The last time I had a “first day at school”, the year was 2001, Apple had just released the iPod, Wikipedia had just gone online, the first Harry Potter movie had just been released and I sat surrounded by other Math/Science geeks as we took in our first engineering class. A lot has changed since then and if someone had told me on that day that 11 years later, I would be in Paris sitting in a classroom excited to begin a new phase in the world of pastry, I would have probably thought they were crazy. But life has it’s own strange ways to set you on the right path and here I am now.
The first day of school dawned bright and clear. I was up before the alarm went off, too excited to sleep. I left the house with a spring in my step and five minutes later, I was at the Monoprix, Paris’s ubiquitous supermarket, buying fresh notebooks and pencils. (“Don’t forget your water bottle!” my friend joked on the phone.) I stepped into school and after getting lost twice, I finally entered a bright classroom to greet my classmates. I’m glad to say that they are an amazing group of people, who come from all over (S. Africa, Poland, California, Australia, Nicaragua, Taiwan, Belgium, Canada…), have varied backgrounds (architecture, education, finance, dance, design…), but are joined by one common thread – the love and passion for good food. It is an amazing joy to share this experience with so many like-minded individuals.
The first day was an orientation as we toured the school, visited our labs (or kitchens in regular terms), and got lost again and again in the maze of corridors. It was a little like being visitors at a very civilized zoo as we gawked at the chefs and students, who nonchalantly went about their work and tried to ignore the “tourists” with their cameras and awe-struck expressions. We were introduced to our chefs, one each for 12 students in Pastry A (that’s me) and Pastry B. The tour ended with us getting our tool-box and that very magical of all things – our chef’s jacket, each one customized and embroidered with our names in blue. I don’t think I have ever been more excited to receive anything. (The smartness of the jacket is unfortunately offset by the supremely non-glamorous hats that we are regulated to wear – they look more like shower caps, and none of us would be caught dead in them outside of the lab.)
The week began at a galloping pace that has refused to slow down – they don’t call it an intensive course for nothing. Our chef is an amazing guy, who makes even the most complicated things look effortless – blink your eyes and it’s done as he looks up with a twinkle and says “Any questions? No? Then – Allez – Go!” We have to of course, then try and match his beautiful masterpiece. He is a perfectionist, but also eccentric and fun – being in his lab is a little like being in a musical. There can be pin-drop silence in the lab as we concentrate on piping out perfect circles and suddenly we hear strains of “Somewhere over the rainbow…” Dialogue is punctuated by sound track and vigorous arm movements. A day in the lab can be amazing or excruciating depending on how things are going, but it is never ever boring.
We began our first week with tarts, covering the basics of tart dough, making them by hand and by machine, lining, crimping, baking. If I thought I knew how to make tarts before, I could forget about it. Every little thing mattered and was critically scrutinized. “Your lining is not even.” “The angle of the crimp is wrong.” “You’ve overworked your dough.” I got used to all this until one day, the chef finally looked at my painstakingly lined tart shell and said “Pas mal” (not bad), which is high praise indeed and I could have cried happy tears. (I did cry two minutes later as I clumsily dropped and shattered my beautiful shell.) In two weeks, I have already made 12 tarts. I have tarts coming out of my ears and after making 3 of them, I don’t think I can eat another Tarte aux Pommes. I wish I could share my bounty with you all, but the very least I can do is treat you to a visual feast.
Chef’s Tarte aux Pommes:
Our huge oven and my very first attempt:
Flan and my friend’s artistic creation, who we named ‘Wilbur the Pig':
Poor Wilbur had to be rechristened ‘Marie Antionette’ as his head melted in the oven:
Pears prepped for Tarte Bourdaloue:
Tarte Bordaloue (Pears and Almond Cream) and Tarte Amandine (Almond Tart):
This is how you get pretty lemon slices:
But be careful with that slicer!
Laying out perfect strips for Lintzer Torte, roll once with the rolling pin and Voila!
Lintzer Torte (Raspberry Jam and Almond Cream) and Tarte au Citron (Lemon Tart) – these are the chef’s. Let’s just say this was the beginning of my “Thou shall break thy tart crust” jinx.
My Tarte Dacquois (Dacquois, Vanilla Pastry Cream and Fresh Fruits):
Tarte Victoria (Pineapple, Pastry Cream and Hazelnut Praline):
Being in a pastry school can sometimes mean that you get to taste leftovers from Pierre Herme:
Or that you get to make the exact recipe for his Coffee Tart (this is the chef’s, mine is a tragic story I’ll save for another time):
Did I mention that I get to take an art class? This is the chef’s masterpiece:
And this is my attempt:
The course is intense and between pastry, boulangerie, art, French, history I can sometimes be in school at 6:30 am to only leave when it’s dark outside. I’ve burnt my hand, cut my finger and broken tart shells. It’s hard work and I sometimes return home with only enough energy to crawl into bed. But I know I can speak for everyone when I say that everyday, we are happy to be in class – because we chose to be here. You know you are in the right place when waking up early on a Monday morning does not depress you. I am happy to say – Monday blues begone!