Jacques Torres's French Christmas, French Culinary Institute, Soho, NYC
Illustrated with photographs by Runt Ekwesh
I went to see Jacques Torres demonstrate viennoiseries before with other Hutties, and he gives demos when he's in New York about monthly. Since it's during the day and many of us work, it's not easy to get to them, but on this day, I took the day off. He is creating a chocolate centerpiece and that French Christmas classic, bûche de nöel!
We arrived early because his demos always seem to pack up fast. Who attends? Cooking school students, certainly, as well as potential students checking out the facilities and taking the opportunity to see the Dean of Pastries. There are people who just come and attend as many demos as they can, including a Franciscan friar from nearby Little Italy, and an annoying woman whom Chef Torres politely recognizes and says "hello" to, anyway. And there are many, many fans and groupies, and even industry pros. You need to reserve a place, but it's otherwise free to attend. (I love that New York City has so much quality free stuff going on all the time.)
To our surprise, he was rushing around doing preparations. It could simply be he wasn't organized enough and didn't have enough time to explain and such. We watched him make four genoise in about 20 minutes, pastry cream and buttercream in another 20, then assemble the naked buche in another 20. He separated eggs then created a French meringue. He admitted he didn't know why it was called "French," (versus Swiss or Italian meringues) and one student who was there early piped up, "French is cold, Swiss is warm, and Italian is hot." He looked up and said, "The person who told you is Italian?" She admitted yes, the chef she learned it from is Italian. "Ah, that's why." He then held up the pastry bag and took aim at the student, "What did you say about the French??"
We watched him spread, roll, flip, pipe. We noticed his hair was "fluffy," which looked a bit odd. After his prep was done and he tidied up, he ran off to his office and came back a few minutes later looking more like his TV-persona self -- he'd done his hair, brushed it back and moussed it. So *that* was the difference!
While he prepped, Alain Sailhac came in to talk to him. They spoke in French, which fortunately I understand. They mainly chitchatted about what Torres was demonstrating, and I heard him say, "Old-fashioned yule log" (in French, "Bûche de nöel a l'ancienne"). Sailhac asked why Torres's meringue mushrooms were made that way -- Torres pipes blobs of meringue onto a parchment-lined half-sheet pan, then goes back and pipes another blob to make fat, squat mushrooms. The traditional way is to pipe more slender pieces for the bottom, to be glued together with buttercream to the squatter tops. A couple of students told Torres that's how they'd been taught. He said, "But this way is faster and easier!" Then he did a row of 3-blob meringues, to make into snowmen decorations for the bûche.
The room had filled by then, and Torres repeated his prep for the audience (making only one genoise instead of four) -- he'd done the prep to make sure there were enough samples for everyone, and perhaps to calibrate the ovens. This so-called "culinary amphitheatre" was used as the backdrop for Torres's first television series, Dessert Circus; without the decorations it seems more austere, but devotées should be able to recognize it.
As noted before, Torres is very good-natured and charming -- all the bad stuff you hear about the French goes out the window in his presence. As he folded flour into the genoise batter, he remarked, "Now you see why I had to grow a stomach, to hold this bowl still!" I said, "Chef, some of us were born to be pastry chefs, then?" He giggled. He has nice teeth.
He had trouble with the chocolates -- you need them to crystallize a bit, that's what causes them to "set." Too much, and the chocolate is not spreadable, not enough and it's runny. He showed how to work the chocolate to force it to form crystals -- that's the process known as "tempering." Oh, is THAT what they meant?? It's so easy with him. He also wedged the oven door open with a spatula to dry out the meringues, and kept knocking the spatula to the ground. "Will I never learn?" he mused, when he did it for the fifth time. He also did stuff procedurally which he'd suddenly exclaim, "Oh! Don't do that, that's bad!" Then he'd explain why HE was doing it, and how you could do it. He's into justifiable sins, like all creative geniuses are.
And despite things not crystallizing or firming up or unmolding -- he did look a bit stressed about it -- when all the errant pieces came together, in 5 minutes, there was suddenly a chocolate centerpiece in front of us! He did the same for the bûche, too -- the creams didn't whip up properly, there were no bowls for making different colored icing, etc., but suddenly it was decorated, complete with chocolate pine trees, rambling picket fences, forest floor leaf debris made with buttercream ... He has deft hands, for sure.
He explained that this is the cake he learned to make over and over again as a young apprentice, and though variations are good and plentiful, "One should always take the time to learn the original classics, really learn them!" This is an obvious lesson, but one that many cooks ignore routinely. And "In France, Christmas is about chocolate, not sugar fantasies." This makes sense when you realize how much temperature and humidity factors into how a chocolate behaves on molding and sculpting. His message: there is a reason to do things a certain way, and a reason for when it happens. You should always respect those reasons.
Torres is the Dean of the Pastry Program at FCI, and he's stated that he wants his program to teach WHY things happen, as much as how. He says homecooks in the US are more ambitious than in his home country, in that they will attempt professional-level dishes for fun. However, he was struck by how little they seemed to understand what was going on. As a young apprentice, he remembered his frustration when the professionals he worked under couldn't explain these things to him, even when he pressed for answers. He got himself more schooling to figure out these things, and designed a program and curriculum that teaches "from the inside out." We peeked into the classrooms and found that the pastry students were indeed creating chocolate stands and centerpieces. One caught our eyes in particular! There are the expected variations, of course, but all in all, they were all good, and some were clever, too ... makes a person want to jump into this opportunity for more education, for sure.
Torres looked at his creations and said, "In France, the mushrooms are as big as pine trees. The snowmen, too! It's what I say, anyway!" Cooking is largely attitude, as well as skill and talent. He has it all. Can't wait to go to another demo to see what else he'll teach his adoring masses!
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