In Pursuit of Perfection

By / Photography By Danielle Nettleton | April 19, 2018
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Nicolas Paciello, Executive Patissier at Palais de Galles in Paris, critiquing a Hazelnut Chocolate Entremet.

RETURNING TO PARIS TO RECHARGE & REVIVE A PASSION FOR PASTRY

 

Seasonal business is not for the weak of heart. Or mind, for that matter. On the Cape we have such a unique environment, one that fosters busy, crazy summers, a time when business owners get little sleep and earn their winter’s keep. Then like a switch, it’s quiet and we have a few months to regain our sanity and remember why we do what we do each season. For me, it’s a drive of passion. For anyone who’s in the culinary arts, there’s a strand of insanity in following that passion. But we can’t help it. We love it.

For me I used to hate the off-season, I dreaded the long, slow, grey days. I didn’t grow up in a seasonal community and wasn’t accustomed to having to drive over a bridge for a taste of normalcy in the middle of February. Now, as I enter the third year running my own business where I’m also the chef, I savor those winter hours and try to pack in as much personal time as possible, knowing that my normal 2 a.m. wake up and 14-hour days are right around the corner.

One thing I face as a pastry chef and owner is the battle between passion and business. They must both be in sync in order to create daily sweetness, but at the end of the season sometimes the heart is lacking. That’s why I knew I had to revive that part of myself with a trip back to the homeland: France. I mostly booked it for a chance to get away, but as I planned more and more elements of my trip I realized how much the country is entangled with its passion for food, and more importantly, for pastry. When I was deciding where to attend pastry school in the early part of my career, I knew France was the place that would transform my skills and open doorways. My time at Le Cordon Bleu ultimately was the trajectory that defined my path in pastry. Now, five years later, I would return to revive that passion that was somewhat dulled by the end of yet another hectic season.

My trip included a few different regions of France, all of which have had an influence on my creative thinking. I began in Bordeaux, the largest wine region in France. Yes, there were a lot of tastings and glasses to be had, but it’s in the small village of Saint-Emilion where I had one of the best meals to date. Logis de la Cadene received their first Michelin star in 2017, with their young chef Alexandre Baumard. Every detail of the meal was executed perfectly, from service to taste. But the dessert was so complex it immediately had my wheels spinning. Chef Baumard prefaced dessert with an amuse-bouche, which in itself was a beautiful dessert. It was a perfectly baked canele, a Bordelaise specialty, a rum cake that has a chewy outer crust and soft melt-in-your-mouth center, which he paired with a lemon sorbet and praline cremeux, a unique combination of flavors and left me wanting more of the delicious mini creation. However, it was soon followed by the Banana Caramel Coffee dessert. A soft coffee sponge was encased by a thin sphere of hard caramel, filled with caramelized bananas and topped with a coffee cream. Every element of the dessert was so different, from taste to texture, yet worked beautifully together as a showstopper to finish this masterful meal, a feat for dessert in a world of entrees. This dedication to the finest details is exactly what we lose in the hustle of summer, and yet it’s exactly what’s drilled into us as we begin our training. After a brief exchange with Chef Baumard, I made a promise to myself not to lose that eye for detail.

Soon I was on my way to Provence, to the small town of Beaumont de Pertuis located in the Luberon. My host, Kelly Goehler, founder of La Belugue, a bed and breakfast tailored to wellness and culinary retreats, planned every moment of my five nights, keeping in mind my culinary background. Again, vineyards were incorporated throughout, even an evening getting to know the local wine maker in the village over a beautiful raclette dinner. However, one of the highlights of this stop was an invitation to go on a truffle hunt at Les Pastras. The black winter truffles, while not used often in pastry, are a perfect example of how as chefs we must respect the seasonality and quality of our ingredients. The beauty of truffles is the elegance of simplicity; all you need is a shaving with a little fat and salt and you have the most decadent treat. This is how I approach ingredients at my bakery: choose a star ingredient and highlight the quality and simplicity of it.

The following day Goehler arranged for me to attend a class by Nadia Samut of Auberge La Feniere, a beautiful, familyrun, Michelin-star restaurant in Cadenet. Samut is a pioneer of the Sans Gluten (gluten free) movement in France. As a chef living with severe food allergies, she has made it her mission to be able to still enjoy food and share that with her clients so that no one ever feels left out. The technique and process she uses when developing a recipe is one that I wholeheartedly believe in. She doesn’t use over-processed substitutes, which are often more harmful to the body than forgoing the restricted foods. She grinds her own flours, a combination of grains, including buckwheat, rice and her favorite, chickpeas. I came away from the experience with a new view on the Sans Gluten movement, and though I wish I could implement more of this into the bakery, the logistics of grinding the amounts I would need for our production numbers aren’t feasible at this point.

Photo 1: Nadia Samut of Auberge La Fenière, a pioneer in the Sans Gluten (gluten free) movement in France,grinds her own flours using a combination of grains including buckwheat, rice and chickpeas.
Photo 2: The author with Chef Paciello and her version of the Hazelnut Chocolate Entremet, made of delicate disks of tempered chocolate and filled with a whipped chocolate cream and praline.
Photo 3: Cedric Grolet of Le Meurice in Paris, recognized as the world’s best pastry chef, preparing his famous apple tart (left), and with the finished product
Photo 4: The six-inch tart, made using six apples, resembles an apple blossom

After some restorative time in southern France, I headed to the mecca of pastry: Paris. I would spend a day learning alongside the famed chef at Le Meurice, Cedric Grolet, recognized as the world’s best pastry chef, as well as Nicolas Paciello, a finalist in the Meuilleur Ouvier de France (MOF in Patisserie) and Maxime Frederic of the Four Seasons Georges V. The trio makes up some of the top talent in pastry at the moment.

The course was in an intimate setting of only a dozen participants, and we had an up-close lesson with each chef. I was surprised to learn I was the only professional baker in the mix, the other participants being talented home cooks. In France, the opportunities to advance in a career like pastry are nothing like that in the US. This was a primary reason I returned to the States after pastry school, as the pay and opportunities to advance, especially as a female chef, are much better here. Nevertheless, I felt among my people as we eagerly took notes and photos of every moment of the day. The meticulous and creative styles of the chefs triggered engrained lessons I had learned early on in my career.

To begin, Chef Paciello took us step by step through creating a Hazelnut Chocolate Entremet, made of delicate disks of tempered chocolate filled with a whipped chocolate cream and praline. This delicious concoction has gone on to be the direct influence of one of my newest petits gateaux, banana praline dacquoise, and so far the feedback from customers has been enthusiastic. Paciello is competing to become a MOF, a French competition for the top honors in selected categories, Patisserie being one of the most competitive and difficult. At 32, Paciello is not only preparing for the finals but also performing the duties of Executive Patissier at Palais de Galles, one of the palace hotels in Paris.

Afterwards there was a demonstration by Elise Dumas, a French food photographer and stylist, most recently known for her collaboration with famed pastry chef Pierre Herme. This was a great resource, as I do all of the bakery’s social media and constantly try to think of new ways to approach my growing base.

Next we were whisked across the city to the famed Georges V, where we were treated to high tea in the presidential suite and a presentation by Maxime Frederic, the new executive pastry chef, and once the sous chef of Cedric Grolet. We had a tour of the large kitchen and saw the team of over 30 people making sure every detail of the hotel’s desserts, viennoiserie and chocolates were perfect. Chef Frederic demonstrated his famed Vacherin dessert, a basil sorbet placed on fresh grapefruit and enrobed in a creme fraiche mousse and delicately finished with 100 meringue petals. I felt guilty breaking into the beautiful piece of art, but my taste buds forgave me with the cool freshness of the unique melange of flavors and textures. The exuberance and showmanship of Chef Frederic, at only 28, was the perfect example of how when you do what you love, its not just another day at the office. That's something that, as a chef, you must focus on to keep motivated.

Finally, after what seemed to be the ideal day, the icing on the cake was meeting Cedric Grolet. Having followed his famed Instagram account for years now and examined every detail of his creations, to have the chance to see Chef Grolet work up close was surreal. That night he created his apple tart, a six-inch pastry that incorporates more than six apples to create the beautiful flowered petals of the delicious treat. Every element of the tart was meticulously planned out. The shell was molded to form the vessel for the apple blossom, then diced apples were baked into an almond cream at the base of the tart shell to add another element of texture. While that was baking, Grolet prepared simple apple compote adding only lemon juice to highlight the star ingredient, the apple. Finally it was time to assemble. Grolet gracefully sliced through six ruby red apples, using only the best parts to create identical paper-thin petals. One by one he placed the petals around the tart shell to create a stunning rosette. From start to finish, it took approximately fifteen minutes to assemble the apple blossom. The concentration and eye for detail was incredible to observe. Then it was time to enjoy this masterpiece and sip champagne with the master. The amazing day had come to an end, and I fell asleep to sweet dreams of what I was bringing home to Brewster.

After an incredible three weeks traveling around France, I came home filled with a renewed sense of purpose. I could see my passion, and more importantly, my vision for the bakery more clearly. On the flight home, I scribbled down a list of goals for the upcoming season—some for the business, some personal. Ultimately, I want to push the envelope. I know what does and doesn’t work at this point in the bakery, but now its time to elevate and perfect the product and do so consistently. This demands diligence and discipline, something that is easier said than done in the heat of the Cape Cod summer. French pastry is as much about consuming the product as it is about the overall experience. I strive daily to create an atmosphere where not only the pastries will be delicious for customers, but the overall experience will leave a lasting memory and create a tradition for years to come. I look forward to sharing my passion with our customers in the upcoming season and hope they appreciate and share the joy of pastry as much as I do.

Photo 1: Banana Praline Dacquoise, a new item that will be featured on Danielle’s menu this year
Photo 2: Vacherine at George V
a close-up of Chef Paciello’s Hazelnut Chocolate Entremet
Article from Edible Cape Cod at http://ediblecapecod.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/pursuit-perfection
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