This is the way it ends.

I didn’t even know the way I wanted to start this blog post. I’ve always imagined that the last post I would do about being a student Le Cordon Bleu would be filled with much praise and sentimental feelings toward what would have been one of the best experiences of my life. Don’t get me wrong, a part of me still feels that way. But the happenings of last week’s graduation made me realize that though all the chefs’ passion and guidance are real, and that the skills and knowledge you gain make you that much more employable, this school is at the end of the day.. a business.

It is true that every private school is a business. And a business needs to make money for it to have a point. But when an enterprise gets so big that it spreads over 35 countries and 5 continents, churns out some 20,000 graduates a year, I should't be surprised if after some time, students start to look more and more like dollar signs than people.

This blog was never suppose to delve into this kind of thing. It was only meant to be a venue for me to post pictures of cakes and provide some light reading. But after a few weeks at school, cakes stop being just food. Desserts, plates and showpieces become the way you communicate your passion for the art. Week by week your creations become more personal and closer to your heart. And when that happens, everything starts to shift from business to personal.

I’ve always been a hard worker and an achiever. I've always aimed to do my best and be the best at everything I decide to put my mind to. Therefore, I nearly always get what I want. When they called me up to receive first place in intermediate patisserie, I knew I wanted to see if I could get it twice a row at the superior graduation. So with a goal in mind, I gave it my all. And after all the hard work I had put into the curriculum, I knew I had a good chance of getting that top spot.

At the graduation, I was filled with anticipation of who would be the top five achievers in patisserie. After receiving my diploma and reading my transcript, I knew without a doubt that I would be one of them. However this is when things started to get weird…

The five names that were called up to receive the coveted awards were not ones that had appeared in previous graduations. For some strange reason they were also all sitting next to each other. You guessed it. It was alphabetical. An administrative error. To my horror, five alphabetically ordered students shook the chefs’ hands and had their pictures taken together. Their parents screamed out with joy and their peers clapped and called out their names. No one did anything to stop it or correct the error. I should have been up there on stage, it was my parents that should have been elated with pride.. I was horrified. I couldn’t believe that such a careless error could have happened at my graduation. At what was supposed to be my moment.

That night I received a phone call from the school, apologizing for the mistake, saying that after doing some checks they were able to confirm that all the top 5 place-getters were incorrect, and that I was in fact, supposed to be ranked first.

Needless to say my mind was a fruit cocktail of emotions. I was angry at the carelessness of the school. How could they made such a silly clerical error? I know they carry out four of these graduations a year.. With such a huge turnover of students, I thought maybe they’ve stopped caring at all. 

Trying to make sense of it all, I sought the council of my sister Tania. She asked me whether or not I would’ve still worked as hard if there wasn’t a ranking system. Straight away I wanted to say “of course!” but after thinking about it honestly for a second, I said “no, probably not.” How crazy is that? Do I really need that much validation from others to know that I am good at what I do? Am I that scared of my own mortality and insignificance that I need some fleeting validation to say that I am somewhat special? But on the other hand, who competes in the Olympics just to “participate”? I would want a medal, dammit.

I believe that the “illusion” of the medal is what makes athletes push beyond their mental barriers and achieve things they never knew they were physically able to. The “illusion” of achieving first in pastry at Cordon Bleu made me believe I could push myself more and learn things other students thought were too hard or too much work. So in a way, the illusion had served its purpose. I should just be content with knowing that I had given 110% and achieved things that I never thought was possible in the little time that I had.

So. It’s Monday, and the email did go out to every student at the school, correcting the top five place-getters.  Yes my name is right at the top, and it feels good to see it there. Though the weekend had been a pain in the backside emotionally, at the end of the day, I am grateful that the error (as stupid as it was) happened, and that I could learn this valuable lesson. 

I need to know that the motivation to succeed has and will always be ingrained in me. That I can always tap into it, regardless of whether there’ll be an accolade at the end of it all. So, it turned out to be the most memorable and educational graduation ever :)

Click here for the rundown on the school's website.

My Grand Diplome and I with the chefs of Le Cordon Bleu Paris

Cheers! Now here's to the next thing...



Sugar - part 2 of 2

When the big day finally arrived, my hands were still feeling the ill effects of the five-hour sugar-heat-sesh from the night before. I shakily brought a cup of coffee up to my mouth hoping to offset the measley four hours sleep I had the night before. It was too early for me to develop an appetite, but I thought better and managed to get down a piece of toast before heading out the door to face the music.

The attending chef at the exam was the head pastry chef of the school, Chef Deguignet. He is known to be the strictest and possibly the harshest marker of the department. But I think my mind was too preoccupied on whether or not I’d be able to finish on time and make a good blown swan that the chef's many intimidation tactics failed to play on my conscience.

The first half of the exam evaporated quickly and I fell a little behind schedule as my first batch of pulled sugar came out grainy. I couldn’t believe that it was happening as I have never experienced that problem in any of the previous trials. But I managed to keep my cool and put another pot on to cook and spent the "lost" time making decorative vines with the damaged sugar.

When three hours went by, I had only finished my poured sugar base, leaves and half a rose. The compulsory one hour lunch interval was the most stressful so called "break" I’ve ever had to take. I couldn’t help but worry about all my sugar underneath the heat lamp and all the things I’ve yet to make in the two hours that remained before the exam wrapped up. I still had to produce two and a half roses and a blown swan.. Not to mention the forty minutes needed to assemble the whole piece together. However a quick call home to my love Mart put my mind at greater ease. The promise of seeing him and the comfort of a huge hug after all this was over plastered a huge smile on my face and I was ready to go at it again.

I finished my three roses with fifty minutes to spare. This meant that I only had ten minutes to make the swan. I had only one chance to get it right if I ever wished to finish on time. So I said a little prayer and hoped for the best. To my delight, the resulting bird was the best shaped swan I had ever made. I knew from then on, it was going to be smooth sailing til the end.

Et voila! I finished with about ten minutes to spare. So I made sure my workstation was super clean and then approached the chef for a little photo-op. After my “mercis” and “au revoirs” I changed into civilian clothing and got out of the school as fast as possible. The weather was fine and my stomach was rumbling. I sped-walked home to claim my hug and high fives, and went to grab a crêpe from the crêpe man in the corner. It was a good day. And even after all that pressure and drama, my love for sugar was still augmented ten fold.

The creations of my classmates

Chef Jean-Francois Deguignet and an exhausted post-exam me


Sugar - part 1 of 2

Just from reading my blog, you would probably not get the idea that I was actually studying cuisine as well as patisserie. Though when asked I always say that I like both the same amount, there's something about pastry that seem to excite me more than anything else. Now after completing both of my chocolate and sugar showpieces, I think I have finally figured out why that is.

You're going to think it's cheesy, but there's something magical about patisserie. When one beholds a sugar or a chocolate creation, the feeling of childlike wonder seems to present itself. Along with this wonder come question upon question about how foodstuffs can be manipulated in such a way to become sculptures, and effectively, art.

Each pastry demonstration I have experienced at Cordon Bleu have left me with a sense of enlightenment. "So THAT'S how you do it" I’d think to myself as I walk home after witnessing a new technique, or as I’d like to think of it, a new magic trick.

This is because I think the discipline of pastry is the perfect fusion of art, taste, creativity and skill. Though each and every one of the students at school would have attended the same demonstration, the varying products after the corresponding practical class would be a reflection of their own artistic taste and personality. 

There are several pastry chefs at school who are all very capable in sugar and chocolate art. Yet when you ask them to produce a sugar rose, they would all vary significantly in style. Some chefs have dissected numerous roses to figure out the way to make their sugar roses as realistic as possible. Meanwhile, other chefs compose their roses mathematically and using absolute precision of hand that results in a more artificial looking albeit harmonious creation.

Because of this, the chefs respect each student's interpretations as well. They're happy as long as the petals are thin, shiny and arranged neatly. But there is more to sugar art than just pulled sugar flowers! We also learned poured and blown sugar, both of which were techniques also featured in my showpiece. Let me walk you through my preliminary sugar pieces to show you how I finally settled on my final design.

This is the result from our first sugar practical class. We learned how to use metal bars and cake rings to make the foundation for our sugar showpiece. During this practical, as I gazed upon my pieces colourful casted sugar, I had multiple flashbacks to my childhood playing with plastic building blocks. We had to make sure that our poured sugar chunks were thick, welded securely and were stable enough to withstand the violent shaking the chef was to impose on our finished structures.

At the end of the practical, the chef was happy overall with my structure's stability and cleanliness, but remarked that it needed to feature more elements of difficulty. "Dont you worry about that chef" I thought to myself. I knew that the roses and blown pieces that the structure will eventually adorn will take care of that.

In the second practical, I started to question my base structure as it was difficult for me to place my three roses and leaves harmoniously on the showpiece. The attending chef in the practical didn't really have much to say but a quick "c’est bon” and a “bonne soirée” as it was an evening class. So I went away to find my trusty buddy Chef Cotte. He commented that the piece was too empty and needed more leaves to fill it out. But he said the roses were lovely even though he did not agree with their placements. That night I decided to take my sugarpiece home so I could take off the roses and play with the placement. Also, I wanted to see how a blown sugar swan would fit into the picture:

Practice makes perfect better-ish

Yes I know. The ribbon was a bit much! I think exhaustion made me make the strange call of putting the bow on the very top of the sugar piece. Needless to say that idea was immediately canned. I definitely knew that my piece would feature a blown sugar swan.  But again, to me this still looked awkward. Then the idea came to me to make a large bird and make that be the central focus of the piece.

Almost immediately, worry and doubt started to come over me. A large swan is a whole different ball game to the small ones I had been able to make. It is a huge risk to undertake especially coupled with the pressures and time constraints the final exam will no doubt present. But too late, the idea had been planted in my brain. I had to do a large swan and I was going to do whatever it took to make it work.

So a quick search on youtube brought my attention to this horribly edited video. I had to make do with this because the chefs did not demostrate how to make a blown sugar bird in any of the demos. So equipped with a sugar pump and laptop, I learned to do it myself at home. To my surprise, it wasn't too long until an avian type creature started to take form. I was excited; my vision was beginning to materialize.

For the third practical, I decided to change the colour of the principal base pieces to red in order to provide a colour contrast to the fat white bird. I made a mistake when sticking the wings onto the swan poorly that it broke off, creating a fissure on the body. But a quick leaf-cover-up job did the trick. With a grin, Chef Walter said that it looked like the swan was hiding in bushes. However Chef Deguignet was not happy that I placed the roses on the ground. Apparently it was an unwritten rule in showpiece design. But after another discussion with my pal Chef Cotte, I decided to stick with my guns as he assured me that the piece made sense and was nicely balanced.

The fourth and final five-hour sugar practical was the night before the final exam. I did not change too much of the design, but decided that yellow roses fitted better with the colour scheme. After two tries with the swan, I managed to achieve a more elegant shape than the bird in the last piece. 

Chef Pascal showed me a couple of tricks to get the roses and leaves looking shinier without overworking the sugar. He was extremely helpful. I was very grateful to have received these last minute tips and to have access to his expertise in the last practical before the exam. He offered more advice and told me that he wasn’t very conviced with the design of my poured sugar base, and that the smaller pieces looked awkward. I agreed, and I knew I had to think of something quickly as time was running out as the exam was only 11 hours away...


La boite en chocolat

Even as a fresh-faced basic patisserie student at Le Cordon Bleu.. it was impossible to escape the worried whispers and troubled whimpers of the more advanced students of their grievances in working with notoriously temperamental (pardon the pun) noble product… 

Sometimes you see them walking through the winter garden, uniform smeared and stained, looking like they are ready to curl up into a ball and hide inside their locker rooms. 

Just the smell of this product in its melted state is often enough to send some people into fits of panic. 

And the fact that they can no longer love and look at this thing they once adored, in the same way ever again.. has in some way.. changed them.. 

Just what is it about CHOCOLATE that can trigger this kind of response from patisserie students, I sense you wondering.. 

Well here's a few reasons:

1) Tempering - the temperature curve that melted chocolate is taken through is the MOST VITAL and delicate step one must learn if one ever wishes to overcome the chocolate, and not let the chocolate overcome them.
2) Hygiene - keeping workstations and uniforms as spotless as humanly possible whilst also keeping sanity in check is also of paramount importance.
3) Time management - for the chocolate exam, you have to create a candy box with a decorative lid with perfectly tempered chocolate and ALSO clean your work station in two and a half hours and not a minute more. Sounds scary?! Almost impossible?! That's what I thought! 

So I had to do a little practice at home before the time came to do a trial box in class! I knew my final box will definitely include a flower of some sort.. So here is an attempt at one I did at home:

When came the time to do a trial box in class, I was a little more confident. But the curved chocolate didn't quite turn out the way I wanted..

So back home to practice again.. I finally figured out the right curvature for the curved chocolate by using a kitchen towel roll I had lying around the kitchen..

However.. The fact that I was mentally and physically exhausted after an intense 
6 hour cuisine atelier right before the exam.. the design changes once again. 
I decided to stay with what I knew well (which were flowers) 
and not risk making the tricky curved piece.

I finished in time and worked relatively efficiently and was very proud of the result..
The attending chef looked pretty pleased too :)

So.. was chocolate really as frustrating as they say, you ask?

All you need is patience and persistence!
Don't believe the whispers! Chocolate is not evil!

I shall end this chocolate post with some pictures of Mart eating a chocolate hen:



Plated desserts

Dear readers,

I am sorry I have been ever so reserved lately. It's not that I didn't have anything to write about.. It is quite the contrary, superior pastry was quite ridiculous. Ridiculous in the sense that only was it a whole lot of new information to take in.. The stakes and the pressure to excel were tremendously higher. It wasn't like basic or intermediate pastry where I can take my sweet time taking pictures of my cake creations and post it online with some sort of jabber.. This time around I usually am already so drained from the classes in that day, that reviewing it on this blog and reliving it again got a little exhausting.

But now that I have completely wrapped up my GRAND DIPLOME ON CUISINE AND PATISSERIE (more on graduation later..) I can finally assume a horizontal position on my bed and luxuriously type away while my sugar and wine-stained uniforms are spinning the washing machine. 

So let's rewind a little shall we..

In the cuisine curriculum, we present all our products on plates to the chefs at the end of every practical, so it was very interesting for me to be given the task to appetizingly plate desserts this time around. 

One of the most important lessons I have been told in regards to plating, is to leave space. There's nothing that accentuates the plated product more than the bare white porcelain that surrounds it. So I try to always keep this in mind when I am presenting all my dishes, whether savory or sweet. 

Apple Tart, Vanilla Ice Cream

Another point to take on board for successful plating is.. volume! Eating is an interactive activity, therefore, placing components at different heights gets your customer playing with their food :)

Creamy Chocolate with Cocoa Nib Tuiles, White Chocolate Ice Cream

Finally, simplicity is a mark of elegance. The chef actually thought my plate was a little TOO minimalistic.. But personally, I think it works! What do you think?
Chocolate Sphere, Mango Coulis and Praline Crisp

Anyway.. I still have 2 more parts to write about before we get to the current time and discuss the strange happenings at yesterday's graduation. You must be intrigued.. But patience my friends, all I can say is.. that it will be worth standing by until after the chocolate and sugar installments! ;)