They Laughed When I Got Up To BakeSome of us eat to live. Others live to eat. And a small minority of us live to cook and bake what the latter group loves to eat. I figure in the latter group. Very simply, I have always been drawn to the kitchen. Some years ago I found my niche as a baking entrepreneur and began an underground career supplying restaurants with my sans rival carrot cakes, cheesecakes and double fudge layer cakes. Over time I began to see that there was more to haute cuisine than grated carrots and was convinced that if I didn't investigate further, I would never reach the rank of a professional. It was then that I found myself applying to the Quebec Hotel School (officially, l'Institut de tourisme et d'hotellerie du Quebec) in Montreal for their professional pastry chef program.
The Quebec Hotel School offers a few streams of study - day and night programs for a variety of hospitality careers. Their "cours de perfectionnement" are designed for those already in the "metier" who wish to obtain accreditation. The "perfectionnement" program requires several letters of reference from employers as well as a personal interview with one of the school's top officials. Chefs from Montreal's elite hotel dining rooms and prestigious restaurants and I all gathered one fateful autumn evening for a mad cattle call. Minutes before the interviews were to begin, we were informed that while there were in fact two hundred and twenty candidates seeking entry to the program, only fifteen would be chosen. 'Creme de la creme' indeed.
"Face it", whispered a friend and carrot grating assistant, "you don't stand a chance." "What?" I hissed back, trying to concentrate on my own simultaneous translation of the French language instructions being dispensed. "Here", he said and he gave me a note. It read: No Way. I wish I had kept it.
Finally, my turn. I appeared before a gentleman at one of the interview booths. Other chefs brought letters from their chef superiors, hotel officials, restaurant management. I brought a charming letter from a local restaurant I supplied. It assured all concerned that I was a fine supplier of carrot cakes. Another letter, composed by me and signed by a local caterer of society parties for whom I worked a crucial ten days as a fledgling pastry chef and general thorn in their regular pastry chef's side, confirmed that I was "pleasant" to have around. My third letter, on my own stationary as a cake wholesaler, said I was a fine employee, competent and most reliable. I wrote that one.
"Eh bien", said the interviewer, where exactly did you get your experience? I explained I was more or less self-trained and worked in my own cake company called Cuisine D'Or. Originally, I baked cakes at home for restaurants but my landlord became nervous. I rented a bagel bakery and used their facilities during off hours to produce more cakes. I spoke of having trouble with decorating techniques and other details. I asked for guidance.
Silence. A total blank. Here was a man accustomed to world class chefs, classically trained in the French/European tradition. A female, baking entrepreneur was indeed a horse of a different color. I was a strange duck and I knew it. Of course there was the outside chance he would take pity on me. Little did I know then that the Hotel School prided itself on being an equal opportunity educator. At the very least, two positions per sessions were reserved for women since we remain a minority in the ranks of chefs. Two weeks later, I was astounded to find out I was one of the successful applicants.
My life as a professional pastry chef began in earnest. Twelve men and three women. After the first session with my expert colleagues, I was convinced I couldn't even prepare a Dunkin Hines Mix correctly. I lost all confidence in my instincts and experience as a baker. No one had heard of carrot cake. I was the only one who knew about baked cheese cake. My colleagues were adamant about chilled, gelatin-set cheesecakes being the only model.
They laughed when I got up to bake. I got whiplash from the mixer which had a manual transmission and I had to work with a pastry bag the size of a fire hose. The wooden "spoons" were the size of boat oars, the stock pots as big as hot tubs and the rolling pins must have weighed 50 pounds. I burned the tops of all my pies, collided with someone else's perfect Black Forest cake, slipped on some pastry cream on the way out of class and ripped a perfectly good pair of pantyhose.
After a while, it became second nature to speak, think and bake in French - metric measurements and all. Everything was covered: apple pie, marzipan figurines, wedding cakes, milles feuilles, mousse, fancy flans, pizza, crepes suzettes, chocolate and spun sugar work. Festive occasions were acknowledged with a host of specialties from oversized chocolate Easter bunnies, to yule logs and snowy white baptismal cakes (to which I added some blue frosting and passed my edition off as a Bar Mitzvah boy's delight). The final semester was devoted solely to yeast baking and the class was divided into production teams for danish, croissants, bread, doughnuts and pizza.
I eventually regained my confidence as a baker and realized the world has room for all manner of chefs. The first thing you have to know about professional cuisine is that serious chefs take their work seriously. "You are", we were told, "men and women of le metier" - "do not tarnish your metier by wearing your whites when not in the professional kitchen." Hairnets and white caps were a must, cleanliness and order were "de rigueur" at all times. Chef teachers were respected and often revered. A teacher would issue a command or request and volunteers sprang eagerly into action.
"Real men" may not eat quiche but very "real men" make it. The gentlemen on my "equipe" were gallant, traditionally masculine in a delightful but wholly sexist way and inordinately proud of their abilities. When I became pregnant with my first child in the middle of the third semester, my classmates were graciously solicitous. I promised, if I had a son, to name him Michel-Jacques Francois-Pierre-Guy-Sylvain-Roch-Michel Goldman.
People who need people may be the luckiest people in the world, but people who do what they like for a living are the happiest, followed closely by people who work with their hands. The chefs I worked and studied with enjoyed a vocation that combined creativity with good, honest, manual labor - a marriage that satisfies body and soul.
I've kept in touch with many of the chefs I studied with. Sometimes, in a quiet moment, as I knead a silky yeast dough or coax a strudel into transparent sheets, I find myself musing about my days as a chef-in-training. I dream about the day when I can rejoin the ranks of chefs patissiers and patissieres in my "whites".
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