The responsibility of being a teacher
Each semester, when I begin teaching professional baking to new students who may have never before stepped into a commercial kitchen or handled a rolling pin, I wish to instill in each of them a reverence for the field and give honor to the nobility of the baker’s and pastry chef’s profession. Opening students’ eyes to a respect for ingredients, equipment and history is as much as a part of my task as teaching about how to read a recipe or formula correctly and what it means to measure ingredients by weight and not by volume for accuracy. But most of all, my teaching is about inspiring each student to dig down deep to discover what motivates them to wish to learn to be a baker.
Is it a long-held wish to do what they really want to do, after years of suppressing that desire and working in a field that was dulling and simply unsatisfying? Is it a childhood memory of watching grandma or Mom while she turned rough measures of ingredients and a hefty helping of love into pure sweet gold? Is it simply the wish to please others, to give pleasure to those who will end a meal on a sweet note, thanks to the artistry and handiwork of a true craftsman? Or is it something so fundamental as a wish to learn how to recapture some of the sweet memories of one’s youth and replicate a special cake or cookie from the neighborhood bakery enjoyed back then? Sure, baking is a business and leads to secure jobs for many talented individuals. But it is so much more than that. It is a way of honoring the past, keeping alive the noble art of truly working with one’s hands to produce soul-satisfying moments of pleasure for family, sweets’ lovers, customers and for one’s self.
As I see it, being a good baker is in the hands and in the heart. Passion cannot be taught; recipes and techniques can. Cultivating a light touch with mixing ingredients and rolling out pastry doughs, instinctually knowing just how long to mix and just how long to bake are all skills that come with time. But when students learn to gain mastery over making a particular cake, custard, pastry dough or cookie, their sense of satisfaction becomes mine. And the “aha” moment when the student “gets” why proportions and ratios of ingredients in a formula are key to making that formula work thrills me as much as it does the student. And when out of self-motivation, my students see that being good at what one does is not good enough, I know that I have done my job and can feel good about releasing them into the professional world, prepared to care deeply about the integrity of the products they are turning out. I know then that he or she is prepared to join the long line of bakers and pastry chefs who have come before and do honor to the profession.
Would you Kindle or iPad in the kitchen?
With all of the hype surrounding these modern day replacements for what I consider the real thing, books, the kind that are printed on paper with ink, I sometimes wonder if cookbooks are going to be a thing of the past? I doubt it. We are too much creatures of habit to succumb to electronic versions of our favorite guides to cooking. We like to hold a book in our hand, gauging the heft of it, feeling the texture of the paper, flipping back and forth through its pages with a sense of satisfaction when finding just what we are looking for. The digital universe is just not that satisfying and won’t suffer having ingredients spilled on it. I like to see the inadvertent spatterings of food which has splashed from the pot or the mixing bowl as a record of past achievement. The more spattered the page, the more likely that the recipe was a favorite, bearing repeating. And how about those hand written notes gracing the margins in the pages of those old standby cookbooks in your collection: ”Great version of pound cake,” ”Far too salty,” or ”Heavy as lead and twice as hard” which are a poignant reminder that cooking and baking are as much about connecting to a book, losing oneself in the pleasurable moments of focus and concentration when gathering, measuring and finally combining ingredients and then awaiting expectantly for the results of your labor of love, as they are about connecting to another individual and getting their reaction to the cooking from the heart that you have just done. A cold digital reader simply cannot replace the printed artifact you hold in your hand or refer to as it sits proudly on your counter top. And what about the stories that are connected to particular circumstances when you bought or received a certain cookbook in your collection? For me, thinking back to when a book first entered my collection allows me to recall vividly earlier enthusiasms, passions of the moment, special times perhaps and special people surrounding me who enjoyed the cooking which sprang from those books. Would love your comments about this; simply enter them on the Contact page. I’ll be looking forward to replying to each and every one. Do your part and let’s not let another individually owned and curated “bricks and mortar” bookstore close in your town due to the digitalizing of the previously and still currently happily printed word.
Cooking and baking by the season
In a marketplace where if you look hard enough and shop the right (read “expensive”) sources, the word “seasonal” when applied to produce has little meaning. With berries in winter from the southern hemisphere and hothouse rhubarb making its crimson presence known from fall to spring, anticipating the special pleasures of each fruit (or vegetable) in its season is fast becoming a thing of the past. More’s the pity.
While sensible and logical, cooking and baking by the current bounty in accord with the rhythm of the seasons and within strict limitations based on ingredient availability, is a lost art, and in need of revisiting by both the home cook and professional alike.
In simpler times, the limited variety of local fall and winter vegetables forced the cook to be creative and resourceful (hardy roots, cabbage, potatoes stored in the cellar) and led the baker to make best use of seasonal fruits (tree fruit including the bounty of just picked apples and pears and sun-drenched citrus). On the sweet side, cobblers, crisps, slumps and grunts were commonplace desserts and lovingly anticipated. At summer’s end, the conscious baker had to say goodbye to the exuberance of drippingly juicy fragrant peaches and plums for yet another year, making the appearance of the first crop the next year all the more treasured and appreciated. Now, a hunger for out of season berries or melons in winter has supplanted the simple enjoyment of eating an in-season apple that hasn’t seen cold storage for months.
To get a taste of what’s just been pulled from the earth or plucked from a tree, plant or vine, nose around your local farmer’s markets, get to know the farmers on a first name basis and be inspired to cook what looks and tastes best and is best priced. Your palate will be rewarded and the primal sense of eating from what is in season will be revived.
How I became a curious, authoritative, experienced, still-enthusiastic-after-all-these years, peripatetic pastry chef and ethnic food experimentalist.
In every creative field, whether architecture, painting, or the pastry arts, one needs to study the past to invent the future. Becoming an artist takes time and a serious commitment whether you use paint and clay or butter, sugar, eggs and flour. Learning the basics of cookery and baking, studying the styles of those chefs who have come before and absorbing a broad knowledge of techniques and ingredients from food masters everywhere, all contribute to the formation of the successful chef and pastry chef.
Many different experiences have influenced me in my journey toward becoming a pastry chef and instructor. Growing up in a family who nurtured my interests in food, frequent visits to food stores in the “big city” that is New York, travel abroad in my college years, studying art and foreign language, meeting prominent experts in the fields of food journalism, all have played a part in this ever-unfolding journey.
In my youth, I had the good fortune to be raised by two adventurous aunts who encouraged me to try different restaurants with them and early on instilled in me the pleasures of travel as part of a lifestyle. All of this led to arranging apprenticeships in top restaurants and food stores in France in the early 1970’s. This experience in turn propelled me further toward a lifelong dream of opening my own specialty food business, bringing back with me the knowledge of and enthusiasm for a whole world of hitherto unknown ingredients and foods. Pioneering in the field of specialty food retailing, I opened and owned French-style charcuteries with American flair, preparing foods and pastries to go and catering to a star-studded clientele on two coasts. Satisfied that I had achieved my long-held goal of gaining national recognition at an early age, I left the retail arena to concentrate on teaching and writing. For the past 15 years, I have been teaching the pastry arts and the art of confidence-building to hundreds of students from all over the world, pulling talents and aptitudes from deep inside a highly multi-ethnic cross section of students from whom I gain in equal measure to what I give. And, as a veteran food writer, I remain emotionally tied to the latest developments in specialty food retailing with visits to stores worldwide, where my pulse quickens upon seeing a particularly inventive and beautiful display of merchandise and I’m equally thrilled to be able to share these exciting developments with students and readers alike.
Although being based in a highly multicultural metropolis like Los Angeles, I remain thoroughly convinced that no matter where one lives, it is possible to discover people, places and ideas to whet the appetite, stimulate the creativity, and keep the habit of tasting deeply and widely alive. Developing one’s taste for unusual or yet undiscovered ingredients is key in creating innovative pastry art and bold flavored savory dishes as well, but the other senses are crucial as well. One’s sense of smell, the eye for compelling visual presentation, the aesthetic sense which leads to the use of unusual plates, the ear for and appreciation of the crunch and crackle in a well-made, well-baked pastry, are all critical and can be stimulated by viewing art, listening to music, connecting oneself to the earth from which our food comes and translating this glory to the plate. The German poet Goethe famously observed, “Architecture is frozen music.” By extension, I believe that the Dessert Architect is composer and conductor, creator and presenter, who orchestrates a symphony of tastes, composes harmonies of ingredients which spell pure pleasure on the plate or in the bowl.
As part of my education, I have been fortunate to meet many passionate individuals involved in growing, producing, selling, processing or writing about food. Unlike the soul-killing tedium of food shopping in supermarkets, frequent trips to farmers markets are still an intriguing adventure. I suspect it’s a holdover from my experience in Europe where shopping for food involves not only getting to know, but also becoming fiercely loyal to, the vendors who sell the highest quality seasonal produce. This experience has enabled me to get to know my local farmers and even visit their farms, where I have been invigorated by the smell of well-tended soil at sunrise, and inspired by the ineffable beauty of pristine produce just pulled from the earth.
The experience of eating in ethnic restaurants provides the twin pleasures of immersion in a foreign culture and experiencing cuisine that is authentic and delicious. This has opened up my eyes to the potential of bringing ethnic ingredients into the pantry of both the sweet and savory kitchen. I have experienced the collegiality and generosity of chefs all over the world, whose training ranges from the prestigious culinary academy to the school of Mom. In focused visits to trade shows and manufacturing plants, I have continued to be amazed by the sheer inventiveness of professionals in the field, each willing to put their lives on the line to introduce and promote the next good food idea or ingredient. Yet it is from the artisanal producers of all kinds of foods and beverages that I have learned the most, from cheese makers in rural Washington State to jam makers in northern California and coffee micro roasters in LA. In my travels, I’ve enjoyed tasting first-hand award-winning Calvados produced in France, cardamom and cashews in India, and truly artisanal gelato in Genoa, Italy and its surrounding towns. I have learned far more than how each artisanal product is made; I have seen the glint in the eye of truly passionate individuals in whom I recognize a kindred spirit and personal pride in the honest quality of the products they produce animating their life’s work.
Over the years, I have tasted reflectively and widely. I have been curious and excited to learn the pastry traditions of my ancestors and those from other cultures. I have also learned that what seem like serendipitous discoveries are not happenstance at all. When one is committed to a field you open your eyes, ears, heart and mind to new experiences. You are continuously receptive to what you read, taste, hear so that the “lovely accidents” that occur are actually no accidents but opportunities a wise eye can identify.