Bread and pastry look like art, but they’re science. Scary, scary science. And because everything we know about science comes from Breaking Bad
, let’s put it in Walter White terms: The grocery-store croissant you ate this morning — which, for $1.50, left buttery little shadows on your pants when you got out of the car and brushed off the flakes — is street-grade stuff. A cheap high with deleterious long-term effects.
If you want the pastry equivalent of Heisenberg’s blue crystal, you can make it yourself. It won’t be easy, not at first, and it’s never going to be fast, but it can be done — especially if you refer to chef and teacher Jacquy Pfeiffer’s The Art of French Pastry
. The book (co-written with Martha Rose Shulman) came out last December and won a James Beard Foundation award in May. Pfeiffer is coming to Kansas City later this month as part of the American Culinary Federation’s annual convention.
Pfeiffer has a limited tolerance for the high-dudgeon TV shows that mint celebrity chefs (“I’ve worked in many kitchens, and very few of them have the drama that reality shows have,” he says), but he did let cameras follow him a few years ago, as he prepared to compete for the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a coveted prize for that country’s best craftspeople in various disciplines. The resulting documentary, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ Kings of Pastry
, is as tense as The Shining
. For some pastry chefs, science alone isn’t enough; something approaching magic is required.
called Pfeiffer in Chicago, where he’s a dean at the academy he co-founded, the French Pastry School.
The Pitch: You’ve said that your goal with the school is “to try to change the face of pastry a little bit here in the U.S.” What can all of us stand to learn?
Quality is something everybody needs to be aware of — what ingredients are in a food product. The more you look into that, the more you realize that you might be eating something that looks fine but is injected with all kinds of chemicals to make it last longer.
Then, after that, the portion size. You have to eat whatever you want in life, but just look at food differently. You have this humongous plate in front of you, but the size of what’s put in front of you has nothing to do with your natural appetite. You don’t need to eat that much. You are a grown person. No human being needs to eat the big portions.
Fewer and fewer jobs seem to be out there for pastry chefs. What do you tell your students about their prospects and how to beat the job market?
I always say to a student that it’s their job to create a job out there. They need to go to a restaurant that they think needs a pastry chef. It’s up to them to prove to the owner that if they made the pastries, they’d be better off.
For everything. For everything, you know? A lot of owners, they just buy stuff because maybe they didn’t find someone who can actually make a better product. A pastry chef could do so many things: Make the bread for the entire restaurant, chocolate candies, petits fours, desserts. The pastry chef could really bring a lot of value to a restaurant. It’s easier for a restaurateur to buy this stuff, but he’ll have an edge on his competitors if he has homemade items on the menu, if he bakes his own bread.
We’re used to seeing Gordon Ramsay throw fits, yet you and the others in
Kings of Pastry suffer catastrophes and handle them quietly. How does a pastry chef’s temperament differ from the rest of the kitchen?
It’s true that in pastry you have to be different than a hot-food chef. He gets things ready under the gun, puts them together fast and well and serves it, and that’s it, the end of the night. For us in pastry, we are control freaks. We make sure things are done well in advance, and we measure everything and we calculate things as much as possible so we don’t have to run around.
You have to put yourself all the way down to nothing and then build yourself up, so that when you compete, you are where you should be. You have to start slow and low, and you build your confidence. You ask people how to do things. I’ll ask anybody.
What does a batch of perfect croissant dough do for us?
You learn what a great croissant should taste like. It’s like learning about wine — what makes one good and what makes one different from another. If you make something a few times, using great ingredients, you know that you can never go back to eating a chewy, disgusting croissant. And you reach that level and you learn not to eat mediocre food anymore. You’ve mastered the manipulation of the butter, the flour. If you stick with it, you make it over and over, you learn to make the butter do what you want it to do. And you could move on to another recipe, savory or anything, and you learn that discipline.
Pfeiffer gives a presentation (demonstrating a teatime chocolate cake with hazelnuts, caramel and Alunga ganache) at 2:30 p.m. Monday, July 28, as part of the ACF’s convention. He signs copies of his book at 3:30; details, location and tickets at acfchefs.org. More about the convention at pitch.com.