Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My little adventure in Paris

Studying in Le Cordon Bleu Paris is unquestionably one of the best and craziest experiences I've ever had and dreamt to have! I have completed my course and returned home. I miss school and Paris terribly now! 

In Paris, I gobbled up huge chunks of cheese as if I were eating slices of apples, consumed enough sugar to give me diabetes but still managed to lose some pounds because of the intense walking and whisking of 500ml of cream and 8 egg whites by hand every other day. Also climbed over balconies just to make it to school on time! Of course, I also got a little overenthusiastic and practised French whenever possible, so befriended fruit vendors, fishmongers, wine sellers and random strangers!

For the first time, I did not feel like a tourist in another country. I really was living in Paris! Did I visit La Tour Eiffel? Well, not exactly but I passed by it. Did I visit Michelin restaurants? No, but I ate at amazing bistros and cooked for myself with the freshest ingredients straight from the open market just 5 min walk from home and the Bastille market. Did I line up to buy Chanel bags? No, because I did't have the money. I was already the happiest and proudest fellow on the street carrying big bags of fruits, veggies, seafood, meat and baking ingredients and utensils! Did I get the best view of the fireworks on 14 July at the Parc du Champs de Mars? No, but I did go to my French neighbor's party and together we ate, drank and watched the fireworks on his terrace from afar, donc, c'est pas mal (not bad)!

Oh, and for those who always have the impression that Paris is a city of love- Did I fall in love with a romantic French man? No. I just got flirted at on the train, at the information centre, at the open market and randomly outside Hotel de Ville while I was sitting on the edge of the flowerbed looking clumsy searching for my phone in my super big bag. Sorry to disappoint. 

Of course, there're also many times when staying in Paris and studying in LCB weren't that glamorous. Every day I spent substantial amount of time doing household chores. I had to cook, clean the stove, clean the sink and dishes, clean the bathtub, wash and iron the endless pieces of uniform to get rid of the butter stains, chocolate stains and egg wash etc. Getting a French phone with Internet access was a pain. Long lines easily taking you an hour of waiting, if you're lucky. It wasn't easy but I was happy. I felt joy living alone, felt life was meaningful in LCB and felt free getting lost and wandering aimlessly along the old, beautiful cobblestone streets in Paris.

Before I headed off, many were happy to discuss why this might not and should not work, threw at me countless hypothetical problematic situations and tried to talk me out of going to the seemingly chaotic Paris by myself. They did this out of good intention and genuine concern for me, but sometimes they just didn't know what we're capable of. In face of the negative rush of opinions, I was lucky to have my sister, Warren and Kevin who told me I could do it and gave me an essential boost of self-confidence.

Apparently, reading John Wood's Leaving Microsoft to Change the World before packing was a wise move. Very relevant, hugely inspiring and also strongly encouraging. "If there is something you want to do, do not focus on the obstacles. Do not ask for permission. Just dive in. Don't let the naysayers get you down."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Lunch on the Seine- Day 6 at LCB

No Demo or practical class this day. LCB kindly prepared for us a combination of haute cuisine and sightseeing with this Welcome Lunch on the Seine. The food was average, but overall the experience was very pleasant. Great opportunity for us to mingle with other students who are studying Intensive Basic Cuisine. #

As you see from the picture, a substantial portion of students are Asians, but there are also many from the States, Canada, Mexico, the Middle East and other parts of Europe. Quite a nice mix of people from very different faculties and with very different aspirations.

One of my favorite chefs, Chef Pascal Quere joined us for lunch. I dare not say heś my favorite after all we are just half way through the course. But am sure heś making it to the Top 3 in the end.

He is responsible for many of the Demo classes, and sometimes supervise us in our practicals. He is by nature, not a very patient man, and he looks really pissed all the time! But he knows how to control his temper and tries very hard to keep his cool and even stay humorous even when in face of our very silly questions or mistakes and inefficiency.

He is gentle and helpful. When we mess up, he never shouts. Instead he quickly comes to our rescue and later explain to us what has gone wrong. Seeing how stressful and nervous we got during our practical, at the end, he took some time to give us a short but memorable speech. He said to us that pastry is a tough profession. We have good days and the bad. But we always have to take pleasure in what we are doing. We have to think of the person we are making pastries for and we have to really enjoy the process, otherwise the pastry will not come out right and we will of course suffer. We do not do things for the Chef, we do things for ourselves. It is ourselves to whom we are accountable.

This really made me reflect upon my attitude towards the pastry classes. I often thought I was more of a savory person, spent more time experimenting on savory dishes but failed to adopt the same inquisitive attitude in pastry-making. Having already gone through half of the course, I really appreciate pastry now. I have so much fun kneading and whisking, and decorating. Even when I completely messed up one of my cakes (Dacquoise, in later post), I managed to stay cool, stay cheerful and tried my very best to remedy the situation. Chef Pascalś words stay in my heart.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Saint-Honoré- Day 5 at LCB

In this Demo class, Chef Cote made Paris Brest and Saint-Honoré. These two extremely popular and beautiful French sweets are basically puff pastries  sandwiching a massive hill of cream. I am not exaggerating, that blob of cream can be intimidating. No doubt it is perfect and irresistible to look at, but I don´t think many people in Hong Kong, a city that relatively appreciates thinness, will be able to stand eating the whole thing without secretly scrapping off part of the cream.

Like many other Hong Kong people, I have never been a fan of cream. I often try my best to avoid it. When I eat cakes, I only eat the sponge cake layer and scrap off the cream with the back of my fork. Whenever I order ice-cream, I often make the request to skip the cream. But this Saint Honore opened my eyes and woke my taste buds. The chantilly cream we made and whisked by hand for a whole 10-15 minutes, was super light, fluffy and just taste sooooo good. Our hard work really paid off. If I were at home, I would have simply used an electronic mixer. If I were to whisk that 500ml of cream by hand at home, I would have given up in just 1 minutes. So I guess sometimes I really need some people to push me, only then will I realize my own potential.

The Practical class was super intense. The Chef assigned to supervise us this time is well-known for being strict. He is nice though, I like him. But his voice was the background music, rapping out strings of instructions with a cute French accent like ´Clean your station!´, ´What is this paper towel doing here?! It is like a market here!´, ´Allez, Allez! Quick, Quick, Quick!´, ´I want to see all the baking sheets on this rack in 2 minutes!´. 

This can be quite stressful I can assure you, especially when you already have super many things to do, including checking your cooking and easily-burning caramel every now and then, but you still have to clean the station and walk all the way to the other end of the room to line up and wash your gear. BUT, looking back, I understand how important it is to develop the habit of regularly cleaning and keeping the station clear of garbages and idle utensils. As the Chef always says, this is for our own good. This is afterall to protect us from accidents and em... undesirable inefficiency.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Tarte aux Pomme- Days 3 and 4 at LCB

I was quite excited about the classes because we're doing the classic French apple tart,  Tarte aux Pommes, for our practical (hands-on) class! As I peeked through the windows of the pastry shops, the beautiful presentation of the French apple tart never failed to impress me. I always wondered how the apples could be so thinly sliced and so delicately and strategically placed such that the tarte surface would end up in the shape of a rose! Too much skill and effort required so I never attempted making one myself.

During the demo, Chef Pascal made it look so easy to do. He could slice apples at a lightning speed and all of regular thinness. He laid them out at ease, stacked them till they look too tall and fragile and prone to become, but not quite yet the Pisa Tower.

Along with Tarte aux Pommes, the Chef also demonstrated the Tarte Normande and Tarte Tatin. Yay, I finally know the difference between the first two! Apparently, Tarte Normande involves the use of cream, eggs and sugar to form a custard filling, whereas Tarte aux Pommes only has butter-cooked apples inside. We were so lucky that the Chef assigned to supervise us on our practical class is super nice and helpful, making an otherwise frustrating, chaotic and hurried situation quite fun and great for learning. He looks a bit like Santa Claus, missing the moustache though.

The practical class this time was slightly more stressful than the last one, after all the tarte requires more time and effort. So the time was quite pressing, especially when you were not at all familiar with the practical classroom, we beginners often had to run to the ends of the classrooms to get the baking sheet, and then another end for the cooling rack, and around around the classroom opening drawers to see if there were still any rolling pins left. In addition, it was my first time using the core remover and a peeler to peel the apple (I usually use a knife), it took me some time to adapt and try not to cut myself. Anyhow, it was fun. My tarte turned out ṕas mal´, meaning not bad, but when you look closely at mine, there really aren as many layers of apples as that of the Chef. So, still have a long way to go, got to practice slicing the apples now!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Diamants- Le Cordon Bleu Days 2 and 3

My second day at LCB started out with 2 demo classes by Chef Cott. The Chef is very patient, fun-loving, and loves to joke around. On one of the demo classes, the Chef made classic French cookies, including diamants and lunettes that are shaped like eye glasses.  For those who have been baking, this class does not seem to be particularly impressive or fancy BUT wait till you witness how quickly and organized the Chef works. 

In as short as 2 hours, the Chef managed to make over 15 dozens of cookies of around 10 different styles. Super quick. This also means that it is extremely difficult for us students to follow. For a moment, the Chef is making the dough for cookie A, and then in another second heś cutting out shapes for cookie B. Whatś worse, the school only provides us a list of ingredients but not the instructions, so we have to watch and listen to the Chef intently, jot down everything we need to do and bring for our practical class in the afternoon or on the next day. One thing I really like about Chef Cott, is that he often smiles at us mischievously and asks in a squeeky voice ´Do you want a little surprise?´ and of course expects us to say Óui, Chef!´. Then he will always happily show us extra techniques or interesting shapes or things that we have never thought of doing with a dough!

Finally our turn to bake on Day 3. Chef Patrick was there to supervise us this time. Very good-looking and well-built French man. Heś a cuisine chef, not specialized in patisserie but I guess diamants are so basic that every chef here knows the recipe by heart.

So, first things first. In the practical classroom, itś war. No time to sweet talk. Once we enter the classroom, we have to get all our equipment out and place everything in a steel tray to keep the station neat. Then we start weighing the ingredients, getting our hands dirty, running across the rooms to get the baking sheets and cooling racks, and of course, getting lost in a new environment just to find sugar.

We learnt the technique of sablage, mixing in the butter with flour. As the Chef has taught us, itś like ćounting money´. Then we use the heels of our hands to push the dough to make sure everything is properly incorporated. When the Chef says something to us, 80% in French, he always ends with a ´dáccord?´ meaning ´understood?' and no matter if you understand it or not, we always have to reply Óui, Chef!' immediately to show respect and acknowledgement of the instructions.

My first practical class went pretty well. My diamants were well baked, cute and with the sugar around the edge, they do shine like diamonds! No wonder they give it the name diamants- diamonds!

By the way, if you know me well enough, you should know Iḿ more into cuisine/ savory food more. I have been cooking quite a lot of savory food here in my little Paris appartment (living with host) and walking around different fascinating open markets here. Will update you on my life outside LCB too soon.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Le Cordon Bleu Day 1

Hello all! Sorry about not writing for the past few weeks. I was having a great time in Germany, eating sausages, sauerkraust, pork knuckle and drinking beer!

Now in Paris, at the mini computer room at Le Cordon Bleu. I have enrolled into the Basic Patisserie Course and today is my first class. Classmates from all over the world! So exciting!

Todayś class is mainly on introduction, going through school rules, handing over to us our uniforms (jacket, pants, apron and hat) and the impressive set of equipments and of course, taking us a tour around the campus.

Bearing such a big name, Le Cordon Bleu in Paris is unexpectedly petit. Cramped all the time. Locker area- disastrous. Jardin d´hiver (Winter Garden) is pretty, presents tasty-looking gateaux and tartes, but cramped again. The practical rooms- a battlefield. The moment I got into one, where the Superior Patisserie students were working, I could only hear super intense whippings. Whippings of eggs or cream. Nope, not with those helpful, luxurious machines, but by the most simple em whips, quite a lot of hard work and sweat there. The students were also super quick and extremely concentrated with their weighing of sugar and flour etc. Not one of them had the time to look up and acknowledge the presence of us, a group of 15.

This undoubtedly reminds me of the first day of law school, just that it appears to be 10 times more intense. But, I know this is what I want. I want to receive the best, the most professional patisserie training and simply get stuck in the kitchen with people who are just as passionate about food and cooking as me.

Will think of a way to upload photos here later.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Shanghainese Broad Bean Mash 豆瓣酥

Broad Bean Mash may not look the most delectable, but it is one of the richest, most scrumptious and satisfying cold appetizers you may find on a Shanghainese menu. Good news for those who are not into cold appetizers, this dish may be served hot as well!

Unfortunately, not many restaurants in Hong Kong serve this dish. I don't understand this because unlike the yellow mung bean bricks which I have introduced to you in the previous post, broad bean mash is not at all difficult or time-consuming to make! So, I decided to experiment and reproduce this family-favorite.

Let me warn you in advance. Spoon after spoon, you can easily finish a whole pack of broad beans and still feel like you haven't had enough. But do try to restrain yourself from over-eating this because soon after 5 minutes, the bloating will sink in and hit you and cause great straining at waist! ARGHH!