One of our big discoveries of 2015 was the French food show.
As I mentioned last summer, our late afternoons in Cannes were spent indoors watching Christophe Michalak’s Dans la peau d’un chef (DPDC) on France 2:
We were amazed at how open Michalak, a top pastry chef with his own business, was towards the contestants in revealing culinary short cuts. We were also grateful for his generosity in demystifying various techniques the professionals use. Actually, once you find out how simple they are, you start using them all the time.
When we returned home, although France 2 is closed to us because of geolocalisation, we found several episodes of DPDC on YouTube.
Qui sera le prochain grand pâtissier?
SpouseMouse searched for more French cooking shows and found the first two series of a show with French-speaking professional pastry makers, Qui sera le prochain grand pâtissier? (‘Who will be the next great pastry chef?’).
My word, how these young men and women — many of whom started their careers in their adolescence — can bake, decorate and work sugar.
The programme features a jury of four professional highly experienced pastry chefs, one of whom is Michalak. It is a gruelling competition which starts with ten contestants, who are gradually eliminated until there are two finalists.
I was surprised that France 2 airs this series during the month of July, because the viewer would have to watch three hours of episodes a week in the height of summer. It’s a serious show and is not recommended for those with heart trouble or anxiety; the tension is palpable. Hard as it may be to believe — after all, this is ‘only’ pastry — you will be on the edge of your sofa.
What we learned is that anything is possible, and we saw how to do it!
Inserts were a huge revelation: placing one or more layers of different elements — mousse, jellied coulis, meringue — in the centre of a cake. When one insert was used, it was often a round or a heart shaped element which provided a ‘surprise’ to those eating it.
The other discovery was seeing the contestants receive training in top pastry kitchens, whether in restaurants, five-star hotels or upmarket boutiques. The tasks they had to undertake were jaw-dropping. See how elaborate the results were.
The 2015 series is now on YouTube, and we have just finished watching it. The winner, Grégory Quéré, won the show’s customary prize of a tour of the world’s top pastry kitchens and a cookbook of his own recipes. Quéré’s book was published immediately after the show ended. This photo gives one an idea of the exquisite nature of his creations. Quéré continues to work for his employer, Frédéric Cassel, in research and development. He is Cassel’s right-hand man.
The runner-up, Tristan Rousselot, has left his post at Paris’s prestigious restaurant Fouquet’s for a job with Michalak, heading the latter’s new shop in Le Marais in the Left Bank. Michalak has also hired contestants from the previous two series. They give courses in pastry making.
Le meilleur pâtissier
The French equivalent of The Great British Bake Off (GBBO), Le meilleur pâtissier (‘The best pastry maker’), aired on M6 before Christmas and may still be available on the channel’s replay site, 6play. M6’s show is made by the same production company and the format is very similar.
Although GBBO‘s participants make bread, whereas the French do not, that is, sadly, where the British distinction ends.
We were surprised to discover how experienced, expert and versatile French home bakers are. In the first series, the runner up — Sébastien, a dustman — has long been known by family and friends as the Macaron Man, as he makes them every week! Mounir won the second series and has since opened his own pastry shop. A policeman from Bordeaux, Cyril, won the fourth series in 2015. We were amazed to see how proficient he was with multi-layered inserts and outer glazes which shone like mirrors.
After having seen Le Meilleur Pâtissier, we’ll probably never watch another series of GBBO.
French journalist Agnès Poirier is of the same opinion. She noted the difference between British and French bakers in 2013. Her article for The Guardian is enlightening. What we make in the English-speaking world — not just in the UK — looks clumsy and rudimentary by comparison. Poirier learned how to make rather a variety of desserts as a child, including madeleines, waffles, brioche, financiers, fruit tarts and chocolate mousse.
We English speakers, on the other hand, are stuck with sponges, sweet biscuits, pies and, if we’re good with yeast, cinnamon rolls. SOSDD — same old stuff, different day.
That said, most other countries are no better.
Culinary semper reformanda
In fact, the only other nation which seems to have taken pastry making seriously is Japan. In international competitions, they are France’s toughest competitors.
On December 21, a top French pastry chef, Christophe Felder, said on RMC (French radio) that he has been hired as a consultant to some of Japan’s most prestigious pastry kitchens. The Japanese have noticed that French pastry seems to evolve rather than stay put year after year. The question most on the lips of his Japanese clients is how to create and anticipate new trends without disturbing the true nature of dessert classics.
With apologies to Protestant theology, France has what one might call a culinary semper reformanda. What visitors to Paris or Lyon saw in pâtisserie windows in the 1970s is very different to the creations one sees now. Furthermore, famous chefs are always creating new desserts. Forty years ago, Gaston Lenôtre came up with La Feuille d’Automne (‘The Autumn Leaf’), a modern classic. (Photo credit: Mercotte) Christophe Michalak has a line of his own modern cakes, the Fantastiks. (Photo credit: Christophe Michalak)
There’s a whole other world of pastry out there. That’s what I intend to explore — and try for myself — in 2016.