Thursday, February 5, 2009

Be a Pleasure Merchant: more parallels to FMCG

During his fascinating and highly entertaining presentation on pulled sugar and sugar formations, visiting Chef Christian Faure from Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa reminded everyone in the audience that while we must follow the laws of divine proportion (and ultimately the universe), primarily patissiers are merchants of pleasure.

A merchant of pleasure!! It was something I never thought I’d hear during a patisserie presentation, but the truth of it completely resonated with me. I was already standing in the back row of the demonstration room, completely rapt by the piece montee he was creating and straining to get as good of a look as possible. His presentation style drifted from French to English to Fringlish, was sprinkled with crazy innuendos and a repetitive ‘boomdelaboom’ phrase, so needless to say his sense of humor had already engaged me. But when he framed the objective at hand as being a pleasure merchant, I smiled even more broadly and felt like cheering. What a great concept, not just for patisserie but for anyone involved in making consumer goods.

In speaking of divine proportion, he referred to the numbers displayed in nature as well as the laws of the universe. So respecting the number of leaves, petals, seeds, appendages, etc. that exist in nature, but also the color, harmony & symmetry of the respective elements. He said jokingly, “That simply means, you don’t put your fish in the sky, and your doves in the ocean and you try to follow the numbers 3, 5 and 7 when designing your work.” He reminded us how many items in nature follow these numbers, including the human body with its 5 ‘branches’ and preference towards symmetry. And it is instinctual that we are attracted to things that follow these laws in their design.

In calling us pleasure merchants he elaborated further, explaining that a person who comes to buy a piece montee wants to be delighted, to be fascinated, to have their eyes rest upon something that is designed to look good and attract attention. They also want the experience to be personal, displaying a photo or emblem or motif that means something to them. Then they will want to eat…probably not the piece montee itself, but something sweet since the sight of such a beautiful creation will stimulate more than just people’s eyes. “So always offer something tasty within their reach, to ensure they are not disappointed.”

He was quick to remind us, however, that simply being good in piece montee was probably not going to pay the bills. “In running a patisserie business, what makes money is being good at really basic stuff, the stuff people buy everyday: Bread, croissants, simple but well prepared cakes. These things must taste good and look good. This is how people come to recognize you, what builds their trust in your products, and what will keep you working.”

The inverse message of this was obvious, but he spelled it out clearly anyway: “You might never become good at piece montee, and still be a very successful patissier,” he advised. “But, you can probably never be a successful patissier – at least financially – unless you can offer people the basic items they’re after, as good as these items can possibly be.”

It is so true. I thought about my design work in FMCG. One the one hand, the total commonality of it; on the other, the beautiful convenience (bordering on necessity) that these products afford to consumers everyday. What makes my brand different vs a competitor is not just how it performs but also finding some new way to incorporate the delight factor…somehow to make it a bit more special, surprising or more personalized even though it is a mass produced product.

And so I left this presentation realizing that my job objective as both a design manager and a patisserie student is to be a pleasure merchant. What a wonderful and inspiring task! I want to change the title on my business cards!

Monday, February 2, 2009

French Nouvelle Cuisine by a Japanese Chef

One of my greve-related joys of staying in Paris was being able to attend two demonstrations by visiting guest chefs. Normally, I am in transit between Geneva & Paris and miss out on these extra events that happen on school premises. I decided I would take advantage of the opportunity of being in Paris a couple of extra days and attend a couple events.

The first of these was on Thursday evening. I attended a cooking demonstration by Chef Tsukasa Fukuyama, Chef de Cuisine of the A&M Bistrot in Paris. Based on his name, I was expecting Japanese or possibly fusion cuisine. But instead he prepared an inspired 3-course offering in nouvelle cuisine consisting of roasted foie gras with 4-spice, a wonderful pork tenderloin served with a galette made of pig trotter, and an iced mousse made with candied fennel and served with a cardamom infused pineapple coulis.

I’ve had foie gras served lightly grilled before, but the quality of his sourcing this ingredient was evident in how little it rendered down during the cooking process. The addition of 4 spice gave the final flavor a unique twist. Accompanied by caramelized apples, batonnets of cooked beet root and a reduced balsamic vinegar, it was a stunning presentation. All I was longing for was a cold glass of Sauternes!

I’m not a huge fan of pork dishes, but this tenderloin was certainly some of the best I have ever eaten. And the wonderfully easy cooking method made me feel confident I could try it at home. The tenderloin was carefully trimmed of all visible fat yet with the cooking method of searing and slow roasting, it remained so tender & moist. It was flavored beautifully with fresh rosemary and served with wilted spinach.

The galette was similar to a seared terrine or aspic. It is made of seasoned pork trotter and ear, gellified in a loaf pan, then cut into cubes and lightly seared on each side in a super hot skillet; then served with a delicately oiled herb salad as accompaniment. It came out golden brown and lightly crisp on the sides, retaining a slightly gelatinous but pleasing aspect at the centre. This combined with the textural aspects of the ear cartilage vaguely reminded me of a dish called “thousand layered wind” that I was once served for dim sum.

The most inventive course was undoubtedly the dessert. I love fennel, but I’ve never had it served in a dessert. He showed us how to candy the fennel pieces; then he covered these with a cream mousse containing Ricard, finishing it with a brulee-style top of caramelized sugar. It was quite simple but the most inventive dessert I’ve had in quite some time. My only critique was the coulis, which did not offer much in the way of infused cardamom flavor (the pineapple seeming to overdominate the flavor). Still, seeing how easily it came together, and my love of things with aniseed flavor, I am keen to try it again at home.

Chocolate Goose and La Greve for Debutantes

The Tuesday evening following my practical on Bavarois au Trois Chocolats concluded with Isabelle and me sitting at her kitchen table, re-hashing our day’s events in earnest while eating our microwave dinners. About 9pm, having finally convinced her to indulge in dessert with me, we were giggling like a couple of sneaky teenagers as we cut into this glossy & creamy chocolate creation and wolfed it down shamelessly. The day wasn’t supposed to end this way, but lately my life has a funny way of serving up opportunities and challenges in even portions. I’m learning to not ask so many questions and just savor the taste of it all.

Oddly enough, the wonderful evening that unfolded between us was not even scheduled to be. I would have normally been returning to Geneva on the 6pm TGV that evening, with the Bavarois in tow. I would have then spent an intense Wednesday in back to back meetings in Geneva, before squeezing in a couple of social activities that evening (involving Bavarois degustation), repacking my suitcase with a fresh change of everything and returning to Paris early on Thursday morning to attend my next class demonstration.

Then news of a planned transport strike for Thursday changed all that. It was announced that the strike (or greve as I learned it was called in French) would affect underground, RER, buses and even some TGV connections (Geneva routes being identified on the list). As it was only Tuesday, I wasn’t worried about getting home to Geneva; rather it was the getting back into Paris on Thursday in time for my next demo. Frankly I couldn’t afford any further attendance issues this term, so I decided I’d better not risk it and remained in Paris (Actually, the mental math came out something more simplistic like: I’m female + next lesson = chocolate. Conclusion: I’m staying!). So, expecting cataclysmic hardening of the city’s transport arteries, I made my way to Montparnasse station and changed my TGV tickets, then rang friends back in Geneva to advise them neither I nor the Bavarois would be joining them on Wednesday.

I realized as I walked home from Montparnasse that it was to be my very first transport greve. Oh la la! Another small milestone. A notch on my wooden spoon of Parisian experiences. I figured something like this would happen eventually; these things usually do have a certain timing to them. Then in dismay, I wondered if it could drag out for weeks rather than just one day. I quickly realized that this would probably never happen. My theory was founded as such: the Parisians organizing the strike are just bored. As it was, Christmas was now over, the final days of Galette des Rois drawing nigh, the January sales/shopping period also nearly done, the weather quite gray for weeks on end, and the Easter and May bank holidays were still a few months away. The sum of this would certainly warrant an expression of distaste from a Parisian. But prolonging this distasteful expression into the weekend? Jamais! Frankly the strikers would probably prefer to be doing something else more enjoyable on their own time. They’d rather go sit in a cafĂ© than spend these precious hours trying to make a point about working conditions. I could easily imagine some Union leader sitting at his desk, ringing his collaborateurs and proposing the idea: “Eet weel be gret, non?! Un petit greve…just to get zer attention. And we are done by Friday, so we have ze weekend to enjoy!! C’est parfait, non??!”

Earlier that Tuesday afternoon, I’d had my Bavarois practical and had achieved very good results with my dessert. Bavarois is basically a mousse-style dessert that is set with gelatin, allowing for some elaborate molded shapes to be achieved in the final presentation. You can imagine in the 1800's (when it was apparently invented) that it would have made quite an impression on dinner guests; the mixture not only being formed by elaborate copper molds but for being served cold (when refrigeration was a rather a novel concept, not just an everyday appliance). Like its sister dessert, the Charlotte, you can somehow imagine this creation being placed under a sterling silver dome and then served to an emperor and his court, the stunning finale to a grande banquet.

I think the most difficult aspect of this whole lesson was pronouncing the name correctly. It rolls off my American tongue a lot closer to the French words ‘bavard’ and ‘oie’ (which translates into something like overly talkative goose!). So whilst my pronunciation techniques often fail me, at least I know how to make Francophones smile. Observing an American woman offer up a ‘chocolate goose’ is not something Parisians would hear every day…at least not in the quiet streets of the 15th arrondissement.

Apart from the challenging linguistics, the only other thing that didn’t rock my world about the Bavarois was the glaze. This final couche of gelatinous mass ended up looking suspiciously close to Neoprene: being dark, quite shiny and kinda spongy. At first glance, it more or less could have passed for pure dark chocolate; yet for all of its brilliance and intensity it lacked profound flavor and unctuous texture. So during the demonstration tasting I quietly detached this layer from my portion and discarded it when Chef Cotte wasn’t looking. As the quivering sliver of darkness hit the trash, I was suddenly reminded of those Dr Scholl’s gel insoles and wondered if the two might be formulaically related. Hmmmm. It goes without saying that I prefer my insoles under my feet not atop my cake. (Still, if my riding boots wear out from all the running to class, I have a good backup plan.)

Chef Deguignet had attended my group again at the practical. Fortunately, some blessed but unidentified person in Group D had remembered to start the lab oven before he walked in, as we would need a super hot oven for our ladyfinger sponge base. So Chef D was all smiles when he arrived at the class door and spied the oven already humming and ramping up quickly to 220 degrees C. He greeted us warmly and we responded with an equally hearty “Bonjour Chef!” (almost in unison, which seemed to please him even more). From that point, things just continued to get better.

The fantastic four (ie Alberto, Aurore, David and I) were working again like clockwork, our personality cogs just meshing perfectly without any prior discussion. Everyone just seemed to be aware of what needed to be done and was offering up a task in benefit to the group at just the right time. This synchronized behavior by my subgroup would mean less running around for each individual and this in turn would enable our subgroup to get our biscuit quickly into the oven. The chefs are always reminding us to work systematically, particularly with the freezers and ovens, since it is not efficient to throw open the door of either appliance repeatedly for each individual. It wastes time and energy, both of which are paramount to running an efficient kitchen. So we often group ourselves into pairs or fours for steps involving oven and freezer.

Timing was important in this practical. While the Bavarois is not especially difficult to make, adequate freezing of the final assembled dessert is critical and would take as much time as we could allow during the 2.5 hour class.

I prepared the baking plaque for the four of us, anchoring the parchment with industrial magnets; then tracing circles using Alberto’s marker and writing each person’s name next to a circle (these would be our guidelines for piping out the round ladyfinger bases). Alberto organized a set of mixing bowls and balloon whisks for each of us and David gathered various missing ingredients, finding the ever-illusive gelatin sheets and then hauling the massive bucket of egg whites out of the fridge. Aurore distributed the disposable pastry bags to each of us. The team efforts paid off. We were the first subgroup to have our tray of biscuit ready and into the oven, and this was at least 10 minutes before any other group.

Chef D put me in charge of the oven. I don’t know why, but I am often assigned to monitor the oven. I guess it is because I am tall and can more easily monitor the progress of the top racks during baking. I am also pretty adept at quickly turning the heavy baking sheets during the baking process. It is not unpleasant work, but the trick is not getting distracted (and hence ruining someone else’s work) while still remaining focused on completing your remaining tasks.

I had followed on with the good habit learned in my last practical, which included organizing all my needed equipment into an aluminium baking pan, then measuring all my ingredients onto parchment squares. So before lifting a whisk to make the sponge biscuit, I was ready to move forward with the remaining steps of the recipe. So being assigned to oven monitor was not distracting to the other tasks I had to do for myself, and I could easily vascillate between ovening and my mixing, syruping and trimming. The difference in my speed of assembly was remarkably improved and it was really easy to keep my work area cleaner and organized. I can’t go back to my old ways now!

The only preparation challenges I encountered were (once again) primarily based on teaching differences between chefs. And it’s not just me, everyone who is a student comments on this. You are told by one chef to do something a certain way during the demo, then at the practical you are questioned for following these very instructions since it is often a different chef with a different point of view. It always leads to some funny interaction; the discussions always have a certain pattern to them, only the specific details or tonality of the conversation changes depending on the recipe we are making and which chef is asking. For example:

Chef: “Why on earth are you __________??!”
Student (surprised): “Uh…but during the demo Chef ______told us to _____ for this step.”
Chef (irritated): “Quoi??! Mais non, that’s totally ______! You should never _________. You should always _____.” (This is sometimes followed with some snide comment about the other chef, par exemple, “Well, of course he’d tell you to do it that way…you’ve seen his hands haven’t you?? More like two feet!”)

Thus, just when you think you might’ve learned the correct technique in the demo, some other authority steps your space in practical and really teaches you. It is pointless to offer up class notes, eye witnesses or sworn testimonials as rationale to your argument. In fact, don’t even try to argue; it will be of little interest to the chef in your practical. The unspoken rule is just respond to this interaction with a hearty “Oui, chef!” and do exactly whatever you’re being told at that moment, even if it no longer coincides with the rest of your class notes or leaves you in total confusion about what to do next. Then, when the chef walks away, you are free to roll your eyes & shake your head at your neighbor across the way (who, by the way, will be equally dumbfounded in overhearing this discussion and is now nervously awaiting their serving of verbal flogging when the chef reaches his or her side of the table).

Fortunately with Chef D, this interaction doesn’t involve any yelling or surprise attacks, so it doesn’t cause tension. Still, I chuckle to myself every time because with the exuding of different authoritarian personalities and apparent lack of calibration on methods within the school it just seems so very…French! (funnier still, maybe the chefs are calibrating their teaching differences ahead of the classes: ‘Ho, ho, wot eef you says zis and I says zat, it weel really make zem crazy, non?!”;-)

The other important lesson with this recipe is to never, ever start moussing until you have imbibed (which, come to think of it, probably gives a certain strange wisdom to life outside the classroom as well). Actually I made this mistake; although the finished dessert did not show the error of my ways, I just had a slightly harder time with the glazing process. Basically, you should prepare each of the different chocolate bavarois layers only right before you fill the ring mold with that mixture. Egad! I hadn’t even imbibed my sponge layer and had dived headlong into moussing! (Ok, speaking in my defense: I am female. Chocolate is a reflex. There are three chocolate layers, I had no choice but to take action. It was instinct! I rest my case, your honor.)

The practical ended with application of that rubbery chocolate glaze to the top of the Bavarois. Not an easy task. At the point you are ready to start glazing, the Bavarois has been frozen once (after creating the first dark chocolate layer) then refrigerated after each subsequent chocolate layer is added to the stainless steel mold, so it goes without saying that your base for applying the glaze is very cold. And the glaze contains a substantial amount of gelatin, which gives it some shine and allows it to set. So when the warm gelatinous glaze comes in contact with the nearly frozen Bavarois, you have to move fast because of the thermic shock between the glaze and the mousse beneath it. The glaze sets to the texture of a dental dam almost instantaneously, so you have to use precise & decisive movements to achieve a good finish. It was a lot tougher than it looked in the practical but I managed.

David had the best result out of the 4 of us. I complimented him, telling him that he got the look of Chinese lacquerwood with his finish…it was like a disk of pure, flawless ebony. He looked pleased. (in fact, if you very look closely at the photo of my cake, just atop the glazed surface you can see his reflection grinning in the background!! I’m not kidding! What a great moment unexpectedly captured on a cake top! I circled it in red so you can see...:-))

My glazing came out well, but a drop of water came in contact with the surface of my glaze (I was using a wet rag trying to clean up some of the overrun of glaze that was messing up my gold cardboard disk). Using a paper cornet filled with melted white chocolate, I applied a decorative band of thin drizzle, then put one of the ladyfinger hearts over the offending spot to mask the spot and saved the day! Despite having expressed dissatisfaction with my rambunctious moussing, Chef D still seemed pleased with my overall appearance of my Bavarois.

I walked back to Isabelle’s with the Bavarois, looking at my reflection on the glossy surface and wondering if the transport strike on Thursday would be like that chocolate glaze…setting in quickly and rendering everyone immobile. Again, the whole incident was just so French! As long as I stayed close to Isabelle’s, the strike would not affect me much…so I’d work from internet cafes these remaining week days and walk to school as I normally do. In my wider circle of contacts within Paris, no one seemed remotely worried about it, except maybe a couple of people who live outside the city and have no option but to commute by RER and metro to get to school. Everyone else cast a gallic shrug as if they were all a bit blasĂ© about the whole thing, kind of a ‘been there, done that’ attitude that suggested that a day of working from home (or in some cases not working at all) would not even come close to shattering their world. And in seeing all those shrugs, I realized my theory about weekend strikers was probably spot on.