August 2017

The French Bakery: A Foundation of Classic Bread Baking and Pastry

Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

When Marek Belka married, he promised his wife that life with him would never be boring, and Belka has kept his pledge. “I’m so happy. I’m so thankful. I’m so tired,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Owner of The French Bakery on Hilton Head Island, Poland native, and former corporate lawyer, Belka rarely stops moving, whether it’s on his BMW motorcycle, on his 32-foot sailboat, or in his bistro overlooking Broad Creek in Shelter Cove Towne Centre.

Regularly arriving at his bakery restaurant by 4 a.m. (even earlier during the busy season) to begin the work of the day creating beautiful loaves, sweet and savory pastries, and offerings for his authentic French-inspired menu, Belka feels blessed to have his family working beside him, customers who have supported him since he purchased the business in 2012, and a growing number of visiting devotees. “We’ve been coming for five years,” said island visitor Steve Hagos. Peering into the sparkling pastry cases with his daughter, the Atlanta resident already knew his order: cinnamon twists, plain croissants, a baguette, and something with chocolate. Belka and his team have the cases filled with temptations and the shelf baskets stocked with breads when they open six days a week at 7 a.m.… an hour later on Sundays.

“The bakery is like a foundation for everything else,” Belka said. In other parts of the world, he noted that bakeries, and pastry shops, and restaurants operate as individual businesses. At The French Bakery, all three are successfully combined into one heavenly mix, where the scents of yeast and sweets mingle with savory umami fare coming from the kitchen including immensely tempting quiches and crepes, sandwiches, salads, and soups. Ingredients are attentively selected, from the flours for the breads and pastries, to the eggs, cheeses, meats, fruits, and vegetables. “I buy the best quality ingredients in the market.”


A Family Business (from left to right) Tomasz, Marzena, Marek and Ellie


A greek omlette with toast, OJ and coffee.

Purchasing his bistro in 2012 when it was still located in the Pineland Mill Shops on the island, Belka was encouraged by his customers—primarily local women—to maintain the sociable nature of the place. “One lady told me, do not do a sports bar; don’t put TVs on your walls. Serve wine. We like wine she said.” Moving into their new locale in the Shelter Cove Towne Centre in 2015, the business has become exactly what his customers are looking for, and nearly what he envisioned many years before. “In my head, it was always coffee, pastry, and good music. It was always something I wanted to do as a family.” And, as requested, they serve wine.

The French Bakery is decidedly family-oriented. Belka’s son Tomasz runs the kitchen; his daughter-in-law Ellie jumps in anywhere she is needed in the front of the house, waiting tables, and filling boxes with pastries and bags with loaves of bread; and his wife Marzena brings the taste of family to the menu, like with her yellow split pea soup. “This soup is a very typical Polish soup,” Belka said. She has also added her cheesecakes and carrot cake to their selections.


The French Bakery is located in Shelter Cove Towne Centre

Always looking for like-minded people to join their team, The French Bakery family recently grew with the addition of baker, Romeo, and his wife Alexandra. “I hired a whole French family,” Belka said. “While he’s working in the kitchen, she will be working in the front and helping us with our crepe cart. They are giving me the time to manage and do things that I want to do in the kitchen. When you’re doing everything, you lose something.”

Never one to be still any longer than it takes to test the prevailing winds, Belka said, “I have many ideas; I just don’t have time to implement everything. With our existing team and the addition of Romeo and Alexandra, we’re going in a good direction.” Part of that good direction is the crepe cart. “We want to introduce how to eat and enjoy crepes, because it’s not only food, but it’s a culture. Crepes are very healthy, and very easy to make.” With their food truck designed for crepe service, The French Bakery crepe cart will be at events around the Lowcountry, and may be hired for service at private parties, receptions, and events. If you’re inclined to try crepe-making at home, Belka shared a tip for producing lighter, softer crepes that still stand up to folding-in a variety of fillings: Substitute one-third of your recipe’s water or milk with sparkling water.

Ever-thinking of his next step, Belka is looking forward to fall, when the approaching change of season inspired him to consider fondue. “Like European cafés—a little finger food, a little chat with friends, a glass of wine.” The French Bakery will be offering sweet and savory fondue—cheeses and chocolates. “Of course, we have the best breads to go with the cheeses,” he said.

Belka’s true heart is found in burbling cultures of his bread starters, and in the curve of the impressive dough hook in his kitchen’s mammoth bread mixer. “I just finished the high-end course at the King Arthur [Flour Company] facility to introduce old-school sourdoughs, semolina, and ryes to this market,” he said. “My son finished the classes for the French baguettes and French breads. We did this with the best King Arthur teachers in Vermont.”

The walls at The French Bakery are decorated with a changing exhibit of works by local painter Candace Lovely; the tablecloths are traditional Provencal patterns; the wood chairs used throughout the restaurant were brought over from Poland; 30,000 wooden bread boxes have become requisite decoration where they were originally stored for convenience over the beautiful retail backdrop. Nothing at The French Bakery evolved without thought or purpose.
Belka’s wife may be ever-wondering when Belka will stop tacking with the wind, changing directions, speeding forward with ideas and inspiration. Life at The French Bakery is, unmistakably, never boring.

The French Bakery is located in Shelter Cove Towne Centre at 28 Shelter Cove Lane, #120, Hilton Head Island. For more information, please call (843) 342-5420 or visit frechbakeryhiltonhead.com.

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