Interview with… a pastry chef
Jennifer Henry, 30, lives in London. She spent seven months in France training to become a pastry chef and has recently launched her own macaron business, Mac and Jam
This time last year I was working in a really stale job in the City. The pay was good and it was a steady income but I hated that there was no creative side. I’d always had an interest in baking so I decided to go to study and train in France, the home of baking.
I learned French patisserie at a culinary school in Cap d’Agde, in the south of France. I spent three months there in preparation for working in a French restaurant.
I learned all the pastry classics – macarons, choux pastry, crème patisserie [pastry cream used for filling cakes and tarts] – as well as bread, chocolate and plated desserts. Everything turned out in a pastry kitchen is beautiful and artistic.
It helps to be a perfectionist if you want to be a pastry chef. I’m learning to be that way. It’s strange that something so creative has to be so exact – you need creative flair but have to be really precise in what you do. You can’t really ‘ad lib’ with patisserie – if the temperature of the oven is a degree out then you might as well throw what you’re making in the bin.
I don’t think anyone should ever be scared to try it, though; you just need to have a bit of patience – and be willing to get really big arm muscles.
Before I worked in a restaurant I’d never used my arm muscles so much in my life – every morning I would make about 12 litres of crème patisserie.
Going to work in a professional kitchen was a completely different experience from learning at the school.
The restaurant was in an idyllic town just outside of Cannes called Mandelieu. It was a two-star Michelin restaurant called l’Oasis located right by the beach. My immediate reaction when I was told by my school I would be working as an apprentice there was: ‘Wahey, I’m going to live it up in the south of France!’ My reaction five seconds later was: ‘Oh shit, a two-star Michelin restaurant – they’re going to slice me up like a salami.’
I was right to be nervous because it was a scary place to work. It’s an incredibly well-established restaurant; everything has to work like clockwork – there was no room for error. Messing up a meringue was not an option. I definitely felt the pressure.
On my first week I was making a vat of lemon cream. There were 10 steps. I got up to step nine and all I had to do was take it from the stove to the industrial-size whisk. My arm muscles weren’t quite up to scratch yet. The vat slipped from my fingers and the cream went everywhere. The entire floor was yellow.
It was also hard because I was communicating in French all the time. There was one other English speaker but from day one we were told ‘no English in the kitchen’.
I’d arrive at the restaurant at 8.00am every day. The first thing we would do was clean. We did three cleans every day. All the people in the boulangerie had been there since 4.00am so we helped them clean up in the morning. The second clean would be just after lunch and the third clean would be at the end of the day. Every Saturday we did a massive deep clean – cleanliness is essential in this job.
After cleaning I’d make the crème patisserie which would be used to fill èclairs, mille-feuilles and macarons.
After that I’d start preparing the petit fours – a blackcurrant pyramid on sweet pastry, a pistachio meringue, truffles, a fruit paste. I’d make between 70 and 100 of each every morning.
I ate lunch between 11.30 and 12.00 and then carried on working until 3.00, creating elements to add to a cake and making creme brûlée mix.
I got a three-hour break in the afternoon – I’d try to go to the beach but usually I’d sleep. I resumed work at 6.00 for the evening service and carry on until 11.00, filling èclairs, preparing the petit fours on plates for customers, doing whatever the chefs needed; some chefs could be more volatile than others.
The expectations were very high. We would get complaints if there was even a crack in a macaron – people expected perfection.
Working in a restaurant kitchen is the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done – it was exhausting. I’ve been back home in London for two months and I still haven’t fully got feeling back in my feet. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked and now I’m home I want to see how far I can get with the knowledge I’ve acquired so I’ve set up a macaron business, Mac and Jam (macandjam.co.uk), with a friend.
As well as macarons, we also sell the fillings that go inside so people can use them to fill cakes and use as toppings on toast, pancakes or ice cream.
I think macrons sum up pastry, in a way. You need to be incredibly precise – with the measurements, the mixing, the cooking – but also they look incredibly beautiful, as I think all patisserie should be.