2013: A retrospective.

2013 has been an important year, a turning point that has offered me many great opportunities and experiences.  Perhaps that’s why I’m so reluctant to welcome the new year that is fast-approaching; I’m not quite ready to let go of the year that has literally transformed my life.

In January, I began studying for my Patisserie Diploma at Le Cordon Bleu London.  I still remember the very first time I stepped inside the building on orientation day, just another nervous face in the vast crowd of new intake students.  It felt unreal being there, listening to the welcome speech, being shepherded around on the school tour, introducing ourselves to each other under the watchful eyes of the chefs supervising us as we stood in the third floor pastry kitchen.  I can’t believe this is it, I can’t believe I’m really here; those were the thoughts that ran through my head in a continuous loop that day.  Like a strange dream, it was the culmination of almost a year of planning, the idea of attending culinary school suddenly transformed into a reality.

Charlotte au cassis - 02/03/2013 (LCB)

Charlotte au cassis – 02/03/2013 (LCB)

In April, just after starting Intermediate Patisserie, I took on the position of stagiaire in a Michelin-starred pastry production kitchen.  Looking back now, it still surprises me that I found the courage to pursue such an opportunity; after all, I’m not usually the kind of person who emails strangers out of the blue to ask for something.  And yet, as it turns out, I was exactly that kind of person when I asked one of my fellow students for the chef’s contact details and sent the email that would come to change my life.  (I know it sounds like exaggeration, but that’s honestly the only way I can describe it, considering what happened afterwards.)

Taking on the stage whilst studying was probably one of the best moves I could have made.  It not only gave me more pastry experience, it gave me the professional experience that I lacked when first enrolling for culinary school.  But beyond that, it gave me a kitchen full of teachers, professional pastry chefs who were willing to teach those who showed an eagerness to learn.  I really appreciated those two days a week, going into that kitchen to work, to learn.  I threw myself into every job, from making sorbet base to peeling boxes of apples to rolling sable dough, all the time watching and observing as much as I could.  I was acutely aware that a stagiaire could be an annoyance to others, an extra body in the kitchen getting in the way, not knowing what to do.  I kept my head down and did what I was told, wrote down everything I was taught and tried my hardest to be better every day to prove that the opportunity I had been given was not a mistake.  Six weeks in, the executive pastry chef called me into the office and offered me a job come graduation.  In August, the offer was made official and a starting date finalised.  I’m going to be a professional pastry cook!  That was all I could think as I sat through my afternoon demonstration, wondering how I’d reached this point when eight months ago, I could hardly fathom a life beyond Le Cordon Bleu.

Fast-forward to September and our graduation ceremony and I barely recognised myself from the quiet, scared Basic student who tiptoed around LCB, afraid to put a foot wrong for fear of looking foolish.  I felt like an entirely different person, with the understanding, experience and confidence I had gained during my course and my stage.  If you had told me in January what I’d be doing in my final Superior exam, I would have laughed in your face and said “Not in a million years.”  But standing on the stage in Ballroom Three in The Intercontinental Park Lane, feeling the weight of the certificate in my hands and the medal around my neck, I knew that I was there because I’d earned my place.  It was a celebration of what we had all achieved during the past few months and it marked both an ending and a new beginning as the industry beckoned.

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You won’t believe how far you will come in nine months and how much you will learn.  At the end of your diploma, when you look back to where you were when you first started, you won’t believe how much you’ve grown.  These words, spoken to us on our very first day by the Head of Education, are imprinted in my memory because they ring with truth both on a professional and a personal level, but also because they summarise perfectly the year I’ve had.  Reflecting on it now, as the new year looms, I still can’t believe how lucky I’ve been during the last twelve months; in some ways, I wish I could re-live it and go back to those wonderful days at LCB where I first learned the basics of my craft.  That said, I wouldn’t change my life as it is now for anything; I’m working in a job I love with some fantastic colleagues and right now, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

So, here’s to a 2014 that will be just as good as (if not better than) 2013!

Reality check.

It’s a privilege to be able to do what you love for a living; I try to remember that on a daily basis.

Of course, it’s one thing to know your dream and another thing entirely to live it.

It’s easy to say that ‘this’ or ‘that’ is your passion, that it’s what you want to spend your life doing.  However, when the fantasy becomes reality, when ‘dream’ becomes ‘work’, it’s important to remember that it won’t always be sunshine and plain sailing.  Just because you’re doing something that you enjoy, it doesn’t mean that you won’t feel the tedium of the daily grind or experience a seemingly never-ending working week.  It doesn’t mean that you won’t wish your days off would arrive sooner or that you didn’t have to get out of bed at 5am in the morning.  It’s not about every day being fun and different and exciting; real life isn’t like that and it’s natural to have ups and downs.  What it does mean is that you’re doing what you do for love and you’re waking up every day to go to a job that means more than simply earning an income.

These are the things that I’ve been telling myself recently, after another crazy week at work or another long shift when the mise-en-place list seems endless.  I love my job; there’s no doubt about that in my mind.  The thing is, I don’t love it every single day.  Occasionally, there are bad days where no matter what I do, it seems that everything is fated to go wrong.  Other times, I’ll land the service shift for nine days in a row, which means I won’t see the kitchen for a fortnight.  There are times when I don’t enjoy work, and it makes me feel bad because I think that I should.  I’m really lucky to be in this position, and it seems ungrateful to wish that the end of my shift would come sooner, that my days off would last longer, that I won’t have to be on ‘x’ shift tomorrow.  I’m struggling to overcome the guilt that I feel when all I want to do is go home after a twelve-hour day, rather than push on with the next job on the list, knowing that tomorrow is going to be just as busy…

I know that this is probably normal.  I’ve read countless blogs and articles that tell me ‘living your dream’ doesn’t mean that life will be perfect and happy all the time and while I’m by no means complaining or unhappy (not by any stretch), it’s true that I have my share of down days, even though I’m supposed to be living my ‘ideal’ life.  Partly, I think it’s the intense nature of the job; the work is never over, because there will always be something else that needs to be done tomorrow.  Mostly though, I think it’s the fact that my life at the moment has been reduced down to work and nothing else.  My hours leave little time for socialising, and the majority of my friends live outside the city anyway, which makes it difficult to get together without careful planning.  I literally live to work.

That said, I recently spent a weekend at home; my head chef gave me four days off when she found out that it was my mum’s birthday.  On a Friday evening, straight after work, I got on a train and spent an hour and a half watching the dark landscape outside slowly transform from city to countryside under the yellow streetlights.  My weekend was filled with shopping, dinner at our family’s favourite restaurant, a trip to the cinema to see Gravity and lots of good home cooking, all of which was a world away from my busy working life in London.

My favourite dessert at The British Larder: chocolate and hazelnut praline cremeux - 9/11/13

My favourite dessert at The British Larder: chocolate and hazelnut praline cremeux – 9/11/13

I knew beforehand that the change of scene was something I needed, but I didn’t realise quite how much I needed it until I stepped off the train back into the familiarity of home life. Yes, I love the city, but I still miss the comfort of home.  I don’t really think about it when I’m working, but the truth is that my life has become very lonely lately.  It’s easy to forget when I’m in the kitchen, occupied with a hundred different tasks, but it haunts me in the quiet evenings when I get home from work and there’s nobody to talk to.

Luckily, my colleagues – both in the kitchen and at the restaurant – are all lovely, interesting, funny and fun people.  When I’m in the kitchen, I’m surrounded by an amazing team of fellow pastry chefs who inspire me and push me to be better every day.  When I’m on service, there are always waiters, bar staff, sommeliers with ready jokes and witty comments that never fail to make me smile.

Sure, things might be kind of crazy right now especially in the run-up to Christmas and New Year, but there’s always a bright side, even on the toughest days; I just need to remember to see it occasionally and not allow the workload to bring me down.  After all, it’s is my first holiday season and it’s a reality check; this is the life I signed up for.  Time to knuckle down and push on…

Life, lately: a new chapter.

It’s been an eventful few weeks.  The days are flying by and I still can’t believe how much has happened in such a short period of time.

Firstly, my time at Le Cordon Bleu is over and I am now officially a graduate of the Pâtissèrie Diploma.  (I have the certificate to prove it and everything.  It’s currently sat at home, waiting to be framed…)

The graduation ceremony took place in mid-September, just over four weeks ago.  Though it was a more formal affair than we’d been used to (in contrast to previous certificate presentations held at school, this one took place in a Park Lane hotel and featured a champagne reception and three-course lunch), it was fun to get dressed up, see my friends and chefs and have the chance to celebrate our achievements together.  Of course, it was a bittersweet occasion, the joy of success mingled with the sadness of knowing that our wonderful days at LCB had finally come to an end.  However, looking on the positive side, I’m taking away some fantastic memories and I’ll always be thankful for everything that the school and the experiences of the last nine months have given me. (Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the nervous, quiet individual who stepped through the school doors for the first time is the same one now about to embark on a new journey as a professional pastry cook.)

In other news, I’ve started a job as a pastry commis in a central London production kitchen – the very same one where I completed my five-month stage whilst studying at LCB – and have just completed my fourth week.  I feel extremely lucky to have secured what is essentially my dream job, straight out of school.  (To tell the truth, I was actually offered the position a few months ago, about six weeks into my stage.  I couldn’t believe it at the time and it still feels slightly surreal that I’m actually here now.)  It’s an amazing opportunity to work somewhere that produces pâtissèrie of such high quality, especially so early on in my career.

So far, it’s been great and although becoming full-time has taken some getting used to, I’m enjoying being in the kitchen every day and learning as much as I can.  Of course, with holiday season just around the corner, things are picking up both in the production kitchen and the restaurant, but it’s a great challenge and we’ve been working on some new items for Hallowe’en and Christmas that are looking pretty good!  I also had my first taste of service over the weekend.  While my preference is still to be in the kitchen, it makes an interesting change and I’m appreciating the chance to learn something new.

Finally, I was recently given an opportunity that was completely unexpected; at graduation, one of my teaching chefs asked me if I’d like to assist him with a competition he was taking part in.  (The competition turned out to be the UK Pastry Open, which took place a couple of weeks ago at The Restaurant Show.  He won the award for ‘Best Sugar Showpiece’.)

Winner of "Best Sugar Showpiece" - UK Pastry Open (7/10/13)

Winner of “Best Sugar Showpiece” – UK Pastry Open (7/10/13)

The job mostly consisted of washing up, cleaning down, organising equipment and carrying things, but I did get to attend a couple of practice sessions as well as the actual competition and had a lot of fun in the process!  The show was eye-opening.  The standard was extremely high and it was impressive to watch all the chefs in action, creating their amazing sculptures, entremets and plated desserts.  It was also my first taste of culinary competitions and introduced me to a whole other aspect of pâtissèrie which I’d never really seen before.

While I’m a little sad that it’s over, I’m also very grateful to have had the opportunity in the first place and feel quite privileged that my teacher offered it to me, especially considering all the other students in my year that he could have asked.  It has also served to increase my passion for pastry and strengthened my determination to push myself to be as good as I can be and discover my full potential, whatever that is.  It’s inspiring to see what these amazing chefs can do and what can be achieved if you have the dedication and commitment, coupled with good, honest hard work.

Anyway, I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that life has taken a bit of a turn towards the unexpected.  I’ve come out of culinary school and immediately entered a world that I never imagined I would be part of, one which includes fine-dining, Michelin-starred standard pâtissèrie, competitions and some incredibly talented pastry chefs.  I feel very fortunate to be in such a position at this point in my life as a young pastry cook.

Now I’m just curious to see what the future holds…

Time’s up…

I don’t like endings.  Endings mean goodbyes and I’m not good at those.

Recently, as the end of my Patisserie Diploma draws inexorably nearer, I have found myself plagued by a sense of sadness which I cannot shake.  Every day brings me closer to the conclusion of the course and the best nine months of my life so far; as cliched as it sounds, it’s the only way I can truthfully describe it.  Since the beginning of the year, I have learned more about patisserie than I ever expected, developed skills I didn’t know I had, done things I never imagined possible, made wonderful, life-long friends and been encouraged, supported and inspired on a near-daily basis by the incredible teaching chefs of Le Cordon Bleu London.

Yesterday was our final practical examination, a four-hour assessment in which we had to produce one large entremet and two small identically-plated desserts, complete with tuile and tempered chocolate decorations, chocolate piping and a classic creme anglaise, the latter two being for the plated items.  Fortunately, I had no major disasters and with the exception of one or two little mistakes, managed to produce something presentable that I was relatively happy with.  (In typical fashion, I feel that my attempts during last week’s practice session were better, but that’s always the case, annoyingly…!)

Had someone told me nine months ago what I would be doing for my final, I would have laughed in disbelief.  Now that I’ve actually done it, it feels like nothing more than the natural conclusion of the culinary journey I’ve been on, the culmination of everything I’ve learned and done this year.

My plated dessert: first attempt - 24/07/2013 (LCB)

My plated dessert: first attempt – 24/07/2013 (LCB)

It’s only now, looking back on my time at the school, that I can truly see how far I’ve come since January.  When I started, I was quiet, timid, always doubting myself and my work, looking to the chefs to show me the way and to tell me that I was doing okay before I believed it myself.  Now, even just over the last few weeks, I’ve learned to have more confidence and to trust in my abilities and knowledge.  I know what I am capable of and I don’t second-guess myself or seek praise and approval any more.  This self-belief is one of the most important things I’ve gained from the diploma; I don’t feel like an imposter any more, an amateur pretending as I tiptoe around the kitchen, waiting for someone to say “Wait, what are you doing here?”.  I actually feel, finally, that I might be capable of pursuing a career in the field that I am so passionate about.  That’s what this course, and my teachers, have given me: understanding, skills and confidence.  For that, I will always be grateful.

We have our final tutorial later this week, the one in which we will receive the results of all the examinations we’ve taken this term.  (Of course, I’ll hope for a Mention, but just to pass would be an accomplishment in itself and one I will happily accept.  It’s extremely rare that the chefs award Mention/Mention Bien for Patisserie, simply because the marking criteria are so strict and the standards so high, it’s nearly impossible to achieve.)  It will be the last time I’ll enter the school as a Patisserie Diploma student, the last time I’ll walk its familiar corridors and spend time in the building that has become like a second home to me.  It will be a day of goodbyes, hopefully of celebration too; joy and sadness mingled together as our patisserie journey finally ends after nine glorious months.

I still can’t believe it’s over.  I’m not ready for the end, not ready yet to leave the school that I love so dearly.  I’ve had the time of my life, worked hard, met some amazing people and had a lot of fun.  I’m going to miss it more than I can say, both the good times and the bad. Why does it have to be over so soon?

Of course, the one positive thing about endings is that they make way for new beginnings…

Turning up the heat…

As we enter week seven of Superior Patisserie, the heat is slowly being turned up, both figuratively and literally.

Figuratively in terms of meeting ever-rising expectations, but also our workload which is only going to increase from now on.  With two weeks to go until our portfolio deadline, there are methods to be written, recipes to be finalised, time plans to be plotted, diagrams to be drawn.  There’s also the theory paper, with a mountain of revision topics to be covered. And then there’s the small matter of our final practical exams, four in total: sugar, boulangerie, chocolate and – the big one – entremets and plated desserts.

Literally, because my group has just completed our sugarwork module.

Sugar showpiece - 5/8/2013 (LCB)

Sugar showpiece – 5/8/2013 (LCB)

Poured, pulled and blown sugar were all on the menu as we were tasked with designing and producing our own showpieces, making blown sugar fruits and pulling ribbons and roses.

Exam sugar showpiece - 6/8/2013 (LCB)

Exam: sugar showpiece – 6/8/2013 (LCB)

Initially, I approached sugarwork with more than a little trepidation.  Stories of boiling sugar and burns had been circulating around the Superior groups for weeks as other classes completed their sugar modules, so naturally we were all a little nervous to begin with…

Sugar rose - 6/8/2013 (LCB)

Exam: sugar rose – 6/8/2013 (LCB)

Day one.  Stepping into the kitchen at 8am to attempt our first-ever showpieces, we cautiously cooked sugar, water and glucose to 160-162C before shocking it, adding colouring and pouring it, boiling, into various prepared moulds.  Once set, we removed the moulds and set about assembling our pieces, gluing them together with clear sugar or blowtorching them.

In our second session of the day, we were shown how to prepare pulled sugar and spent two hours making roses.  Make no mistake, pulled sugar is hot work!  Sugar was cooked to 162C with glucose and tartaric acid, then immediately shocked and poured onto a silpat mat.  Next, we had to work it by hand (albeit hands protected with cotton gloves and two layers of latex gloves) until it was cool enough to satin – i.e. pulled until it takes on a glossy, opaque appearance.  After satining, we pearled it by rolling it into a ball and folding it in upon itself until it took on a mother-of-pearl sheen.  Only then was it ready to be used to make roses, and all the while it had to be maintained underneath a blisteringly hot sugar lamp.

Thus it was, thanks to a showpiece and a rose, that my love of sugar was born.

Day two saw us attempting ribbons and more roses, with ribbons posing an interesting challenge as we tried in pairs to stretch our sugar evenly to produce nice patterns.  (The chef actually complimented our group by telling us that we were the best class he’d seen all year in the ribbon session, so that was a nice little confidence boost!)

Day three was a shift in gear as we learned the art of blown sugar and tried our hand at apples and pears, although we ended up with a range of shapes from cherries to peppers to tomatoes!  We also had the chance to practise our sugar showpieces once more, in preparation for our upcoming assessment.  (The first photograph above shows mine; I feel it’s not bad, considering that it was only my second go!  The colour and pouring could do with some work, but as it goes, I’m rather proud of it.)

Day four, or sugar assessment day.  Two exams, each an hour and forty-five minutes long. In one, we had to produce a showpiece as we’d practised the day before.  In the other, a rose.  I started with the showpiece and everything went well until one of my pieces broke and shattered.  Fortunately, I was able to salvage a few shards and managed to present something, though sadly not the design I had intended.  (The second photograph above shows the piece I produced, with the obvious changes I had to make.)  In three full days of sugarwork, nothing had broken on me before; typical that it would happen on the most important day! However, it was with the rose that I redeemed myself, producing the best one I’d made so far; just the time to pull it out!  (The third photograph above is actually the one I made in my exam; I was doubly pleased with it after the minor disaster with my showpiece…!)

Although I was anxious about sugarwork to begin with, it’s turned out to be the most fun I’ve had so far during Superior and I’ve discovered a passion for it that I was not expecting. Sure, it doesn’t really fall under the category of ‘normal’ everyday patisserie, but it’s creative and fun and I love it.  It’s also made me feel more settled and comfortable with Superior Patisserie and reminded me that although it’s hard work, it can still be interesting and enjoyable.  (That said, sugarwork definitely divided opinions; it seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it subject!)

I’m sad it’s over, but next week sees us tackling the boulangerie unit which is always a good one, so bring on the bread!