Thursday, April 26, 2007

Big bowls and making sacrifices

Nearing the end of my third week of my practicum, I can take a breath and reflect on my progress. It has been a sharp learning curve, especially gaining comfort with new types of equipment and techniques. For example, the largest mixer used is a Hobart which sits on the floor and is almost as tall as me. I am quite certain that I could easily take a bath in its largest mixing bowl. Learning to attach this huge bowl to the machine was a lesson unto itself.

Other new things include using trolleys to cart your ingredients around since it is inefficient to carry things yourself, having a dishwasher person to clean everything, and working in multiples of hundreds rather than tens. So far, my role in the pastry kitchen has been to assist whoever needs assistance. I have never assembled so many fresh fruit tarts nor halved so many strawberries in my life. The most interesting experience to this date has been participating in the large-scale plating of banquet desserts. All the various components are divided up (the individual entrement, the sauce, the strawberry half, the tuile), about 12 people hover around six tall stacks of plates, and 24 hands fight to put their component onto the plate as fast as possible.

Soon, I will be expected to take more initiative and begin taking on more responsibility for the production list. Learning how production flows and how information flows within the hierarchy of the pastry kitchen will be challenging, especially while I am still struggling to learn how to make these products! Meanwhile, my role as a practicum student has not been forgotten; I have weekly assignments which I choose myself and review one-on-one with Chef Ted. Last week, chocolate tempering and decorations were my topic and just when I thought I had mastered this skill, I am reminded that I have so much more to learn. His technique for tempering includes seeding, a wet towel, and a heat gun.

Perhaps, the biggest adjustment for me has been facing the reality that in the food industry, especially with hotels, regularly sacrificing your evenings, weekends, and holidays such as this upcoming Mother's Day, is expected. I am still not very accepting of this and unsure of how willing, ultimately, I will be to make this sacrifice. During my practicum, however, I realize that I need to embrace every opportunity to learn, regardless of what day or time it might be.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Edible souvenirs: financiers

I have a new favourite cookie, the financier. According to Dorie Greenspan, author of Paris Sweets: Great Desserts from the City's Best Pastry Shops, these rich almond cookies were created for 19th century Parisian stock brokers and baked to resemble bars of gold. They are so flavourful because of beurre noisette, sweet butter that is cooked until essentially burnt, deep brown and nutty. You can see those lovely dark flecks baked into the cookie.

Unlike my past shopping habits which would have focussed on shoes, and perhaps sweaters, my souvenir purchases from France consisted entirely of cookbooks, pastry supplies and a few culinary ingredients. In the neighbourhood around Les Halles, a concentration of food equipment and supply stores exists and undoubtedly, I could have spent a small fortune there. Because luggage space was at a premium, my purchases were limited to items which I knew were either hard to find or much cheaper than in Canada, such as silicone molds for financiers, madeleines, and cannelés.

My practicum is going well despite my usual anxieties regarding new surroundings. The most challenging aspect has been trying to fit in to an all-male crew which is an eclectic mix of strong personalities. Even though the girls were vastly outnumbered during my Ophthalmology residency, the gender difference in the pastry kitchen has been more pronounced and from what I have heard and read, my experience is not unique within the food industry. Luckily, with a relaxed attitude and some self-deprecating humour, I am starting to feel more grounded. I have even received a new nickname "Dr. Chocolate", a combination of my old and new professions.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Back to reality and salt

It is good to be home. Despite an enjoyable holiday filled with cultural and gastronomical adventures, I will always be a homebody at heart. Our travels took us from Nice, through Arles and to many smaller towns in Provence by car, up to Montelimar and Lyon, onto Amboise in the Loire Valley, and finally to Paris - where the vast majority of caloric intake began. The list which I assembled (on spreadsheet of course, with accompanying GoogleMap for each location) included approximately forty pâtisseries/chocolateries/boulangeries and in the 4.5 days in Paris, we managed to visit twenty-six. Visit did not always mean purchasing or eating; in fact, I discovered that Eric gets physically ill after eating too many sweets and had to resist buying more pastries in order to prevent turning him off pastry forever.

With so many choices and such great variety of sweets, it was hard to decide what to taste and which were favourites. The complexity and quality at Pierre Hermé made his creations my absolute favourite. The macarons were unbelievable, in texture, complexity of flavor and eye appeal. At almost 2€ per mini-macaron, they better be that good. For more photos of our trip, including non-gastronomical sites, some stealthily taken shots of pastry shop interiors, and many course-by-course dinner photos, please click here.

Of course, I can not forget to mention other culinary highlights of our trip including a fine lunch at a small bistro L'Epicerie in Avignon, an unbelievably good concept restaurant/wine cave Les Papilles in the 5th arrondissement, and our exciting venture into Michelin starred restaurants Le Gourmet de Sèze in Lyon and Hélène Darroze in Paris. Our VISA card is still recovering from the latter.

Returning home has also meant embarking on my Pan Pacific practicum. The environment is very different - bigger, busier, male-dominated, more hierarchical, and more personalities to learn to interact with. I knew that the inevitable question "what did you do before pastry?" would be asked by every new person I met and that every response would be a version of "are you crazy?". My answer is still very awkward as I find it very difficult to translate my feelings about ophthalmology to anyone who has not been in clinical medicine. One person, after hearing my reasons, stated that there is no such thing as the perfect job. I certainly do realize this fact; however, to remain in an unhappy situation just to please everyone but yourself is also not a healthy choice. I am just grateful that I do have the opportunity to take this time to explore a new path and undoubtedly, I would have deep regret in life if I never did.