Cream of the Crop

CroissantsButter. Hopefully you love it as much as I do. If you don’t, I’ll have to question our friendship. If you use margarine, then I question your character all together. Can you imagine if croissants were made with, ugh, margarine?? Vegetable oil, additives, preservatives. Ick. Did you know margarine was invented in the Napoleon III era as a butter substitute that was cheaper for the, er, peasants. Don’t even get me started on “non-dairy spreads” that could last as long as a Twinkie (no intended insult to Twinkies, of course).

But then there’s butter: butterfat, milk, salt. Mmmmmm. Nothing oleo about it. Just pure looove. Yes, I melt at the thought of it. My butt and thighs scream at the thought of it. But I can’t argue the value it brings to pastry, and even nutritionists may side with me.

Back home in California, before my exposure to French life, butter was just butter. But then my eyes were opened and the Butter Angels sang. Unsalted butter, salted butter, dry butter… each has its own purpose. Unsalted butter, of course, is the standard in baking, even in cooking Dry butter2school. But it’s not the same unsalted butter as we get here in the States; it’s just different.

In a sauté pan or in muffins, nary a thought was given to whatever butter was on hand (but definitely not margarine, ever). You probably don’t think twice about it, but as a freshly trained French pastry chef, coming back to the U.S. has simply launched me into the butter abyss.

Unsalted butter in France seems fresher, butterier and it’s definitely cheaper. It’s the butter you use at home every day (er, if you use butter every day, of course). President brand butter ran about 1.62/package, which was approximately 250 grams in one solid block. No sticks, no tablespoon cut lines. Why would the French have that? Remember, they weigh everything if using butter in a recipe – grams, not tablespoons.

In the U.S., salted butter isn’t too common. However, in France, you’d find it on the best of white-clothed restaurant tables with artisan bread, sometimes at the beginning of the meal, but mostly at the end. The horror – leaving bread and butter to the end.

butter slabThen, there’s the cream of the crop: dry butter. Nonexistent to private citizens in the U.S. and typically reserved for bakeries who know what they’re doing, dry butter is a butter that has more than 83% butterfat and, thus, less moisture. American butters usually have around 80%. Commercially, dry butter comes in these glorious 1kg slabs, perfect for pounding into the pivotal butter layer of Viennoiserie dough for croissants and puff pastry. Nothing else will do. It’s just not the same.

It’s like crack – I have to have it. I tell you, and I practically pimp myself out to chefs asking who their suppliers are. My friends know how traumatic this is for me and, yes, often embarrassed at my quest.mille feuille

So back in Los Angeles, dry butter options are few. Finding dry butter is a chore and, even if you can, it’s still not the same without the French air and cream. It just isn’t. But, if you have or have access to a restaurant license and supplier, you can purchase dry butter, often in 10-slab cases. Ha. My husband would think I lost my mind…until he tasted my croissants and mille feuille (Napoleon…hmmm, coincidence?).

I always loved a challenge.

 

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On La Scène

Plating at shool
Chef Pierre Chirac demonstrating Chocolat Criollo

I’ve been lucky to meet some well-known and up-and-coming pastry chefs while attending Le Cordon Bleu. Picture this: Paris’s famed Le Maurice pastry chef Cedric Grolet demonstrating the techniques of his Pomme Aneth (Apple with Dill). Grolet’s life-like dessert tastes as good as it looks and, in the hotel, is served on a white plate with nothing else. Grolet and his innovative pastries are so famous that television cameras crammed in to the student- and guest-packed demonstration room. (See the video on Facebook here.)

Cedric Groelt Pomme Aneth2
Cedric Grolet’s Pomme Aneth

Recently, Le Cordon Bleu welcomed another young pastry chef: Pierre Chirac of La Scène Thélème in Paris. At less than a year in business, Chirac and Bordeaux-bred, thirty-something Chef du Cuisine Pierre Rigothier have already earned one Michelin star, an impressive recognition (if you put stock in that sort of thing).

Pouring chocolate sauce
The finishing touch: chocolate sauce

At 24 years old, Chirac has already done tours at Angelina, Yann Brys’s Tourbillon and other notable French pastry houses. Now, as head pastry chef at LST, he’s in the spotlight, and he’s turning out things like Strawberry & Rhubarb Cheesecake, Tarte Citron and the ah-mazing Chocolat Criollo Tart, which he made for us in class (photo, left).

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and it was time for our Superior Class lunch at LST. The place is a unique combination of gastronomy and theater, and I would have loved to have experienced the latter; but, alas, lunch it was. Since the place is a bit small, we were only 30 people versus of our typical complement of 100. You’d think this would yield more-intimate conversation, but it was somewhat awkward, not really designed for socializing like our Intermediate-level lunch at Pavillon Ledoyen, but beautifully set nonetheless.table setting

My classmates and I settled in for what was to be a seven-course, four-hour experience. It was a warm day in Paris, and we were thankful that still and sparkling water awaited us, and, upon sitting down, white wine was promptly poured, and served with warm bread and anchovy tapenade. Places were set graciously with clean, clear crystal wine glasses, and shiny, clean flatware. The placemats were a bit inexplicable and seemed out of place, but whatever – they’re placemats. And so it began…

mackerelAmuse Bouche: La Maquereau Mariné – Mackerel with pureed broccoli, pickled red onions and coriander

foie gras ravioli3

 

Le Foie Gras de Canard de Vendée en Ravioles –
Duck foie gras ravioli with artichoke, aubergine,
and reduction

scallop and arancini

Le Saint-Jacques de Plongée d’Écosse – Diver scallop with arancini, mouron des oiseaux (don’t ask; it translates into “pimpernel of birds,” thus I probably don’t want to know either), and lemon marmalade

lamb

 

Le Selle d’Agneau Elovel au Yaourt de Brebis –
Young lamb with sheep’s yogurt, young leeks and garlic, accompanied by a mellow red wine

 

 

Touche Sucree lemon yogurt

Touche Sucrée (“pre-dessert” – how awesome are the French that they have “pre-dessert”?) – A quenelle of fresh lemon frozen yogurt served on an enormous plate

Criollo

 

Dessert: Le Chocolat 75% Criollo du Venezuela –
Featuring cooked ganache and chocolate sorbet, garnished with brownie bits, sea salt, a chocolate toile, and poured chocolate sauce (Criollo is one of the rarest forms of couverture chocolate. This dessert alone is menu priced at €24.)

Café Gourmand – The French have this great thing called “Café Gourmand,” which is espresso or coffee served with additional bite-sized sweets…because you need more sweets after seven courses that included two desserts (ok, even though one was technically “pre-dessert”). To be honest, by the time coffee came, we were all ready to bolt.

As an added bonus, Chef Chirac was gracious enough to give me and two friends a tour of the shiny pastry kitchen. We followed him down a narrow, twisty staircase to the basement where he and a team of three assistants produce magic in a relatively small space with amazing ingredients.

All in all, the food and service at this new one-star were much more enjoyable than Pavillon Ledoyen, a more-hyped three-star. With the smaller footprint, a concept comprising theater and good food, I think La Scène Thélème will continue to do well. Let’s hope these two charming chefs continue to be humble and hungry. Who knows, maybe they’ll open their own “Deux Pierres” one day.

 

 

No Dead Pig

cow2Meat, cheese, flowers, fruit and vegetables. The famous Rungis International Market in Paris is a city unto itself, accessible only to culinary professionals and invited guests. However, the company has made a solid tour business, with organized groups led by a host (in our case, one of our chefs) and a Rungis docent.

If you’re a restaurant, chef or other culinary buyer, you’re buying your foods, materials and kitchen equipment from Rungis, which does more than €9 billion in revenue each year. Products transacted though this market impact 18 million consumers, and there are more than 1,200 sellers from around the world who have “stores” here, each displaying their wares openly for buyers to peruse. The market property also has thirteen restaurants, which are open to the public, but frequented mostly by buyers and sellers who are having lunch by 9:00 a.m. The place is a ghost town past noon.

The day before our market visit was an exceptionally long one at school. We had class from 8:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m., so I got home around 8:00, ate dinner, called home and set my alarm for 2:45 a.m. Some kids didn’t even bother going to bed. Me, I’d be a basket case, so I figured five hours was better than none. I sprung out of bed after considering my one and only school absence for the year, but why spoil a perfect record (not that they notice). I jumped in the shower, dressed in layers, grabbed my umbrella, and off I went. Since buses and the Metro don’t run at that hour, I conjured up my most aggressive gait and walked with a mission, looking over my shoulder and into doorways, convinced I could impale any would-be attacker with my favorite Fossil umbrella.

Thirty minutes later, I popped onto the luxury coach and waited for the rest of the students to arrive. All tolled, we were 27, not even half the class, but that’s fine with me; at least the friendlies were there. After a short bus ride (not a lot of traffic at that hour), we arrived at Rungis around 4:30, donned sexy plastic capes and hair nets, and set out on our tour. I was already pleased I came, even though I knew what awaited us.

Fish floorThe tour leaders should really ease into it, maybe starting with flowers. But, no. Fish. A warehouse full of fish. 4:30 a.m. Ack. Surprisingly, the smell wasn’t as bad as we were expecting, and we were happy to get this one out of the way. After all, we’re patisserie students. Why they didn’t take us to a butter factory, flour mill or patisserie production lab is beyond me. Some of it was interesting, but this one eel was more interested in me than I in him…and he was dead in a styro container. EelNatalie, our tour director, called him “giant sea snake.” Thanks, Natalie, I’ll blame my nightmares on you.

But – joy! rapture! – flowers next! We got on the bus and went to the next building (did I mention this market is the size of a small town?), and voila! Like wandering through the poppy fields of Oz, the flower building was filled with beautiful colors flower fieldand varieties of cut flowers and plants. We ooed and ahhed while customers buzzed about. We effectively dodged trolleys and pallets, and the cranky purveyors shooed us away from taking pictures. For flower sellers, they really had the dispositions of prison guards.

Back on the bus and off to the fruit and vegetable buildings…eight, specifically, but we only went into two. Fruit and veg comprise nearly 70% of goods and space at Rungis. Natalie took us upstairs for a bird’s eye view of the market floor. Ironically, Fruit & Veg was the stankiest of all, but if you ignored the trash-like odor, which we did, you’d be entranced in the tomatoes, peaches, strawberries and miniature vegetables (love!). Each piece in each crate, all perfect. You just wanted to pluck it out of the box and take a bite. Juicy red raspberries, purpley-golden figs, perfectly ripe avocadoes. Oh man, now we’re getting hungry.

However, our hunger was quickly vanquished. Nothing makes you lose your appetite more than walking into a meat locker. Literally. The dreaded meat building was next. We strategized for days before this visit – “we’ll stay on the bus for this section,” and “we’ll just stare straight meatahead and go right through.” Most of us shared the common expectation of barfing, except one group of students whose behavior is always repulsive. They stopped at every seller, begging for free samples that were being grilled and served with wine. It was only 6:00 a.m. While they were dawdling and taking pictures with carcasses, a few of us were concentrating on the cute, fuzzy, brown-eyed-cow murals on the walls, ironically positioned right across from their dead, cold, hanging cousins. Thankfully, we didn’t see the dreaded dead-pig-in-a-box that other tours did. That. Would. Have. Been. It.

cheeseBack on the bus finally, and we were going to end with the cheese market. Now, if you’ve ever been in a proper cheese shop, you know what it smells like. It was described accurately (okay, by me, but friends agreed) as “sweaty butt crack.” Now, imagine a warehouse. Of sweaty butt crack. The only thing that saved us was that these people were fun! And they played music! Yay! Nice cheese people! There was some funky unexplained promotion tied to action films that, to this day, we cheese promotiondon’t understand, but the two ladies dressed as cat women got us to take a group photo – we even took off our hairnets for it. Finally we conjured the intestinal fortitude to try a few samples (it was 7:00 a.m. by then), and some were quite lovely. Those who know me know I’m not all too adventurous when it comes to stinky cheese, but you’d be proud to know I tried some anyway. All good…except cheese 2the last piece, which I surreptitiously spit in my hat. 

I don’t think I’ve eaten meat since, and am considering becoming a vegetarian. But, then, I’ve been living on bread and cheese, so maybe it’s not such a far leap.

 

Things I Didn’t Know about France

Luxembourg 5aYou think you know France? Okay, sure, there’s pastry, snails, Eiffel Tower, the Seine, but living in a place is different than vacationing somewhere. Here’s a brief list of things I’ve learned during my past year in France.

The water straight out of the tap is really, really good!
During my first week of school, I asked where I could fill my water bottle. I was aghast when the lady said, “the water’s fine in the toilet.” Ew, just ew. But it’s true: water right out of the faucet, even in the bathroom, is great, even better than California water. It’s cold and it doesn’t taste like any metals or chemicals. But maybe let’s not call it “in the toilet,” eh?

There’s are patisseries (plural) on every blockpatisserie and lunch2
Not that I’m complaining, but I do occasionally sigh when walking past a patisserie on the way to/from the gym. There are patisseries and boulangeries everywhere in Paris, usually with lines out the door at lunchtime when they offer a formula midi (lunch combo), or on Sundays when everyone gets their baguettes for Sunday dinner. I’m like Pinocchio in the land of wherever-he-went (can you tell I don’t have kids?) when he was faced with all that temptation. I’ve also become somewhat more critical and have raised an eyebrow at some of the things patisseries sell. Imagine pastry students gone patisserie hopping (yes, this happens). You’d think we were legit with all the “look at that…”.

The food is bad
I know this is totally antagonistic, but the food stinks here…like how one used to think of British food (minus the local chippy). I’m not talking about that dreamy crepe you got the last time you strolled along the Seine with your honey. Vacation food is way different than day-to-day food. Go into any of the restos in Paris, and it’s hit OR miss – not in between. Even the Michelin-rated joints aren’t what you’d imagine, although Michelin has lost credibility in my book. However, I may be biased based on my food-poisoning experience the first week here – let’s just say it wasn’t pretty sitting in culinary school orientation praying you don’t barf (or worse)? Ack.

The parks are amazing
Luxembourg 3aYes, the U.S. has some amazing parks, and I think of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco when I go to some of the open spaces here. Luxembourg Gardens is perfect for lolling around. I can’t wait for summer to spend an afternoon with my face in the sun, eavesdropping on the few words I can pick up from Luxembourg1others’ conversations. The park is rife with statues, so much that you feel like you’re being watched. If you take time to read the placards, you’ll actually learn a thing or two. To wit: Marguerite d’Anjou was French, but became Queen of England in 1445 after marrying Henry VI, King of England. Her statue replaced Joan of Arc who was moved to the Louvre. Beyond Maggie and her friends, there are greens, ponds and fountains, along with plenty of chairs to relax, which I’m sure is the real objective for the place, knowing the French. Thinker2Even if you only have an hour, it’s worth it, but one hour can also get you a solid stroll through Rodin’s masterpieces in the gardens at the Rodin museum. Go there too.

They live music-free
The horror, I know. The French generally don’t play music and, when they do, it’s in English anyway, even at Christmas (yay for me). My chef laughed at me when I said I wished we could wear headphones in the kitchen. I was kidding, of course – almost daily someone is lighting themselves or someone else on fire with an errant chalumeau; can you imagine if they got distracted? For me, there’s nothing like a good bop around the kitchen with the B52s, Foo Fighters, Justin Timberlake or Aretha. Starbucks is the only place that reliably plays (chokingly mainstream) tunes; otherwise, it’s few and far between that you’ll find a café or shop playing music. I get excited when a car goes by with something thumpin’. Remind me of this when I’m back in LA.

They have this great thing called “Café Gourmand”Cafe Gourmand 2
This is the Best. Thing. Ever. You’ve just eaten and now want to linger a bit, either because you’re still hungry or you’re in a food coma. Of course, you need a little something to go with your coffee. The French have this great thing called “Café Gourmand:” a temptingly aromatic espresso with two or three mini- or one-bite treats. Think a macaron, a financier and a mini chocolate tart. Or a mini-tiramisu and panna cotta. It’s often enough for two. Brilliant, I say. Just don’t ask for decaf. No matter where you are, you’ll get a huff.

They really love beige food
Beige foodAlmond cream, chestnut paste, praline, hazelnut, bread, cream sauces…the list goes on. I think my first semester of school was all beige pastry. One has to learn the requisite sables and choux pastry, but give me jewel-toned cakes, brilliant glazes, fresh berries and savory tomato sauces. There’s got to be a balance. If it looks like paste, I’m not likely going for it, but the French love it. I’ll certainly never reject salted butter on a warm baguette. Did you know baguettes are regulated here and must be made fresh every day? Can’t argue with that.

They’re in a relationship with their cell phonescell phones
I never thought I’d see a culture more attached to their cell phones than Americans. It’s true. And it’s not so much texting, but talking. They talk and walk, talk on the bus, talk while on the computer in Starbucks. People wear their headphones more often than not it seems, or their phones are attached to their faces. I kid you not: I saw a guy on a scooter with his cell phone smushed on his ear in his helmet. Interestingly enough, I don’t know if this makes the French more anti-social than Americans who would rather text than speak. In either case, no one watches where they’re walking, so brush up on your Frogger skills before you get here.

There are virtually no bugs
No bugs!! Other than the bee that chased me the other day, there are very few bugs. There aren’t even screens on windows and doors here, which is something you have to get used to (think Pirates of the Caribbean – shutters and windows, but no screens). Of course, I think a snake is going to make its way up and slither in my flat, or Fred & Ethel (my resident quasi-pigeon-duck-birds) are going to fly in while I’m gone and raid my kitchen for leftover baguette. Deep down, I know that wouldn’t happen; I never have leftover baguette.

 

Idées Préconçues

Thinker2You know the drill: when moving to – or even visiting a new place – most people read about it before they go. Before coming to Paris to live for a year, I heard or was told the following:

Never, ever wear jeans
Last year, I attended a great conference about, what else, food and writing. These are my people. A couple lovelies I met told me that the French dress and that I shouldn’t ever, ever wear jeans in public. Another friend haughtily reminded me that I’m a slob (which I am) and will need to “step up my game.” It naturally followed that California’s acceptance of leisurewear and jammies in public weren’t going to fly here; however, although I’m fine with wearing my gym clothes to go get coffee, I do agree that jammies belong at home. But guess what? Jeans don’t. Everyone here wears them, and you even see people in their gym clothes running on the street or popping into a shop Frenchman2for veggies. The horror. And then, out of nowhere, appears the iconic Frenchman who makes you all hee-hee.

The French are quiet in restaurants
I’ve heard so much about French people’s behavior in restaurants: how they take the time to enjoy, and they frown upon boisterous patrons. The first part is true; the last, not so much. Cafes are filled between 10:30-14:00. All you can think is, “don’t you have a job?” But, then again, I don’t, and here I am. As to the latter, the French are not the demure, quiet folk of lore. Despite most of my family, I’m not a loud talker and, especially when dining out, I dislike my experience being dominated by someone else’s conversation – don’t even get me started on cell phones in restos. Contrary to everything I’ve read, I am amazed at how loud the French are in public, and I’m not talking by exception. There are two women in Starbucks regularly who make me want to poke my ears out.

 The French never eat on the run
Yes, they enjoy the three-hour lunch, but it’s mostly, er, older people sitting in cafes for hours. The youngins are on the run, and local markets, patisseries and boulangeries cater to them. You can easily find a “formula midi” – a combo of drink, pastry and sandwich for a fixed price (think ~€7, versus the formula midi in restaurants for about €15-20). Sandwiches-to-go a booming business – especially the Parisienne, a baguette of ham, emmethal and butter – along with hot dogs and the ubiquitous Croque Monsieur/Madame. What’s more critical is the timing. If you are on the later side of lunch, the purveyor might be open, but out of sandwiches, and you’ll be relegated to a pre-packaged sandwich or salad, mostly gag-worthy.

Last, but not least: the French are rude
Starbucks girlsI’m sure every culture has its share of rude people, but France really shouldn’t be the poster child. There’s a plethora of rude students in my school and they’re not French (side note: I only know one French person in my school, and she’s the nicest, sweetest person). When I came to France a million years ago, I didn’t encounter a lot of rude people, but I was with a Parisian friend, so that helped. This time, I smile (sometimes like an off-putting idiot, I’m sure) and offer a respectable “bonjour,” even to the bus driver and especially when entering a shop. That’s usually followed up with a “Désolé, je ne parle pas Française,” which I’ve mastered and say at least once a day. Almost always, the other person will say, “English?” or we muddle through the best we can. The point is that I try. I’ve been lucky enough to find a Starbucks near my flat that has the BEST staff, which is not the same for all the Starbucks – the one at Charles Michel (near my school) really needs some help in the courtesy department.

 The moral of this story is “keep an open mind” and maintain your level of courtesy and respect for others. You get what you give and, remember, you’re in their country. Adapt or find a way to deal. I’ve grown accustomed to always saying hello and planning ahead for lunch, but I still have a hard time with crazy-loud people. That’s because I’m so demure and quiet myself. Stop laughing.

 

In Whose Book?

LedoyenIt’s Saturday afternoon and, if you’re like me, you’re hanging out with friends at your favorite Mexican restaurant or ordering in a pizza. In any case, I’m mostly a creature of habit, but I enjoy trying something new, especially when that “something” is supposed to be fabulous. In Paris. In the spring. Cue the violins….

One lovely afternoon, I hopped two buses to meet fellow classmates and our chefs for lunch at a highly regarded spot in Paris. Pavillon Ledoyen is a picture of grace amid the trees and gardens of les Grand et Petit Palais, a fixture on the Champs-Élysées since 1842. We were given the menu ahead of time, and I was looking forward to it, especially since it wasn’t veal, which the French seem to loooove.

Pavillon Ledoyen is a three-Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by Chef Yannick Alléno who took over the place in 2014 and developed it into the three-star it is today, an amazing accomplishment. Alléno claims to be the father of Modern Cuisine, an approach based on sauces and extractions, fresh and fermented products, and, apparently, all things existing in relation to each other. Having read his principles of Modern Cuisine, I’m not sure how all the chefs who came before him are so easily dismissed.

So here we are: 120 patisserie students from around the world. As we stood outside waiting to be allowed in, we took advantage of chatting with each other without knives in our hands. Everyone looked lovely, especially without stains of chocolate or raspberry, or plagued with wrinkled cotton, hair nets and falling hemlines.

We were ushered into the dining room after a small bottleneck at the coat check, and found our seats in a lovely room with floor-to-ceiling windows, which seemed to brighten even this sunny spring day in Paris. I sat with a couple of people I knew and a couple people I didn’t, and it was great to hear the origins and intentions of others: the Financial Guy who’s perusing his Grand Diplôme and then likely heading to the US for his MBA; the two Le Cordon Bleu staff members who clued us in on good places to eat; and a couple of classmates whom I just got to know a little better, including one who invited me to her wedding in India (yay!). And, it’s always nice to get to know our chefs a little better when they aren’t yelling, “Macarons! Get me your macarons for the oven! Macarons NOWWWW!”IMG_6572

The table is lovely, set with stems for wines and beverages, along with shiny flatware for a starter and salad. The beautifully presented menu card is at each place and, thankfully, I held on to mine because they collected them (um, why?). Seeing that Chef Alléno was visiting each table and that I was keeping the menu, our waiter suggested I ask the chef to sign it. Chef made his rounds and, as he got to me, I had pen and menu in hand and asked. He said no.

Nevertheless, wine is poured, and it’s quite nice. Of course, I know nothing about wine, other than I like it or I don’t. Someone who joined us a few minutes late sought out the waiter and had to ask to be served.

IMG_6575The Starter: Avocats restés sur l’arbre 18 mois en millefeuille de celery extraction coc aux eclats de chia. Lovely and light, this creation was hailed as an 18-month, tree-ripened avocado mille feuille with coconut extraction and chia seeds. I doubt there are many people who could tell an 18-month, tree-ripened avocado from the typical fruit on the market shelves, but paired with the white wine, it was a lovely beginning.

The bread was nice (um, YAH, this is Paris!) and served with salted and unsalted butters. We’re so accustomed to unsalted butter, but salted butter on bread is a true pleasure. Just do it; you’ll thank me later.

The Plat (Main): Bar en écailles de courge butternut, puree trufée, puree de courgette. After a brief table clearing by the wait staff, the main dish arrived. I was expecting sea bassfish with butternut squash scales, and a puree with truffles. Hmm. I’m sure that technically happened, but the sea bass was gefilte-fish-esque, formed into a bar and somewhat gelatinous. However, the courgette (zucchini) puree with truffle was divine, and I openly wished it were a soup. Had the wait staff actually prepared the table with the appropriate flatware, it may have improved the experience, but eating the main with the salad fork and our butter knives (you know, the kind with the bend in the stem) increased the peculiar expressions on all of our faces.

IMG_6629Dessert: Barre croustillante a chocolat & cacahuètes. Did I mention this was a room full of pastry students? Crispy chocolate peanut bar can’t be bad…and it wasn’t. My neighbor enjoyed hers and mine, even though we both agreed it wasn’t worth the calories. But it wasn’t served with coffee, which came around well after dessert (which could be a French thing). Unfortunately, I had to ask for decaf twice, even after she put it down in front of me knowing it was full-caf (the head waiter reprimanded her openly, catching her error). Along with coffee was a lovely plate of macarons, mini tarts and cheesecake bites. The IMG_6632French have this thing called “café gourmand,” where they serve coffee with a sampling of mini desserts – keep this in mind next time you want just a couple bites of sweet finish with your coffee. It’s quite lovely.

So how many “strikes” did you count? If you’re like me (critical and picky, especially on service, and especially after being snubbed by the chef), you likely counted eight:

  • A Chef who claims to be the founder of anything, considering he appeared to be only in his forties.
  • Having to wait outside like a bunch of hobos until we were “permitted” in the place.
  • A bottleneck at the coat check. Did they not know 120 people were coming in at once on a cold day?
  • The snub by the chef. I wouldn’t have thought to ask for him to sign my menu until the waiter suggested it.
  • My tablemate having to ask to be served wine.
  • The gelatinous fish. Not typically a winner. Period.
  • The lack of proper flatware for each course. Seriously.
  • Decaf-gate.

IMG_6637I’ve always said, if a restaurant has meh food but excellent service, I’d go back, but excellent food with meh service is definitely a red mark in the ledger. Ledoyen is bright, shiny and well-situated amidst gardens in the center of trendy Paris, and the afternoon with my classmates and chefs was quite enjoyable. However, I would give this place an eyebrow raise if someone else suggested it. Three stars? It makes me question the whole validity of Michelin (which, don’tcha know, is the same organization as the tire people).

So I put it to you: is a three-star Michelin any better than your favorite place? What get the stars in your book?

 

What the Ell?

paris“I’m going to quit my job for a year and move to Paris to bake!” you exclaim one day (and subsequently for years to come).
“Fantastic, follow your dreams!” says one person.
“You are not. You’re effing nuts!” says another.

You consider your responsibilities and weigh the options – financially, most of all – and if it’s “worth it.” Sell the house, move the family into a small apartment so you can maintain another in Paris, quit job (with office and stock options). You say (or blubber, in my case) goodbye to your family you’re leaving behind, and you whisk off to follow your dreams.

Here’s what they don’t tell you about moving to a foreign country to go to cooking school:

Language

Ok, yes, there are translators in school. If you’re in your element, you can usually figure out what the chefs are doing – folding, whisking, etc. – and you’re following vienoisserie-dayalong, but you need to ask a question. Now what? You ask the translator to ask the chef, “Can you substitute coconut for chocolate in that dacquoise?” And chef says, “Oui, oui, oui.” Lesson: be specific: “Chef, if I wanted to substitute coconut for the chocolate, how would the quantities of ingredients change?” Sure, the chef answered my original question, but there are certain nuances of languages that escape the conversation, so you have to learn how the French mind works and how you have to adjust. Funniest thing: at the end of last term, the school sent a survey to ask, “how would you rate the translation services?” I wrote, “How would I know?” You REALLY have to trust the translators to convey every word, method, joke, chatter, question and exchange.

I took basic French at adult school before I came, and I at least know some basics: how to ask where the toilet is, directions, times, money and days. It helps when your name is a French day – the chefs like to take the piss and laugh, calling me “Macredi” or “Dimanche.” I expected it, but it still made me feel like Wednesday Addams. If you’re considering cooking school or another reason to move to a foreign country, learn the language. Don’t assume you’ll pick it up when you’re there. Today I learned, “Vous voulez un latte deca supplementaire?” courtesy of my barista who made my latte incorrectly and said I could offer it to someone since she was just going to throw it away.

Living

Rule #1: Understand that living in a country is very different than taking a vacation to it. Yes, Paris is as grand as all that. It’s beautiful, even when it’s gray, cold and snowing. People are friendly despite the French-are-metro-signrude stigma, and as long as you can “bon jour,” you’ll be okay. It’s great living and learning about another culture; however, it’s a daily mental effort. You think fondly back to those days when you robotically got up, showered, went to work, had coffee and conversation, and sat at your computer working…without even being awake yet.

My days here usually start with setting two alarms (because there’s no one to give me a nudge) and making sure I’m on the right bus…if it comes at all. But, once you’ve mastered the metro system, you feel proud when you know how to get to where you want to go…until the driver announces something and ends up circumventing your destination by like five stops. Nuts. You get off and get on the bus going back the other way, knowing that you’ll have to get off at a recognizable stop and find your way by walking. Walking! If you’ve gotten the local SIM card and monthly data plan (and if it works), you can whip out your cell phone and map your way around. The best is when you have an early class (8:00, which means you have to be there by 7:15 to change into your uniform and get to the classroom early to ensure a good seat), it’s dark and rainy, and the bus just doesn’t come. Make sure you live within walking distance.

A 55-square meter apartment in a European city is different than a 3,000-square-foot my-viewhouse in a Los Angeles suburb. Be aware that European standards are way different than American standards when it comes to space, cleanliness and convenience. I have to say I love living in the city, people, restaurants and shops everywhere. I don’t need a car to get where I want to go, and I’m effortlessly logging the medically advised 10,000 steps a day without thinking about it. When hubby first came with me to my unseen apartment, I burst into tears at its weirdness and filth. A Parisian friend checked it out and said how great it was – the location is sublime, and it’s light and spacious for a Parisian one-bedroom. But we cleaned everything down to the baseboards, and it’s clear that the landlord really needs to do some work on broken tiles and the lumpy sofa. Let’s not even get started with the water closet (toilet) near the front door and the rest of the bathroom (sink, shower) off the bedroom. And that’s not even the weirdest part: the water tank is suspended horizontally above the toilet. Just don’t look up and you’ll be fine. Coming from earthquake-land, I get in and get out as fast as possible. The only thing that makes this apartment worth the weirdness is its location – you can see the Eiffel Tower from the balcony, which is large enough to actually sit on, and it’s near Metro stops that get you anywhere.

my-hallway
My hallway, with little packages of brioche for my neighbors.

Living in an apartment building harkens me back to my dorm days at college. Instead of knocking on a neighbor’s door to say, “avez vous un tasse de sucre,” I’m finding myself saying, “J’habit a cote, vous voudrais un gâteau?” The week before finals is always fun since I’m producing a cake a day and pawning them off on my neighbors: Carolina with the yappy dog whose husband lives in Africa; the mother and daughter at the end of the hall, the young couple and Mei Lee next door who comes and goes at all hours (I think she might actually be a hooker, but hookers need cake too), and I finally found the smiling old lady on the fourth floor to whom Iheavenly-chocolate gave my Heavenly Chocolate to yesterday, which was perfect timing since her daughter and grandson (who is a chef on a boat) were coming over that evening. I think I’ll see more of her in the future since she lives alone. So cute.

Laundry

You can imagine how frequently you have to wash your chef whites. You glorify the days when they’ll live another day, but once you hit chocolate work, forget it. Thankfully, I’ve embraced pre-treating, but it took me a while in the market to find what I needed. Once I found what was actually the laundry aisle, I stood there with my Google Translator reading the cans and bottles to make sure I wasn’t buying dish soap.

laundryNow, let’s just say we’re spoiled in the U.S. Fabric softeners, washers and dryers, moms and husbands who hem and iron for us because I suck at it…but I digress. My washing machine is in the kitchen, stashed between my dishwasher and Easy Bake oven, and it has no dryer, which is typical in France. Thus, there’s a perpetual rack of laundry drying in the living room waiting for me to iron my uniform which, thankfully, my husband first hemmed with the stupid hem tape before my mom tacked it down with needle and thread on a recent trip home.

Loneliness

This one’s easy: you will quickly find yourself thankful for everything you have at home once you’ve been gone for a while (er, a week). So far I’ve missed our anniversary, my parents’ (and my) birthdays, Thanksgiving (for which I met my husband in Boston to surprise some cousins and assuage my need to see them), New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mom and Dad’s 62nd anniversary. I’ll be home for a quick week in March, but fly back to Paris the day before hubby’s birthday. Boo. Those are the times I miss. We didn’t always celebrate these occasions, but we will from now on.

I’m a homebody. I love being home with my husband and dog, or running errands familyeach weekend because we were together. I enjoy having Sunday chicken and pilaf with my parents. I underestimated the value of those times when I was home, but now I yearn for them.

Everyone says, “go visit this” and “buzz over to Spain” or whatnot. Yeah, great idea. I’m not afraid of traveling alone (um, I am living in a foreign country, so I guess I get credit there), but I like to share the experience with other people and feel somewhat guilty doing it myself. Plus, I’m also trying to watch the spending because, as you can imagine, this is no cheap dream. Living within an hour of many desirable destinations is pretty cool, but it makes you realize that the U.S. isn’t the center of the universe. Can you believe people here don’t really care about the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl (how ‘bout them Patriots!!)?

The other challenge is the 9-hour time difference. My husband calls me every day at his lunchtime, at which time I’m usually getting ready to go to sleep. I catch up on Facebook at the end of each day as everyone back home is just waking up.

One of the most amazing things about living in another country is making new friends and, if you’re lucky enough to find them at cooking school, then you already share a passion. It’s been so fun exploring cookery stores, patisseries or just chatting about school over coffee. Friends are what save you from loneliness, or at least the majority of it. Find places where you’re comfortable. I’ve adopted a local Starbucks as my home away from home, and now I feel like Norm from Cheers. I go sit in my Starbucks, catch up on writing, studying or sitting like a lump…anything to avoid going home to a quiet apartment.

Sometimes you have to force yourself to do things. I’ve luckily found a few friends who have similarly left families behind to pursue the dream, who also get lonely and who are just lovely to be with, even if we’re just sitting around chatting (but mostly we’re eating and shopping). I know we’ll be friends for years to come. I find that being with them just makes me feel better, and that’s the true mark of friendship.

Laziness

This one’s easy. If you’re lazy at home, you’ll be lazy in another country. Don’t think another place is going to change your personality. One of the things my husband and I gymdo together is go to the gym, so I joined a gym here my first week. Yes, it was expensive and, yes, all the classes and equipment are in French, but if you know your way around a gym, you’ll be fine, and it will be worth the cost. I try to get there 3-5 times a week, which is good since I’m making so much pastry and visiting so many patisseries.

And you just have to force yourself to go out and have a good time, see things, while watching the budget. After all, a lot of people sacrificed time, money and convenience for you to do this. (Thanks, by the way.)

So is it worth it? The jury’s still out. I would suggest to anyone who is considering mardi-in-parisfollowing their dream, to talk to someone else who has. Taking on this adventure has an air of practicality once you’re living it, and you should consider why you’re doing it. I’ve always wanted to go to cooking school and I’ve always wanted to learn French, so why not cooking school in Paris (honestly, if you’re going to do it, do it right)? But could I have compromised and gone to a local school instead of incurring the incredible costs of living abroad? Yes, definitely. But even I don’t know what the future brings. All I know is that I’m the only one who can bring it.

Dream a Little Dream

mille-feuilleI came to pastry school without intent or knowing what my end game is. It was just something I’ve always wanted to do. I don’t intend to work in a shop, nor do I intend to have my own. That doesn’t mean I don’t still dream big in my own little ways and, if you know me, anything can happen. Before you ask, I’m looking to contribute my communications expertise to a company or cause about which I’m passionate: food (duh), animals, veterans, non-profits. But, when push comes to shove, we’ll see. I may have played my Dream Card with this last cross-the-pond endeavor.

Maybe I don’t intend to have a shop, but that doesn’t stop me from concocting shop names and what I’d want my place to feel like: kinda funky, kinda relaxed, very inviting, of course great coffee, all while demystifying French pastry. Oh my, I may have just described “Le Central Perk.” Ooh la la. Whatever it is, I imagine my shop to incorporate the following traits I’ve found in patisseries across Paris:img_5077

A dedicated cult following with a best seller. One of my favorites – Cyril Lignac – has a concise lineup of offerings that range from flan to macarons to chocolate, along with their best-selling Equinox cake, which gave me my first “OMG” pastry moment in Paris. It is their top dog every week, every year, every shop. You need one of these.

A marketing phenom. While I like the look and theme of Laduree, they are definitely a model of service you do not want to follow. They are the “soup nazi” of macarons, barking at you and moving you along the line. I pity you if you don’t know what you want, even though there are 20 feet of pastries in front of you that you may not have seen yet. People go mad for the place and, granted, their macarons are delish, but their service isn’t worth it…at least in my book.

Amazing service. On the other hand, there’s Pierre Hermé. PH shops are clean and somewhat stark, and the small spaces are filled with glowing chocolate jewels and a rainbow of macarons. Even at the counter in a “drug store” along the Champs Elysees, the counters are as glowing as the service. Mind you, this “drug store” also houses an elusive entrance to a Joël Robuchon resto, so there’s that.

Inviting with a slight air of exclusivity. Walk into Lenôtre and you could be one of only a handful of patrons in the place, but you’ll always be greeted with a smile. The late Gaston Lenôtre is a fixture in Paris and credited with reviving patisserie in the 1960s. One visit to a Lenôtre and you’ll know why: a warm décor, delicious pastries, creative macaron flavors and buttery croissants.

aoki-2Imaginative and Trendy (to a point). You’ve got some patisseries that are inventive and move beyond the traditional French cream and sablee. Sadaharu Aoki features cool flavors such as yuzu and matcha eclairs and mille feuilles, but they’re the classic Lipstick on a Pig: they have great packaging, but the staff are bitchy, wear way too much makeup, and the products are way overpriced.aoki

Great bread because…well, bread! One of my favorite boulangerie-patisseries is a mixed bag of short service, amazing bread, average (now in my snooty perspective) pastries, but very reasonably priced. People line up and wait for this place to open, especially on Sunday, where they have an extra counter street-side for express bread service – that was a smart move. At €1, baguettes pitchard-breadfly off the shelves often two or three at a time.

What I think is interesting in Paris is that most well-regarded patisseries clearly see their sales staff as the front of the house like any fine-dining establishment. These employees know each ingredient, when it was made, and are happy to recommend their favorites. Peering in the window, you might be intimidated, especially when there aren’t a lot of patrons. All eyes may be on you when you enter, but you’ll be often greeted with a pleasant “bonjour, madame!” as you peruse the buttery goodness.

In looking at the traits above, I’ve had a quasi-epiphany. Maybe they describe how I want to live my life, not just features of my ideal pastry shop: surrounded by loyal friends and family, being able to offer my expertise in a craft (or two), being kind, staying true while being flexible, and breaking bread with those who appreciate my time. Oh boy – I haven’t even been drinking.

What would your shop look like? Does it align with your personality or life goals? Comment below if you are feeling philosophical. Until then, eat cake!

 

Just Another Reason to Eat Cake?

As a smack in the face to those who see January 1 as a reckoning, it’s that time of year to swear off sugar, carbs and booze (we’ll deal with those nuts later) and break out those new workout clothes you got for Christmas. Fitness enthusiasts (you know who you are) consider New Year’s Day just another day to stay on their annoyingly healthy eating regimen and hit up a workout…even if the gym is closed, it’s a day off work to play in the snow and build a snowman, or go for a bike ride along the coast. For the French, it’s just another day to eat cake. And drink champagne.

pritchardIt’s not just any cake, though – it’s Galette des Rois, the Kings’ Cake. In France, the Galette des Rois is served during Epiphany to commemorate the arrival of the three Kings to see the baby Jesus.

There are a couple of variations of cake. The Parisian cake is a puff pastry round filled with lecourbealmond cream, and Provence puts out a brioche-like cake studded with fruit and pearl sugar. Both contain a “feve,” a small porcelain figurine that represents baby Jesus and, if you’re the lucky one to find it, you’re crowned King or Queen of the evening’s festivities.

However, after the French Revolution, the festival of kings was renamed the “festival of good neighbors.” Hmm, okay, also a worthy message. Families would cut the cake and distribute it, setting aside a piece for God. This “holy” portion was eventually given to someone less fortunate who were known to go door-to-door during the evening of celebration.

cakes-bakingYou’ll see the Galette des Rois all over Paris – every patisserie, boulangerie, marche. Everywhere. But you don’t often hear the message alongside the cake – neither Kings’ Cake or Good Neighbor Cake. Frankly, from what I’ve seen, the French may as well just call it New Year’s Cake because, without the meaning behind it, it’s just another reason to eat cake. Maybe they just know its history – I’m sure they do – and don’t feel the need to explain it. However, it lcb1was nice to hear the story presented at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, especially since most students are not from France.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m fine with people celebrating the new year. I’m fine with people eating cake (duh…I AM in pastry school). It’s just nice to acknowledge the history behind it. Me? I passed on it all together (did I mention I’m in pastry school? One can only eat so much cake). But I wonder: Is it considered bad luck if you DON’T eat the cake? Now I’m getting paranoid.

In any case, I wish you a Happy New Year. May you celebrate life and new beginnings in whatever way means the most to you. Now where are my gym clothes?

 

Move Over, Willy Wonka

img_5052On a late Autumn afternoon, Le Cordon Bleu Paris hosted a demonstration by a young pastry chef from one of France’s premiere patissiers. Younger than most I’ve seen, Chef Benoit Couvrand is how you’d imagine a French patissier: handsome, charming and obsessed with his craft. As he and his assistant Jordan whipped up a Tarte Orange Noisette (Orange and Hazelnut Tart) and a classic Tarte Chocolat (I’mimg_4823 sure you got that one), he emphasized the need to care for and understand ingredients. I instantly fell in love.

Couvrand, previously of Fauchon and now head pastry chef for Cyril Lignac, explained how important each ingredient was, and how changing one would change img_4824them all and, eventually, the final product. Of course, this is logical, but there’s always the student who will inquire about substitutions. Granted, as a chef, you can change anything you want, as long as you accept that the final product may change as well, and not always in a good way. Keep in mind, the chef has already done all the trial and error work, and he’s willing to share the recipe and method with you.

In modern business, though, it makes sense to consider economy or society’s yearning for alternatives: less sugar, gluten-free, blah blah blah. Although my weight-loss journey is relatively well-known, I think French pastry should be exempt from the perverse desire to make it less fattening (seriously, why are you eating it in the first place?). Although Chef Couvrand is showing us traditional pastries, I’m fascinated by the wheels turning in the minds of these budding young student chefs, and I understand the needs for, say, Vegan versions, etc. (which, for the record, I don’t consider a “diet” versus a way of life. Feel free to discuss in the comments, because I think this could be an interesting conversation. Anyway, back to Chef Couvrand…).

I was fascinated by the demonstration and Chef’s respect for the whole process – from ingredients to production to sales – but the proof is in the proverbial pudding. After the demonstration, I donned my journalist hat and made my way through the gaggle of students. “Chef, can I see the lab?” And, voila! A week, a bus, a train, another bus and a 30-minute walk later, I was in St. Ouen for a personal tour of the Cyril Lignac lab, and Chef couldn’t have been a more gracious host.

img_5049At 37, Couvrand runs an impressive ship. After introducing me to his right-hand man, Assistant Pastry Chef Jean-Louis Marquet, with whom I bump elbows (the handshake in a kitchen), he shows me every aspect of the facility. The team is visibly happy, going about their work oompa-loompa-like: wrapping chocolate in bright foil papers, enrobing img_5050marshmallow bears in a shower of chocolate, weighing, dispensing, shipping…all while not covering themselves in chocolate, a skill I have not yet acquired.

Upstairs in his office, I can see this is Chef’s think tank. Remember at the end of Willy Wonka where Wonka is in his office? Half-in, half-out, tick-tocking away? Yes, that. Deep thought, reflection of the day’s business and its future, and thoughts of what to create next. He takes inspiration from his img_5057surroundings – magazines, expositions and even clothes (for textures) to garner ideas for the next best thing. “I like trends, but not in pastry…for the moment anyway.”

Being consistent and respectful to traditional French pastry has paid off. From the opening of the first Cyril Lignac shop, their Equinox cake (below) has been the best seller – every day, every shop, every year. “People like the caramel and vanilla flavors, and the grey is amazing and attractive.”

So, how can you innovate and stay faithful to tradition? At Cyril Lignac, “innovation” doesn’t mean “alteration.” Couvrand is not looking to develop low-sugar, gluten free or dairy-free products. “If I want to create a cake without flour and sugar, people in France won’t have it,” he explains. “They have different habits. They like sugar. And it would change pastry.” His quest is to develop something as welcomed as the Equinox. I’ll be first in line.

After leaving the lab, I went right out and bought a supply of Valrhona Gianduja chocolate, a specialty blend of dark chocolate and noisette (hazelnuts) that he used in the two tarts from class. I know the easy-bake oven in my Paris apartment won’t do justice to these img_5077recipes, so I shipped the coveted bag of chocolate home to the care and protection of my husband (who loves dark chocolate….hmm, maybe I should have thought that out).

The next day, I went to the Cyril Lignac shop near me on Rue du Sèvres. “Equinox, s’il vous plait.” I happily schlepped it home on the bus, garnering a look of approval from a lady who said something like, “Oh, vous traiter vous méme a un bon gâteau.” (“Oh, you treat yourself to a good cake.”) Oui, madame.

After dinner, I ceremoniously took out the cake, put it img_5085aon a proper plate with a proper fork, and made the cut. I instantly turn into a heathen. “Oh. My. Shit.” is all I could utter as I relished in each fantastic bite: a Speculoos bottom, layered with praline, caramel and surrounded in vanilla cream. I ate the whole thing with no remorse. And, oops, I did again (although on another day; I’m not that reckless!).

Lignac’s shops aren’t large, but what they offer is exquisite: pastry, Viennoiserie and chocolate. Don’t be intimidated – you’ll be greeted by exceptionally nice staff who are happy to tell you more about the perfectly portioned cakes (some people would share), delicious Kouign Aman or smooth flan. In any case, be sure to also get the Equinox. Trust me.

Like Wonka, Chef Couvrand will continue to dream of the next best thing, perfect production and encourage young chefs. He hosts some 40 interns each year, some of which he hires, and some who don’t speak French. He apologetically speaks very little English; but, hey, the love for pastry is a universal language.img_4936

A Sound Recipe for Business
Good ingredients, solid production processes, thoughtful end products and a good sales team make Cyril Lignac’s four Paris shops successful, all served by a central production lab that delivers daily. By the numbers:

  • 1 ton of flour/week
  • 100 kilos of flour/week just for Viennoiserie
  • 10 tons of dark chocolate/year
  • 30 staff in the lab
  • 2500-3800 pieces of pastry are created each day
  • 80 pastries discarded each day (all shops combined)
  • 40 interns each year, some hired
  • 4 pastry shops, 1 chocolate shop, and plans to expand

Want to learn how to make the Equinox?
The recipe is in the new cookbook, “Á la Folie” (2016), a collection of recipes of some 60 patissiers. Yes, it’s in French, but taking time to translate a few favorites will be worth it.