I think for those around me on a day to day basis know that I've been planning this Chicago trip for a long time.
At the end of 2010 a beautiful and moving documentary called "The Kings of Pastry" was released in Vancouver. I had heard about this movie months before and the screening week had been highlighted in my calendar well in advance. The movie was everything I wanted in a film: comedy, romance, drama, and a touch of activity. It was about a French pastry chef, Jacquay Pfeiffer and his quest to obtain the MOF distinction in pastry arts. The MOF is kind of like a PhD in a trade - so you could get an MOF in metallurgy, woodworking and of course - pastry arts! (You can also get an MOF in chocolate, yum!) They hold the MOF 'test' every four years (kind of like the Olympics) and over the course of three days the chefs are challenged to create over 40 items that vary from sugarcraft to a wedding cake. They are judged on final presentation, taste and technique. The amount of MOFs awarded each session depends on the quality of competition - so 1 person could get it...or all of them could get it!
Anyway. Beautiful film.
But Jacquay inspired me to look into the French Pastry School (that he co-founded) and to my delight, they offered enthusiast level classes. It was a little late for me to do any vacation planning for that summer but immediately it became my goal to take a course in the summer of 2012. Fast forward a few months and in a turn of events, I was let go from my job. I was sad of course but I had a tidy sum of money that I could use to survive my unemployment...or follow my dreams.
I had promised myself this trip for over a year and unemployment be damned. I have a savings account for a reason, and my old workplace was going to pay for this trip. So the course was booked. The flight reserved. Accommodations secured. And off I went! As a great addition, two friends (plus a husband & baby) came out midway through the trip to join in on the Chicago fun - so really...this was going to be a terrific adventure.
I arrived at the School (after showing up at the wrong building - oops!) and got signed in and fitted for my chef's jacket. It was exciting to finally slip on some proper kitchen whites for the experience. We were each given a hat and apron to keep as well. Our group of 14 aspiring chocolatiers marched off to the lab and met our instructor, Chef Dimitri Fayard. He gave us a tour of our 'classroom' - which included three separate walk-in fridges: a regular fridge, a chocolate cooler and a freezer. The chocolate cooler wasn't as cold as a regular fridge but was cool enough to solidify our treats and keep our confections intact in the warm kitchen. The lab was on the first floor and was the original kitchen for the school. As a result, we also had access to a row of blast freezers and stockrooms that were filled with tools and gadgets I have never seen. As for our own stations - an induction plate and Kitchen Aid mixer sat atop a stone countertop. Underneath were our tools for projects: bowls, sheet pans, Silpats, spatulas, cutting board, etc. One of the nice perks about the class was that we did not have to wash any dishes! All dirty dishes were dropped off at the dish pit to be cleaned by students interning during the summer (our lifesavers). Aaaaand.... they did the scaling for us! So that mean that each recipe's ingredients came on a 1/4 sheet pan with labels on each container. It's a sweet life.
We got going right away. We gathered around the demo table at the front (complete with tilted mirror above) to watch Chef go through about three recipes. Then we went back and attempted to do the same thing. I can barely remember the first three recipes we went through. I think the pear caramels? We made a caramel flavoured with pear liquer that was piped into chocolate molds. Yes, we made actual chocolates! The chocolate came from this amazing machine that dispensed perfectly tempered chocolate all day. It was BYOB - bring your own bucket. Then we made a chocolate ganache for our rum truffles. This was left to sit in the chocolate cooler until we shaped them the next day. I think we also made the chocolate caramel, these were cut into squares later and wrapped. They were delicious - we topped them with sea salt and they were so chewy, soft...and salty! I believe we also started our Trio chocolates. We caramelized sugar and hazelnuts over low heat for a long time - this is so that the nuts effectively 'roast' while building a slow caramel coating. We then 'bundled' the nuts into clusters of 3. We would then put them on chocolate discs and coat them in chocolate (later that week).
We would work through all the recipes bit by bit, so it's hard for me to recount what we did on a specific day. For example, even though the caramels were 'done' - we didn't take them home until the Wednesday. A cake that we finished on Friday was started on Tuesday. A batter would be prepped and then baked the next day. I think even our rum truffles (even though it was started on Monday) were finished on the Thursday.
I was exhausted after our first day. (I should note that after a couple of recipes, we would take a short break and then sit for another demo and then it was right back to our tables until the end of the day.) I also came to a realization that a life in the kitchen was not for me. I love baking for pleasure. I love baking to make me and my friends and family happy. I don't think I could handle the pressure of baking for profit or baking on behalf of someone else. I would just be too stressed about not messing up (which I was) and not enjoying the process. All my mistakes in the kitchen give me an opportunity to improvise - something I know wouldn't exactly 'fly' in a commercial kitchen. I'm glad I came to this realization now, in a leisure class, rather than if I had given up my day job to pursue a life in the kitchen.
Ok - that's a lot of text. More later...Day 2!