Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Stage - Week 7

Week 7 and a change of scenery for me as I am now at the finition shop for the next 3 weeks. On the whole, I can say that its been a pretty good week due to the following reasons:

  1. The chef here (from now on, known as "nice chef") is pretty relaxed and a nice guy to work for. Have not been yelled at by him (yet!); whenever he corrects your mistakes, he usually gives you a legitimate reason as to why it should be done his way. Also, the only person I have met during my stage who will actually compliment your work - on the whole, its not that important but its still nice to hear from time to time :)
  2. People talk (not a lot to stagiaires but the noise is still welcoming) and there are no more "awkward" breakfasts! :)
  3. Even though I didn't do a lot of proper production work this week, I was helping out at "le four" or the oven which was interesting as it was all new to me. The guy that I was helping was very friendly, a little bit of a scatterbrain but we got there in the end with all our work! Makes you realise how much nicer the workplace is when you get on with the people you work with and would also make you question whether to hire someone who might get things done faster and better but is a big, fat sulk.
  4. Last week of the millefeuille "fetish" so got roped into helping with that - messy but good experience :)
Lets hope it continues for the next couple of weeks!!

Au Fil Des Saisons (encore!)

A few "encore" posts this week - a very good friend of mine from NYC was in town with her sis so we got to hang out for a few days which was great and naturally, eat some yummy food!

One of the places I took them was "Au Fil Des Saisions", a bistro that I had previously taken a friend from Uni and we had both thought that the food was pretty good. I'm also drawn to the relative anonymity of the restaurant and the cosiness of the dining room :)
The service is also pretty good, same lady who served us last time and she even engaged in some banter with us despite only me being able to speak French - to be honest, for the 3 meals we had together, all the waiting staff were very enthusiastic about chatting to us......I NEVER get this much attention when dining out in Paris usually!!

As before, the food did not disappoint - despite a lateish night for me (going out on a work night!), I had a brill time and it was one of those times when I realise how lucky I am to have such a wonderful chum and being able to hang out over the last few years despite us living on opposite sides of the pond, see you soon N! :)

Seared scallops served with courgettes

 Duck confit cooked for 7 hours served with some fois gras and spuds

Chocolate fondant trio (speciality of the resto) 

L'Ami Jean (encore!)

Woohoo - finished at production lab for 3 weeks now and what better way to celebrate than meeting up with my school chums and going for a nice meal?

My partner in crime was the one doing all the organising this time and since she doesn't have much time left in Paris, we decided to go to L'Ami Jean as she had wanted to try it before she leaves. No complaints from moi as I had already had a good meal there with JD back in the summer. As we were a table of 6, we didn't manage to get a table until 10pm on a Saturday.  A little late but tis the weekend......unfortunately, we didn't get seated until close to 11pm as we had to wait for the 1st seating in the restaurant to vacate. Predictably, the place was jammers - after a peruse of the menu, we had all decided what we were having and all of a sudden, our waiter throws a curveball and says that we can have a 6-course chef's tasting menu for the same price as the carte! Of course, we all decided to go for it but as budding pastry chefs, I think it had more to do with the fact that we would be getting 3 desserts!! Apologies, only pics of 2 desserts, the last one was a melon soup with ginger and hazlenuts.

Food was delish and company was delightful which goes without saying - 2 of our party have now gone home for good - take care Pha and Fen :)

Mushroom soup served in a bowl with small, crunchy croutons 

Slow cooked beef and sardine terrine served with marinated peaches and crispy bacon 

Pork dish including black pudding pork belly and loin. Served with generous sides of girolles and carrots and some mash.

Delish rice pudding (speciality of the resto)

Deconstructed banana split in a glass jar

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Stage - Week 6

Back to work on Tuesday in the production kitchen......except this week, I did no production work at all! Work consisted mostly of helping out the "finition" section of the production kitchen (one word, ISPAHAN!) and then doing any other stuff that needed to be done around the kitchen. At first, I was a little peeved  about being in finition this week since I am off to the other shop next week which is all finition and will be there for 3 weeks running. However, I soon got over it and even started to enjoy it cos a) I'm tucked away in a corner of the lab and can work in peace (well, almost!) and b) the quicker I get my Ispahan done, the sooner I get to see JD (another week to go, tho) :) The other secret, I believe, is try to make Ispahan with love (I find that always makes my work look a little bit better) and remembering that someone out there will be forking out almost 7 yoyos for one of these cakes for his/her pastry "moment" so it should always be your best work possible.

Towards the end of the week, I helped out with the finishing touches of various millefeuilles, tarte citron (glazing) and tarte tango. One of the girls in finition gave me a quick reminder for the tango which was grand but for the entremet demo, she made a complete dog's dinner of her Parmesan tuiles and I'm proud to say that this lowly stagiaire thinks she did a pretty good job with the remaining entremets!! A very nice feeling :)

No scolding for me this week which was nice but there was minor mayhem elsewhere on Saturday - lots of shouting in the main lab with someone screwing up the millefeuille and a couple of reprimands in finition, primarily about the caramelisation of the top of the tarte garance - a roasted fig and raspberry filling in a tart shell topped with a caramelised cinammon creme chiboust. IMHO, whoever was doing the caramelisation should've known something was not quite right when there was enough smoke in the lab to make folk's eyes water and burn!!

So off to 3 weeks finition next week and then back to production lab for a couple of weeks in the "tour" - the section where they make and roll out all the different doughs, as well as all viennosserie. I had asked "arsey guy" a few days ago whether it would be possible to work in the "tour" before the end of my stage and he said it shouldn't be a problem - my schedule has changed slightly so I get to go straight there after finition and have no afternoon shift which is pretty cool. Another name change......."formally arsey guy" now ;)

Monday, 21 September 2009

Downtime - le weekend

Morning shift means the working week starts on Tuesday and ends on Saturday with the following Sunday and Monday off. When Saturday finally arrived, I decided to make the most of my weekend and had the best time meeting with friends from school, laughing a lot, going clubbing for the first time in Paris (not very good but hilarious finding out about French clubbing etiquette from my friend!!) and as usual, doing a lot of eating :)

Our shop has a reputation of doing something special every month, usually known as a "fetish", dodgy sounding I know but not my idea! This month's fetish is "millefeuille" so in addition to making all the regular cakes, we make extra millefeuille in a variety of the shop's signature flavours. To date, I bought the "infiniment vanille" (all vanilla) and "Ispahan" to try at home and had the opportunity to try the Montebello and 2,000 feuilles at work. Despite the richness, my favourite was actually the Ispahan, followed closely by the vanilla. The others that I tried at work aren't very nice and am glad that I didn't have to fork out any dosh for the privilege of tasting them!

As an aspiring pastry chef, I am always up for trying new shops and the hottest ticket in town pastry-wise at the moment is a place called "Pâtisserie des Rêves", opened by MOF Philippe Conticini. The shop is located on the very chic Rue du Bac in the 7th and the shop is very different compared to other pâtisseries around town. There is no traditional pastry case; instead, there is only one of every available cake on display under a large glass bowl. Usually, one has a mosey around all the cakes, once decided, the trick is to collar 1 of 2 vendeuses (not the easiest to do when there is no queuing system and you are doing battle with feisty Parisian ladies who lunch) to place your order, pay for your goods and then wait for your box of goodies to be packed. Since it was such a struggle to track down a vendeuse in the first place, I went all out and bought myself a madeleine, brioche feuilletée, Paris-Brest and tarte citron. Apologies as there are only pics of the latter 2, cute box, huh? The verdict? Hands down the best brioche feuilletée I have ever tasted, the reason for no pic is that  I scoffed it down outside the shop in record time :) The madeleine was pretty normal, the Paris-Brest was exquisitely made but still a little rich for me and the tarte citron was a bit of a disappointment.  The brioche feuilletée is worth going back for but am still debating whether all that battling for service is really worth it.

My partner in crime finished her stage after my 1st week back of stage so needless to say, we had to go out and celebrate her "escape" in style, hence a visit to "L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon." :)
I had actually been to the London branch a few months ago with JD and wasn't entirely impressed by our meal there so was a little hesitant at going again. I needn't have worried as  our meal turned out to be very enjoyable. I plumped for a couple of small starters (clams, pigsfeet), a main (steak tartare and the most amazing chips) and a dessert (assortment of tarts). All my dishes were very well-made and tasted good, not scrimping on produce or quantity this time....if you do want to try this restaurant, I recommend coming to the Paris one. The really weird thing though was that everyone in the restaurant including the waiters all spoke English here in Paris and yet when we were in London, everyone including waiters and clients all spoke French - talk about role reversal!! Don't be put off as the food in Paris is comparably better on all counts.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Stage - la rentrée

Back in Paris (well actually, its been almost 2 weeks now) which also means back to the rest of my stage. I wasn't able to find out what shift I would be on until the week before flying back and even then, it was a bit of a monumental task. The phone numbers that I had been given did not put me through to the lab but rather the shop out front where a rather flustered vendeuse finally answered my call. As she kept telling me, she was working all on her own and after a few attempts, put me on hold on what felt like an eternity before I finally got to speak to someone about my shift. It confirmed my suspicions and so here I am, back to morning shifts at Vaugirard which means 4:30am wake-up calls :(

I was a little scared that maybe I wouldn't be used to the early starts since I have been off for 6 weeks (as opposed to the 4 everyone else had off, I took extra cos of my bro's wedding) but my first couple of days were pretty good, especially since I was suffering from a slight bout of insomnia which meant getting maybe 4 hours tops of sleep......

OK.....so, first week back - I have pretty mixed feelings about it all. My first 2 days back were OK and felt good, most of the work I had to do involved mise-en-place which was straightforward and I got it all done without too much hassle. Thursday came and I got roped into a bit of proper production work, making some of the components for one of the cakes called Désiré. I should've been really enjoying the whole experience as this is what I really wanted to get into but instead, I forgot a few fundamentals that had been drummed into us at school (no messy piping bag, poke empty bag into tip before refilling) which left me a little mortified and I spent the rest of the time going backwards, working even slower and frozen by an overwhelming feeling of fear and not being good enough. Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse on Friday when I screwed up a batch of crème au citron and had to make it all over again. The weird thing was that the chef who used to be in charge ("Arsey guy" cos nobody likes working with him, I don't think he's that bad though) saw that I had made it wrong and just told me to remember to do it correctly the next time. The chef who is now in charge ("Formally nice guy" cos its been a bit Jekyll and Hyde dealing with him this week) was not having any of it though and the 2 of them were having a grand old debate about it in the middle of the lab while I looked on and tried to figure out what on earth the final outcome was. In the end, a second batch had to be made and no mistakes this time - the only bummer being that "formally nice guy" kept on telling me to hurry up......wasn't particularly bothered about it but was a bit pissed when he spent the rest of the day busting my balls for other stuff just cos he could....

Luckily, Saturday was pretty quiet (well, except the bombardment of millefeuilles which needed to be sliced and shipped out to the shop) and uneventful so managed to end the week on a semi-high note :)

Another week left in the production lab before heading off to finition for 3 weeks. I had wanted to spend as much time in production but now I am unsure and think that I might not be cut out for it? As expected, my French has taken a bit of a battering over the last 6 weeks from not speaking it which means using it in the workplace is a bit of a challenge. I'm suffering from the 10-second delay comprehension syndrome (usually first thing in the morning at 6am) and at times, no comprehension at all. I think its a mixture of lack of confidence and also my French not being good enough. Its going to take a lot of work to get it to the next level which is comfortable conversation/banter level. As I only have 6 weeks left, I'm unsure whether to invest any more time into it. For the moment, my feelings are that things are a bit of a struggle and I hope they get better soon....

Thursday, 10 September 2009

1st wedding cake

As I had mentioned previously, the week at home after leaving Paris for les vacances was spent making a trial wedding cake. Well, the big day finally arrived which involved hauling my ass up to Edinburgh and spending a few days there beforehand making the actual cake. It was particularly special as this was the first wedding cake I have ever made and also for a close family member, my brother.....no pressure, huh??  After the trial baking sesh chez Chan, I was fairly confident that the cake was going to taste pretty good but unsure about the decoration. I had started to think about the design months ago while I was still at Ferrandi and had come up with a design revolving around a dragon and phoenix - very traditional Chinese symbols for marriage. Having had a few go's at painting this, I finally gave up and decided that it wasn't going to work so had to ditch design no. 1. After much procrastinating, I then came up with design no. 2 (bizarrely, in the shower!) which was to paint a modified version of an Asian-looking print that my bro had used for the wedding invites. However, trialling this turned out to be yet another disaster. At this point, there was around 10 days left before the wedding and no design, cue more sleepless nights. Finally, I had a leaf through one of my cake decorating books and finally decided on a piped flower design instead - not exactly very Chinese-looking but I guess they do slightly resemble cherry blossoms which give it a quasi-Oriental feel. A quick visit to the shops to get piping tips, flower nail and another practice session gave me some comfort that I would be able to reproduce the design again once in haggis-land.

I was a little nervous about taking on this task as it would not be in the comfort of my own kitchen - luckily, my bro was driving up to Edinburgh the day before I arrived so I was able to ask him to take up some of my tools and also my trusty Kitchenaid (thank God, cos I had considered making everything by a hand mixer which would've been a complete nightmare!). I had managed to order marzipan, cake boards, etc to be delivered north of the border which was a blessing and also armed Jools with a list to buy all the ingredients so I could hit the kitchen as soon as I arrived, well, almost......

Day 1

Flight from Heathrow to Edinburgh amazingly landed on time at 1pm. Dropped off luggage and ingredients with bro's best man (was staying with him in town) before being invited out to lunch. As a result, didn't start work until 4pm, which meant not finishing until past 1am!!! Goal was to bake all cakes, there are 3 tiers ( 2 tiers chocolate, 1 tier lemon) each of which has 2 layers therefore needed to make 6 cakes in total. Ideally, would've made both fillings but only managed to make chocolate ganache. Have a pretty spacious kitchen which is a luxury and also the choice of 3 fridges!! The oven is a little dodge as the markings for the temperature have been half scrubbed off which means "guestimating" oven temperatures for cakes. 

Day 2:

Woke up early after a semi-sleepless night and headed into the kitchen early. Had been a little worried about the oven last night - couple of weird things happened. My chocolate cake had 80% crust and then 20% Aero-bar crust for no apparent reason?? Luckily, could trim the top off but still curious as to how it happened, especially when I took the effort to turn the cakes every so often? The lemon cake had an weirder outcome, not 1 but BOTH ended up with a crater in the middle!!! WTF??? This did NOT happen chez Chan! Luckily, there were trimmings so in the end, had to do a quick patch-up job, char! Filled and covered with ganache/buttercream ("merci" to chef for always getting us to practice our scraping skills at school!!) and covered with marzipan.

Day 3:

Covered all cakes and cake boards with fondant. Piped 300+ flowers from royal icing and spent an eternity trying to mix the right colour for the stamens of the flowers to match the ties of the groomsmen. After 2 attempts, still not exact but its gonna have to do.

Day 4:

Positioned iced cakes onto boards - the chocolate ones were a real pain in the bum with the threat of rogue ganache smearing my pristeen fondant. Not entirely perfect positioning with the largest cake as it was so bloody heavy!! Decorated cakes with flowers and ribbon and voila! C'est finit :)

So how did I feel about the whole experience? It was pretty exhausting work but I did enjoy it a lot which is encouraging now that I have decided to do this as a future career. I think in the future I need to stop being overly-critical of myself and be able to enjoy the moment once a cake is made - I did get lots of compliments for it when it was done but all I could see at that point were all the flaws that I had not managed to hide (air bubbles, lopsided sides, etc). I did give myself a little mental "pat on the back" at the wedding after people had tasted the cake and said that they really liked it :) 
Have also learnt that I will also need to be a little less ambitious also for future cake designs cos apart from taste, the other most important thing about a wedding cake is to be able to make it look as beautiful as possible.....got another 3 months or so to think up another design for yet another wedding cake :)

Finally, a big "多謝" to Mr and Mrs Chan for giving me the opportunity to make your wedding cake and I really wish you every happiness in your life together :)

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

California eating

OK, playing serious catchup now on blog entries. Its been more than 2 weeks since we got back from LA and I still haven't provided the full lowdown on all the places we hit during the holliers. In the words of Jackie Mason, the most obvious thing that comes to mind about food in the US is......the POITIONS!! (aka. portions with a New York twang!!) It is very rare that you will leave a restaurant hungry, you're more likely to be going home with doggy bag in hand and also missed dessert ....bizarrely enough, I think the restaurants know this and so, the desserts are never any good. California cuisine is generally very pretty and ambitious when it comes to flavour combinations; sadly, more often than not, they don't always work and that can sometimes be a little disappointing. We did try our fair share of ethnic cuisines whilst out here and they were pretty good. So in no particular order, here's a quick run-through of some of the places we hit whilst in town:

Sol Food -  casual but great little restaurant in Marin County (in the town of San Rafael) serving homely Puerto Rico food in generous portions......plantain heaven!! Very amusing customer letter framed at the front door complaining of the colour of the building, a vibrant lime green! Some folk think that it doesn't really fit in with the town....see for yourself!

Turtle Bay Taqueria - recommendation from our kayak instructor for a yummy Mexican lunch in Monterey. Burritos all around this time, I plumped for a tasty fish kind :)

Cracked Crab - hugely popular crab restaurant in Pismo Beach (we waited 1 hour+!) Their speciality is the Bug Bucket for 2 where you pick 3 types of seafood which is steamed and served with spuds and corn (a bit cheeky as the better types of crab have an additional supplement) in a bucket; the contents get dumped on your table and off you go. Very impressive collection of utensils to get all that crab meat out!! (also some crayons for us to doodle with, I is the one on the left with the rotund belly :))

Edomasa - local Japanese restaurant in Santa Barbara which serves an individual katsu curry fit for 2 and a beef sukiyaki fit for 3!! Nice sushi also and great value.

Urth Caffe -  a personal pilgrimage since we are both HUGE fans of Entourage and this is where the boys hang out in LA. JD noticed something really funny when we were here for lunch; the place is order by the counter and then busboys (mainly Mexican) bring out the food to your table. In Entourage, the guys are always served by a hot waitress (yeah, right!) that Vince usually ends up shagging so hate to break it to you, but the reality is not exactly like it is on TV :) 
Coffee comes highly recommended by JD!

Chosun Galbee - swankyish looking Korean restaurant in Koreatown, where I made the eternal mistake of ordering too much food and we ended up rolling out of the place :) 
Great bibimbap, panchan coming out of our eyes and generous BBQ portions - did I mention the gargatuan fish casserole for 2 as well?? Oops!

Trastevere - last meal in LA at a very good Italian located in Santa Monica, can highly recommend that seafood linguini!! 

All in all, a great holiday and a lovely culinary experience, the only 2 bummers were a regular reader of my blog telling me afterwards that he might've been able to get us into the French Laundry (char!) and also Anthony Bourdain hitting SF after our visit - some good recoms on the programme and also the fact that there were taco trucks galore in Oakland! 

Having said that, our experience of a taco truck was pretty funny; we rolled up to a taco truck in our Go Car in Golden Gate Park in SF thinking it was serving to the general public but it was actually hired out for a private function!!! The people who had hired it out had miscalculated how much food they would need (too much!) and insisted that we get something from the truck so thats how we ended up with free tacos!! Muchos gracias chicos! :)