people learn from my presentation are that by relearning old techniques, recycling ancient techniques that we as an industry have forgotten, we can resolve some of today’s problems. In my presentation, I want to take people through these techniques from the past as potential clean label approaches that everyone is asking for. 

Lastly, innovation is key to survival, and disruptive innovation is what I believe will create a big shift for the future of the food industry.

As William Pollard said, “Without change there is no innovation, creativity or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.”

What have been the most significant advancements in the baking industry’s history?

I would say the first would be irrigation and fermentation from ancient Egyptians. Then the Romans created the first bakery school and a guild and established a system around baking. Then Pasteur discovered yeast. The invention of roll millers in 1870s and commercial yeast in 1878 were significant. After that, in the 1920s, we have sliced bread, and in 1950s, we have the invention of high-intensity mixing. 

I’ve been asking “Where’s the next innovation?” And we need to think outside of the box, and I’m a creator and innovator, and I think it’s doable. My hope is to engage people enough that one person in the room will say “Hey, we can do this differently, and we can change.”