Sunday, 19 February 2012

Une Tradition!

A few days into my undefined séjour in Paris I seem to have landed on my feet. After arriving late on Tuesday, I spent Wednesday collecting my suitcase (which I'd had to check in separately due to it containing my chef knives) and hauling it up three flights of stairs, trying to open a bank account and wandering aimlessly around several food shops wearing a huge grin. Thursday was CV translating and tweaking day, and by Friday I was a woman on a mission and with a plan to hand out aforementioned CVs to a carefully considered selection of establishments that I would be happy and proud to work for whilst here. These ranged from high end boutique chocolate shops and delicatessens to trendy cupcake shops to homely bistros and quaint bookshops. It was an interesting day, filled with metro changes as I travelled across several different areas, brief discussions with managers as they asked me questions about my CV, apparently quite interested in what I could offer, and a healthy number of strides.

Barely had dusk fallen when I'd received a voice message from the first place I'd handed my CV into - Gontran Cherrier, very hot property on the Paris bread scene, asking if I could start the next day at 9am. It so happened that someone had called in sick, so this, coupled with recent expansion into a second branch and a need to re-evaluate the size of the team meant that my arrival with what they considered a strong CV was perfect timing. M. Cherrier is a TV chef and author of several books and his 'edge' comes from his focus on flavours, traditional (apricot and cinnamon) as well as unusual (squid ink buns with nigella seeds and red miso loaves).  His main bakery is in Montmartre, 20 minutes walk and a climb up 111 of those devastatingly Parisien steps, from where I'm living, and gets very busy at weekends.

Although my role here is strictly sales rather than baking, it's a fantastic opportunity to immerse myself in the world of bread, invigorate my rusty language skills under pressure and get to know a bit more about how the French do things. And after a few shifts there I'm beginning to get an idea.

Pain De Sucre's 'Oasis' - Green apple and coriander compote,
citrus sponge, grapefrui, orange and pistachio milk jelly.
With a popping candy lollipop, of course.
Aside from this, my first week has been a gentle immersion into the sort of stay I want to have. I've achieved the self-set mission to roast a chicken in the flat's tiny oven (see my recipe here). I've eaten out at a carefully considered and highly recommended bistro in Montmartre - Café Burq - where I had a decadent honey-baked camembert, a pig-cheek pot-au-feu and a chocolate soup - my kind of meal. I've visited and purchased from a chocolate god (Pralus), from Pain de Sucre, an innovative treat shop divided in half by a dischordant oriental deli into two separate shops for savoury (re-invented sausage rolls, buns and vol-au-vents) and sweet (rum babas with DIY pipettes of rum, verrines of layered desserts topped with rosemary sprigs or flowers amongst others), and from Da Rosa, naturally, all in preparation for a decadent meal for one. I've sat and absorbed inspiring food books in a comfy armchair at Shakespeare & Co. I've walked miles.

But, of course, there is the bakery. It is teaching me about La Tradition, and innovation, and how Parisians embrace both in their ritualistic love of bread. Gontran is one of the few bakeries in Paris to sell large loaves by weight, a practise which is becoming increasingly popular and in fact encourages experimentation with flavours as customers opt to take home a little taste of fig and fennel and give it a try. Trying something new is exciting and customers are keen to know what would best accompany the squid ink-baguette. But at the same time it is the markers of routine that fly out the door the quickest, as we sell baguettes and croissants in their hundreds. And this is what I'm enjoying seeing the most, as it simply doesn't exist back home. Most customers fall into the 'tradition' camp when it comes to their daily bread - opting not for a standard baguette, but for one that has been proven longer and therefore has a richer flavour, softer 'mie' (as Clotilde Desoulier points out here there is no equivalent word for this in English; 'crumb' simply does not cut it), and a longer life. Customers re-appear as part of their schedule, buying just a half if that's all they need, asking for multiples to be halved if they're travelling by bike. Children barely tall enough to see what they are after are sent in by parents to buy their after-school 'goûter' of a croissant, pain au chocolat or sugared brioche along with a baguette for dinner, waiting patiently for their change and showing an endearing politeness that is hopefully not just due to their young age.

I'm yet to make it into the kitchen to work but a brief glimpse into the bakery's underbelly gave me excited and hopeful goosepimples. Ginormous baguette ovens stood alongside racks of patiently waiting and proving baguettes, snuggled in folds of polenta-dusted linen. The gentle hum of a paint gun spraying beaten egg on the pastries for an even shine provided a backing track to the delicate work of experimenting with the citrus balance in the Valentine's day special dessert, and everywhere, people had floured hands and quietly concentrating faces.

For now, I will content myself with my end-of-day hauls of staff goodies (research purposes only, you understand) and work on building French traditions of my own.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Springtime in Paris

Exciting times are ahead. I have decided to take a one-off opportunity to live in Paris for a few months, and am leaving behind my job in the café. I have no job ready and waiting, just a roof to myself, a translated CV and a sense of adventure.

I thought for some time about the possibility of undertaking a pastry course whilst there but as this is a distinct time and financial investment and needs to a certain extent to become my "path" once chosen I am instead using this trip as a chance to reflect on whether this is what I really want to do. Ideally I will get some kitchen experience but I do appreciate that this can be in no greater capacity than as a kitchen hand. I am a worthy investment in a kitchen but this does mean that my skills need to be nurtured.

Such is my sense of priorities that, at the time of writing, I have only just bought my ticket and have nothing packed - but I have spent hours researching French bank accounts, looked into local jogging routes, how to transport chef knives legally and planned which cooking implements have to be brought with me. I spent an evening with R&S of The Chocolate Revolution recently and much time was spent looking up desirable places to eat, foodshop or foodbrowse and consequently how to apply for jobs there.

I plan to, on at least one occasion, turn up at a restaurant I respect with my chef knives and trousers and offer to help out for the evening. Aside from this, I am pinging my CV and cover letter out there as much as I can before I arrive and can start handing copies over in person. I'm also researching where I want to eat, what I want to do with my free time and what adventures I want to have.

Of course, there is also a great deal of apprehension at this massive leap. What if I don't find a job? What if my rusty French never buffs up? What if I become immensely lonely? How will I cope away from my family, friends and the home I am used to? What if I don't want to come back? And most importantly, which cookery books will I have to leave behind and how will I bake cakes in my friend's tiny oven?

All that aside, I have known for some time that this is something I just have to do. I'm very lucky to have such an opportunity to enjoy my own company and take some time out to explore where my love of food could take me, such an accommodating Parisian friend and so many loving supporters excited about my adventure. Here's to working on the next piece of my puzzle!

Rest assured that you can read all about what I get up to right here.

"Luxury is not a pleasure,
But pleasure is a luxury."