Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Softness of Temptation

I principally blog at www.abigailsdinnerparty.com so please check that one out!

I've arrived back in London and despite spending half the time panicking what-am-I-doing-with-my-life (please tell me I am not the only one) I have also spent a lot of time searching for the best pastry shops and bakeries in town, so thats great fun!  Not just for me but for anyone who reads this blog.  
I suppose I am a little bit of a yo-yo in the whole pastry chef and culinary food scene: one minute I am admiring top chefs who are rushing around creating incredible dishes and and then the other half I am just looking out for beautiful, artisan pastries and cakes and wishing that we did not have to be so complicated and could I please just work in a beautiful patisserie, where there is passion as there is skill but perhaps no press behind it? 

I am a big fan of finding the places that no one has found before.  I admire those secret places that don't brag about being wonderful and new but just get on with doing stuff, you know?

A few weeks ago, my sister and her boyfriend talked to me about a pastry shop and bakery called "Les Douceurs de La Tentation" in Maida Vale. (The Softness of Temptation.)  The lady who runs this patisserie bakes all the bread and makes all the pastries herself.  She works alone making baking bread at night, incredible brunches in the morning as well as coffee and has ALSO got a smile on her face.  If that's not wonderful, I don't know what is. 

I was so fascinated by what she does, I really do not think that there are many people like her.  Especially in London, everyone is so driven to become a top chef that many people forget about kind food.  No matter how many experiences I have in different kitchens I always come back to this feeling. 

8 Fernhead Road, W9 3ET

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Sugar Tax & Infinite Sugar

So we've all been following Jamie Oliver's campaign for a sugar tax on sugary drinks for a while.

A new article in the Evening Standard written by Rosund Urwin on 22 October outlined, very rightly, how the nation is addicted to sugar.  In "A tax alone won't curb the nation's sugar addiction" Urwin highlights how the sheer amount of promotions on sweets and chocolate makes anyone tempted to overload.  She's right, it's a lot cheaper to eat Maltesers for breakfast than fruit salad and nourishing yourself on Drumsticks and Double Lollies has never been so easy.  For a kid who gets a fiver pocket money a week and does maths at school knows that a bag of Flakes a day can get you through the week Monday- Friday until your parents give you some more nutritional snacks on the weekend.  (Or not.)

Now, on returning to the capital after a long time abroad in France and in Italy, I must admit that this is one of the first things I noticed as I walked into the supermarket: milk chocolate and sweets everywhere.  Sorry Britain but, what the * is going on here? Why is there such an abundance?

Sweet and chocolate promotions

Vs "healthy food" on lower less viewable aisle.

Being away, I learnt that the Italians and the French are very much into their "sugar." The French have pain au chocolat for breakfast and dessert is on the lunch menu every day and there is a boulangerie selling artisanal patisseries on every corner where kids rush to for l'heure du gouter (tea-time.)  Typically, Italians have a gelato a day and espresso with biscuits for breakfast. 

As a pastry chef, I find that promotions and advertising on sweets and chocolate is unfair.  Not only is it undervaluing sugary food, but as a result artisanal products have to be lowered in price in order to attract consumers.  It's a shame to think that bakers and passionate professionals are forced to undervalue their products for the profit of these huge industries.   In addition, journalists and nutritionists are attacking the consumption of sugar and unavoidably, artisans are getting stick for people eating too many sweet foods as well.

I see that in the UK we now pay for plastic bags which is a brilliant initiative to start thinking about ways to reduce the amount of plastic that is thrown away and to help the planet a little.  However, this is a bit of a smack in the face when you open up a bag of sweets which are individually wrapped in plastic.  Surely they should add a penny a bag?

Jamie Oliver's sugar tax is a good way of helping the NHS financially cure people who are victims of obesity and diabetes.  Jamie believes that the amount of teaspoons of sugar should be displayed on bottles, another good way of controlling the amount of sugar we drink.  And perhaps if there were fewer promotions on kinder buenos and digestive biscuits people would start developing a palate for less sugary and more refined chocolate?  We'd all be thinner and have less of a complex, the amount of plastic that pollutes the earth would be reduced and it would also open up a small path for those artisans who believe that a bit of sugar makes the world a sweeter place.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Saying goodbye to the Plaza Athénée

Just over a year ago, I wrote a blog post called "Finding the Masters." It was a blog post about how at that stage in my life I needed to find people who would essentially teach me what I needed to know.  

Back then, I was looking for a more intensive training, somewhere where passionate professionals would teach me a thing or two about the job.

I worked for six months as an intern in the pastry lab, working long hours and being taught by the very best.  I knew I was so lucky to have been accepted there and despite the hard work I was willing to put up with everything.  Every day was an adventure and every day I would leave either overwhelmed with inspiration or bawling my eyes out.  There never seemed to be much in between.   

In turn, I created a bond with each team member.  There were moments of love and care, laughter and joy, as there were also moments of anger and hurt, frustration and stress.  I don't think I have ever learnt any lesson more instructive than the one I learnt about there, which I'd like to say is cake, but is actually: humans. 

When I went to work as an intern, every day was difficult.  I was refused certain tasks because I was not quick enough at doing them.  However, I was allowed to make errors, and in the evening I would practice certain techniques which these pastry masters would teach me.  In turn, they would spend hours after work showing me how to make "rosaces" (rose shaped cream piping)
or "quenelles" (beautiful ice cream shapes) as well as advise me on certain pastry and cakes I would present them with.  I never realised that there were people out there who were willing to sacrifice their own time for someone else, over and over again.

After about five months of working as an intern, I asked my head chef Jean-Marie Hiblot if there was any way I could continue working there after my internship.  I couldn't quite believe how he offered me a job as a commis pastry chef.  At the end of the day, the work I had been doing (basically for free) had been in some way accumulated to offering me a solid position in the team.     

The kindness and patience that each team member had put into training me up to essentially, "be one of them" was enormous.  As they had accepted me all those months ago, they re-accepted me again.    

Working as a commis and working as an intern was a whole different story.  It was the same work, the same team, the same hours but what was expected of me was something that I had never been able to do before.  Not only work well, but also take full responsibility and show that I know this shit, not forget it, focus and do it not to the best I can, but to what was expected there.  The severity and rigidness of working to such perfection would sometimes drive me mad.  

I rebelled quite a few times about this.  I would go home and ask myself, "do I have to be an arsehole to be respected?" I asked everyone how you can be an arsehole? What qualities do arseholes have? Do they hate everything? 

Fortunately for many, I never became an arsehole, because I realised that the guys that are arseholes are actually the nicest guys, the ones that care enough to be arseholes? Hear me out.  If someone can yell so much about those utensils not being perfectly aligned,  it's not him being an arsehole it's because he genuinely believes that an orderly kitchen is VITAL to a sane working environment.  Blogfriend, I did not learn this overnight.  I think it took me over a year to process this information.

The last month working at the Plaza Athenee, I finally saw myself change for the better.  I think I kind of became a woman rather than a girl, and all of a sudden the respect that I gained got me confused about how to come about this new level of being.  I'm not saying I have become someone strict or rude, but more that I've become aware of the importance of responsibility, discipline and hard work.  

I'd just like to say thanks to those guys.