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!

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!

The final stretch…

Superior Patisserie.

We were warned at the end of last term what it would be like.

They told us that it would be several steps up from Intermediate, just as Intermediate was several steps up from Basic.  They told us that the workload would be heavier, the standards higher, the marking harsher.  They joked that we didn’t yet know the meaning of being fast in the kitchen and told us more seriously that we would be pushed harder than ever before and expected to rise to the challenge because we would be setting the example for those below us.  We knew all this in advance, and yet I still don’t think that any of us were really quite prepared for the intensity of Superior Patisserie.  (And trust me, it is intense.) 

So, week one.  Greatly anticipated, it came and went frighteningly quickly.  While other classes had their first introduction to sugar work, my group completed two six-hour sessions of chocolate truffle and confectionary production.

For the first time, we were shown straight into the kitchens for our class, no demonstration beforehand to introduce us to what we’d be doing.  We were divided into teams, assigned six items each and, for the first time, asked to produce a prioritised mise-en-place list, which is surprisingly challenging when you’ve never done it before.  Then came twelve hours of chocolate tempering (which caused us all more problems than it should have), mould polishing and preparation, ganache making, chocolate piping, truffle filling, enrobing, confectionary making, truffle de-moulding, portioning and decorating.  For many who were unused to being on their feet and in the kitchen for six hours straight, it came as something of a surprise, a completely different experience from the way classes were run in the previous two terms.  Personally, I’m lucky in the sense that the last three months of staging have prepared me for long days, so six hours doesn’t feel like much of a stretch; it’s at times like these that my work experience really pays off…

That said, it was still an uphill struggle to get through the first week’s practical sessions. With problems ranging from chocolate tempering troubles to organisation issues, it was far from plain sailing and although we all produced some lovely things by the end of the two classes, it took a lot of hard work and proved to us, if we were still in any doubt, that the expectations are far higher now that we’re Superior-level students.

Chocolates and confectionary - 2/7/2013 (LCB)

Small selection of chocolates and confectionary – 2/7/2013 (LCB)

We also had our first technical class of term last week (the obligatory exam lecture) where two of our teaching chefs proceeded to spend two hours scaring the living daylights out of us by describing in great detail what we’d have to do in our final practical exams.  (This term, there are no less than four.  For the major one, we have to design and produce our own large entremet plus two identical plated desserts, to be judged not just by our teachers but by chefs from the industry, friends and ex-colleagues of our instructors.  No pressure then…!)  Nothing like a healthy dose of fear to start off the term!

Week two saw the second half of our chocolate module, where we moved towards the realm of basic sculptures and showpieces.  Our two workshops saw us producing chocolate trains and chocolate display boxes, plus more moulded truffles.

Chocolate box - 9/7/2013 (LCB)

Chocolate box – 9/7/2013 (LCB)

Annoyingly, I made the worst batch of truffles I’ve ever made on the day that the chef chose to taste and critically evaluate them.  Thankfully, the ganache was good, so at least they tasted fine.  (It was just in appearance that they fell short of the standard, with the shells being slightly too thick and pocked with air bubbles.)  Still, at least I know that I can make better ones; it just wasn’t my day for it.

Actually, let’s face it; it just hasn’t really been my day since term began.  Although nothing has gone drastically wrong, I don’t feel like it’s been a particularly good start to Superior. My work has been acceptable but no more, which is frustrating when I know that I can do better and have done better in the past, (e.g. the moulded truffles).  I know that it’s because of my crazy perfectionist nature that it bothers me to produce merely passable work, but I want to prove myself and my abilities to the teaching chefs.  I want to show them how I’ve grown and developed as a pastry cook in the last six months.  (Am I repeating myself? I fear I am…sorry to keep boring you with the same old things!)  I still feel the need to prove that I deserve to be at LCB, because even now, two-thirds of the way through the course, there are times when I feel like I don’t.  It’s silly and I know that some people (hi, Mum!) think this mindset is holding me back, but there’s nothing I can do; it’s just the way it is.

Part of me hopes that all this is just because I haven’t quite settled into Superior yet and that things will improve as we go further on.  Fingers crossed that’s true, because next week is the beginning of our plated desserts module and it’s only going to get tougher from now on…