Embedded image permalinkAs a maître pâtissier, Christophe Felder is Alsace’s pastry king.

On Christmas Eve 2015, he was the special guest on RMC’s Les Grandes Gueules (Les GG), a three-hour radio news and current affairs talk show with a group of regulars from social workers to cheese makers to judges. The panellists change daily, yet, after a while, one feels as if one knows them well.

Felder is in the v-neck in the photo from Les GG‘s Twitter feed. Around him are panellists Père Patrice Gourrier, educator Etienne Liebig (holding Felder’s latest book Gâteaux [‘Cakes’]) and businesswoman Claire O’Petit. The hosts, Alain Marschall and Olivier Truchot, are not in frame.

Les GG are in the process of interviewing famous French chefs. On New Year’s Eve, Philippe Conticini appeared on the show. Like Conticini, Felder baked a cake. Or is that, ‘Felder baked a cake and Conticini did, too’? (I’m moving backward with the interviews.)

Felder wrote one of my favourite books, Patisserie: Mastering the Fundamentals of French Pastry. If anything approximates a ‘bible’ of desserts, with each step of every recipe accompanied by a colour photograph, this is it.

SpouseMouse bought our copy in 2013 from Amazon.co.uk, however, it appears now that only Amazon in the US has it. If you are living in Britain, you can sign on to Amazon UK, then go through to the US site and order it — provided the seller ships to Britain. If you are ordering it as a gift, have it sent directly to the recipient, otherwise, postage is going to cost a fortune. (Photo credit: Amazon.com)

I have tried several of the recipes and each one worked the very first time! You will be able to make all your favourite French cakes, tarts, biscuits, macarons and chocolates — including decorations and glazes — in no time. Recipes are grouped by category — types of pastry, cakes, macarons — and so on. Each category’s set of recipes is ranked from easy to difficult. You can comfortably work your way through each chapter and progress as you go. The book is very heavy and one should handle it with care, because the paper and cardboard binding is not the best.

It makes a perfect gift for a family member or friend who wants to be able to bake what they see in French pastry shop windows. The lucky recipient will never need another dessert cookbook.

Now on to the show! (Translations mine below.)

Rants galore

During the first segment the panellists ranted about all their pastry pet peeves. I got the impression the hosts were a bit embarrassed, but that’s the nature of the show.

That said, everything kicked off very early.

No sooner had they introduced Felder and the gloves were off, not against him but the French pastry situation in general.

Etienne Liebig was angry that so many small shops no longer make their own croissants and macarons but buy them from large companies that make these items on an industrial scale. He does not like paying ‘€1.30 for something that costs 30 cents’ and isn’t even made on the premises.

Felder countered that the same thing happens in a restaurant. How many buy cash-and-carry desserts? How many make their own ice cream? Much of it is bought elsewhere. This is why I ask for a cheese plate or, where available in the UK, a savoury.

Claire O’Petit said she is a competent cook when it comes to savoury dishes, which she can easily adjust for taste and texture, but when it comes to dessert, she feels frustrated, as if she has no chance of success. She later said that Felder’s recipes look achievable and that she wouldn’t need to ‘waste an hour of reading’ to understand them.

Père Gourrier announced that he is gluten intolerant:

So, what’s out there for me? Everything has flour in it. I can’t eat it.

Felder suggested a dacquoise, made with ground almonds and (left unsaid) meringue.

Gourrier was unimpressed:

I’m not about to start making meringues.

He then asked:

When is someone going to come out with a gluten-free croissant?

The break and the cake

Then there was a commercial break and everyone, except the priest, tucked into the cake.

By the time the next segment started, O’Petit was very quiet. One of the hosts remarked on it and asked if she was enjoying every mouthful.

Gourrier interjected:

I’m having a fine time just sitting here watching all of you tuck in.

Felder’s advice to young hopefuls

Like Conticini, Felder was accustomed to the food trade. Conticini’s parents ran a Michelin-starred restaurant. Felder’s father was a successful baker in Alsace.

Unlike Conticini, who believes that young people should pass their baccalauréat, Felder says that any adolescent who is serious about baking or pastry should become an apprentice at the age of 15.

He believes that is a good age because romantic attachments haven’t yet formed:

Later on, they’re reluctant to move 300 kilometres away for a career. They have a girlfriend and get too attached.

(Most pastry apprentices and chefs are men, hence the girlfriend reference.)

Felder had worked for his father by the age of 14 and, the following year, 1979, he was apprenticed to the Litzer-Vogel pâtissiers in Strasbourg, where the head pâtissier was very elderly yet went to work every day.

He told les GG that, unlike cookery school, this work — which includes training — doesn’t cost parents anything. Furthermore, as an added bonus, their children can bring earned money home.

Also:

By the age of 17, they’re quite good.

And so it proved in Felder’s case. At that tender age, he had won his first gold medal at the Foire européenne de Strasbourg.

Felder’s trajectory

Felder moved to Paris where he worked for Fauchon, makers of luxury breads and pastries near the church of La Madeleine in the 8th arrondissement. He then worked for Guy Savoy, who ran a Michelin-starred restaurant in the upmarket 16th arrondissement. (By 2002, Savoy had earned his third Michelin star, which he still retains today. He has since opened his own restaurants in Las Vegas and Singapore.)

In 1988, Felder began working at the prestigious Hotel Crillon as a pastry chef. He stayed there for 15 years.

Incidentally, when he first started, there was no air conditioning in the Crillon’s pastry kitchen. He described the near impossibility and frustration of making croissants with butter melting in front of him. (Butter needs to be firm for puff pastry, the stuff of which these delights are made.)

Return to Alsace

These days, Felder is based in Alsace.

He prefers it, especially for his young apprentices. He and his staff train and mentor them. Having families nearby makes it easier for everyone:

In Paris, you can feel a bit lost. You need money for rent, you don’t really know anyone and it can be a bit overwhelming.

In Alsace, our apprentices live nearby and can work more flexible hours. They can come in early and go home late.

It’s also helpful to get to know their parents. We have discussions with them. Some say, ‘My child is a bit excitable’. Such conversations help us to manage a situation and guide the apprentices.

Hard work

Felder spoke a lot about hard work in the pastry kitchen.

He cited a young apprentice of his who asked why Felder was ‘punishing’ him. Felder replied that there was no punishment — that was the nature of the job:

Sure, there are a great many shared moments, but there is also a lot of pressure every day.

And not everyone can handle that pressure.

Dessert evolution

The panel asked about the continuous change in French desserts.

Felder explained that, in the old days, sugar and fat were used as preservatives. These days, with near-universal refrigeration and modern cooking methods, we can buy products with much more fresh fruit as well as less fat and sugar.

In addition to owning his own business, Felder also works for a firm in Japan, which is interested in anticipating the next dessert trends. The Japanese are fascinated to find that French techniques remain classic yet move with the times. Felder helps this company determine how that is done and develop new recipes accordingly.

Conclusion

Most of us — younger or older — are not fit for a pastry kitchen.

As Felder says, you’re on your feet all day. The atmosphere is demanding. It requires a lot of stamina, self-discipline and patience.

Working in a pastry kitchen will be unsuitable for many, but most pastry chefs want — and feel obliged to — pass knowledge on to the next generation and to the general public.

Christophe Felder is one of them.

For that, many of us are grateful.

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