As my regular readers will know, in 2015, I wanted to learn more French techniques for cooking and baking.

During a two-week stay last June in France, I watched Christophe Michalak’s Dans la peau d’un chef (DPDC), which is an excellent programme featuring home cooks vying to see who can make the best dish assigned by either Michalak or one of his guest chefs. The winner receives €1,000 and can continue to compete the following day. These two posts feature short videos from DPDC:

Decorating fruit tarts — the French touch (Christophe Michalak)

Piping whipped cream — the French touch (Christophe Michalak)

One of the guest chefs on DPDC was Philippe Conticini, who owns Pâtisserie des Rêves (‘Pastry of Dreams’) in Paris. Since he began his career in the 1980s, he has won many awards from a Michelin star from his days as a restauranteur, following in his parents’ footsteps, to honours from the French government. He also appears as a guest judge on a number of cookery shows, including the French version of The Great British Bake Off — Le meilleur pâtissier. (Photo credit: Sortiraparis.com)

Married and father of a 14-year old daughter, Conticini is evolving his recipes to make the classics lighter and more flavoursome. Over the past several years, he has been experimenting successfully with his hot and cold technique which helps to produce spongier cakes with better rise. Dorie Greenspan’s Madeleine recipe is one example; Conticini taught her how to employ his hot and cold technique. Proust would have loved them!

Although he needs a walking stick, Conticini continues to work. He nearly died in 2010, afflicted with an illness that put him into a coma for 18 months. Since then, he has problems with his right hand and has had to learn to work with his left.

On New Year’s Eve, he gave an interview to RMC’s Les Grandes Gueules (‘The Big Mouths’), where he discussed his work and created a cake just for them. One of the panellists pronounced it ‘sublime’. What follows is a summary of what Conticini said.

Popularity of baking

Conticini says that television shows have done much to enhance the profile of baking, likening the phenomenon to sport. The more sport is televised, the more people are interested. It is the same with baking.

Wherever he goes, Conticini is met with all sorts of questions from the public about ingredients, measurements and quality of the end product. He thinks this is because people are engaging with cookery shows.

Advice to young people

Conticini is softly spoken and mild mannered. Yet, he had firm advice for would-be apprentices:

Absorb instruction like a sponge — and, even better, be quiet.

All renowned chefs expect — and want — to transmit their knowledge to the next generation. Conticini is no exception, and, like his peers, expects his apprentices to remain silent and listen to what he has to say — then follow through as told.

He said that many who interview are sure they know how to bake a croissant until the time comes and they cannot. Hence the need for on-the-job training — learning by doing.

Conticini said there is no substitute for a good apprenticeship. Cookery school can teach you only so much. You have to know what the actual working environment is like, whether it is a restaurant or a pastry kitchen. The main problem is that there are fewer bakeries in France to meet demand.

He says that young people should definitely finish secondary school and pass their baccalauréat, the equivalent of an American high school diploma. Then they can go on to decide what sort of restaurant/catering course to take and gain on-the-job experience at the same time.

Technical recipe development

Along with other great chefs, Conticini is focussing on reducing fats and sugars without compromising taste and textures.

This involves understanding the molecular structures of mousses and cakes. He gave a detailed description of how he has made his cream fillings lighter by replacing fat with air and gelatin, both of which, oddly, give a better structure and enhanced flavour.

One of RMC’s panellists said it was like listening to a NASA engineer. Conticini said that, in a sense, he is an engineer because there are many technical aspects to creating new methods in pastry making.

Another panellist countered, ‘Surely you are an artist, first and foremost’. He replied that he was not an artist at all. There are precise techniques and measurements to master. Whilst there is creativity, all of that comes from understanding the underlying basics and knowing how to employ them.

After the November 2015 attacks

Conticini said that sales took a hit after the Paris attacks last November.

Footfall is also down. Yet, online sales have increased. People are hesitant about going into Paris.

That said, Christmas was a busy time. Sixty employees started fulfilling orders at 10 p.m. on December 23. They worked through the night to have cakes and pastries ready for pick up on Christmas Eve.

His customers have been asking for the more classic pastries since November 13. He surmises that remembering one’s childhood through sweet favourites provides a measure of comfort.

The future

Although Conticini occasionally has overseas assignments, he has no plans to open shops in foreign countries. He wants to be near his wife — his childhood sweetheart — and daughter before she grows up and leaves home.

In September 2015, he opened a cookery school featuring short classes which teach the basics of understanding flavours and making pastries to the general public.

He is convinced that anyone can make good desserts provided they have the right instructions. He promised to send Les Grandes Gueules the recipe for the cake he brought them.

Ultimately, he wants to transmit his knowledge as broadly as possible.

Les Grandes Gueules have had other recent interviews with French chefs. More will follow here. You’ll find much of what they say is similar, with sharing knowledge and a generous spirit coming first and foremost.

I will have links to this series on my Recipes / Health / History page under ‘Great chefs’.

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