As a chef, I have long admired the craft of the Patissier and Boulanger. Chefs readily admit that the skill set of a dedicated pastry chef or bread baker is quite different from that of the savory chef. Aside from the innate artistic talent for detailed presentations – the pastry chef is far more adept at applying the exactness of chemistry to food, and far more intent on the details and patience required to present incredible works on a plate. Pastry chefs are in a league of her own – a club of amazingly talented individuals who make every chef shake his or her head in disbelief at the art of individual with a pastry bag in hand.
One of my favorite “wake up” moments was working in a competition kitchen many years ago when the famous Pastry Chef – Lars Johannson walked by my station. I was busy piping a salmon mousse on canapés at the time. He looked at me and
said: “You do very nice work, but you have no business holding a pastry bag.” He walked away and I knew for certain that pastry work was not in my future.
I have always subscribed to the importance of first and last impressions to the overall experience of dining. Think about it – I would dare to say that many guests understand that those initial experiences in a restaurant and those that end the meal are the ones that stick with us. They define the food experiences that we have and create benchmarks for others to follow.
Whether it is a trip to your local retail bakery, a walk through a well appointed grocery store, that first impression of food when seated in a restaurant or the final course before the presentation of the check – I guarantee that the visual impact,
deep aromas, and first bite of an artisan bread, or luscious plated dessert are some of the most satisfying parts of the guest experience.
Why is it that a simple ham sandwich from a bistro in Paris can be so extraordinary? Sliced ham on a buttered baguette – that’s it! Why does this rival the finest complex sandwich found in a New York deli? It’s the quality of the bread. Why is it that no matter how full we might be after a restaurant meal – it takes very little prodding to convince us to order that feature dessert? It’s our nature to crave something sweet and our desire to see just how exceptional the kitchen might be with this last impression.
That commitment to great bread and the focus that a chef places on a dessert menu that rivals a restaurants signature entrees is one of the most important drivers of a successful restaurant. That beautiful retail bakery window display that highlights the skills of a pastry chef with cakes, tarts, petite fours, profiteroles, Madeleines, and meringues is impossible to resist.
People crave the luxury and innocent pleasures that sugar, pastry, fruits, genoise, chocolate, and crème fillings bring. It is in our DNA to want and our limited willpower to resist the temptations of the pastry chef. If a chef loses sight of this
reality then he or she is limiting the full experience for the diner.
Bobby Flay once said: “First Impressions are Everything”, but I would add – it is also true that: Last Impressions are Forever Impressions. The pastry chef and baker are responsible for both.
It may have been Chef Careme who first brought the concept of Grand Cuisine and the art of cooking to the event tables of his day, but today’s pastry chef has refined and re-defined the art and the importance of food for the eyes as well as the palate.
Carême, as you may remember, gained fame in Paris for his elaborate centerpieces made of pastillage, sugar, and marzipan. He did free lance work for Napoleon and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand to name a few.
A pastry chef to those operations large and complex enough to support the position is the visual signatory of the operation. Hotels, resorts, clubs, and caterers crave those signature pieces to make their food events stand out as memorable and sought after. A grand wedding deserves the grandest of cakes; a conference or convention seeks out those centerpieces on buffets and individual tables that reflect the objectives of the event; holiday festivities in hotels and resorts demand those structures that align the property with the joy of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Hanukah, and other ethnic and religious celebrations as well as welcoming in the New Year. It is what is expected and it will always be what guests talk about for years to come.
The talent of the pastry chef may be innate, but the skill to produce centerpieces and individual plated works of art is built from hard work, countless years of practice, and loads of patience.
A SINGLE DAY OF EXCELLENCE:
The pastry chef – Suzanne Holmes, enters a resort kitchen just shortly after 4 a.m. – the bread baker is pulling crusty whole-wheat boules and crunchy baguettes from the oven – his day is nearing an end. She pulls down the clipboard with today’s prep list and smiles nervously at the breadth of detailed work to be done. Her apprentice will arrive shorty and Sam – her counterpart for the evening shift will take over sometime after 3 p.m. This is a week of high profile events including the unveiling of the hotel’s new spa. Chef Holmes will need to concentrate much of her effort today on completing an elaborate chocolate sculpture of male and female figures in a yoga pose. This has been a project that she has worked on for the past two weeks in addition to her normal onslaught of pastry and dessert work. Additionally, two weddings will require triple tier fondant cakes and nearly 1,000 individual petite fours glace. The dessert menu that has brought fame to the main restaurant must be stocked with individual components that Sam will assemble in the evening. Chef Holmes breathes easy when she touches base with Addie – her bread baker and breakfast pastry aficionado – she knows that this part of her department will always take care of itself.
The petite fours cakes have been layered and trimmed so all that remains is to wrap them in marzipan, coat with fondant, and pipe a simple rosette on the top of each bite size piece. Her apprentice has been with the department for six months now so aside from delicate chocolate filigree work and important sauce reductions – the apprentice can handle the restaurant dessert work. Sam always keeps up with ice cream work since the operation added two Pacolet machines that make the work much easier. So – it looks like centerpiece time. Chef estimates that the finish work on the sculptures and final spray with cocoa butter will take her about three hours – plenty of time to let everything set and move the showpiece to the spa entrance. The resort GM is counting on the chocolate work to be front and center when local press arrives to take pictures at the opening. Another three hours on the petite fours and the two weddings tomorrow should be set except for assembly and final piping on the three tier cakes.
As pressured as Chef Holmes feels she knows that being patient and methodical are essential traits with the detail work before her. Her dedication to excellence and insistence that every piece of work that comes from her shop meet exacting standards makes the work fun, but always stressful. She re-hangs the prep sheet clipboard, sets her station and begins a typical day in the pastry shop – a day where her last impressions will help to define the quality of the whole operation.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
CAFÉ Talks Podcast