THERE'S LOUD POUNDING coming from Levain's bakery in Cheung Sha Wan as six students slap chunks of dough against the table before letting owner Li Kwok-cheung check it for stretchiness and elasticity.
Li uses machines to knead the dough for products sold at Levain on Aberdeen Street in Central. But when it comes to making good bread, Li says beginners should learn from scratch and gain an understanding of the science behind it.
"Learning how to knead dough gets you familiar with the texture and touch under different conditions. It's something you have to know even when you use machines," says the self-taught baker.
"Beginners usually start with using dry yeast, which is easy to control for producing consistent products. But after a while it won't be challenging. That's when people turn to the European-style sourdough bread I specialise in.
"The scent, taste and texture are incomparable, although it takes a lot more time to ferment, and attention needs to be paid to the temperature and humidity. People in Hong Kong aren't familiar with it yet, but people have come to me and asked for classes."
Baking and pastry-making classes are nothing new. But the love of good food, dissatisfaction with the quality of some purchased goods, and the fact that more artisan bakeries and pastries shops have opened has increased demand for these classes.
While the internet and cookbooks offer recipes and directions, students such as Emily Au Yeung Lok-yan say some skills are hard to put into words. Asking a professional about problems she encounters in the process saves her a lot of time.
She was baking and making pastries at home for two years before she started taking classes at Coup Kitchen in Tin Hau. It took only a few lessons before the quality in her homemade treats improved: her sponge cakes are much better as she now knows how to avoid making them too dry.
One of her friends, who has less cooking experience, successfully made a pistachio cake for her mother's birthday, thanks to what she learned from Alfred Cheung Kin-man, a strict instructor who was the head chef at the Excelsior Hotel.
Chef Jeffery Koo Ka-chun says these classes are so popular because making desserts can be fun. Others join the classes because they want to reproduce or customise desserts they've bought in the past.
Koo opened Chefs (Chocolate & Culinary School), in October, initially intending to use it to train the team for his two-year-old dessert shop, Black n White, in Tai Kok Tsui. But it evolved into something bigger and Koo now also offers classes and demonstrations by award-winning pastry chefs from all over the world.
"It can be difficult to make a perfectly shaped macaron shell all the time," says Koo, who previously worked with the Mandarin Oriental and Vero Chocolates. "While a macaron is normally quite sweet, they can make fillings that suit their own taste."
Grégoire Michaud of Bread Elements admits that it is sometimes impossible to bake like a professional, even if you have all the techniques and knowledge, unless you have a proper oven equipped with baking stones, which help create a better bread crust.
"If I make bread at home it won't be perfect because of my 'housewife oven'," he says.
However, taking a class with him and baking with professional equipment offers not just an experience, but also the realisation "that doing it yourself is actually easy and that it's possible to do real, wholesome food".
Making bread isn't very costly because the ingredients are quite basic. But most mass-produced breads are made with bleached flour and chemicals and additives to lower the cost and prolong shelf life. They lack nutrients and the flavour that comes from a longer fermentation.
Michaud is determined to counteract the tasteless, fluffy bread that predominates the market. The former head pastry chef of the Four Seasons hotel wants people to know that bread isn't limited to the white, square slices of bread in plastic bags at the supermarket.
Bread Elements is offering something else, he says - something that is only available in a handful of hotels at a high price.
"There were few real artisan bakers in Hong Kong making authentic bread. A lot of people, especially those who travel a lot, say they love the bread they had in different places. People are becoming more and more interested [in learning how to make it]," says Michaud.
"We are now supplying hotels and restaurants. Our goal is to have our own shop."
Michaud has hosted several classes for charity and he is looking to run classes for the public in the next few months. His spacious workshop in Chai Wan can hold 10 to 12 students at a time.
"The way I'd like to do it here is different from the usual, where everybody has their own mixer and their own station," says Michaud. "I want this place to be communal, where people learn together around a big wooden table and I teach hands-on. You see your neighbour across from you and we all share. We can do breads, pastries, tarts and cakes."
Michaud is not afraid to share his knowledge. He believes that only by knowing how things are made will the public understand and appreciate what the artisans are so passionate about.
"On one side, we're a business, but I've also been writing books about baking and I love to hold classes and demonstrations because I feel like, at this point of my career, it's not about keeping [knowledge] to myself," says Michaud.
"This is probably my last adventure in my professional career. I'm not old but I look at the long term. It's time to share and to motivate and support younger people.
"Competition is healthy and there's space for more in Hong Kong. The more people doing it, the more people will be aware. What we do is spread the good bread as much as we can."