4 weeks and 5 days ago I inched out of bed at 4:00 a.m., descended the first flight of stairs… and then the second in my tall and skinny city house and sipped a little bowl of hot Italian coffee from my Bialetti. I put on my coat, seized my glowing new pastry chef’s uniform, and slipped out into the darkness of the night. A star-scattered sky twinkling above, I took a left at the first corner and disappeared through a beaten old white door into a dark hallway. A crack of light peeking from another door illuminated the end of the hallway, and at 5:00 a.m. I stepped into the kitchen of Monsieur Fievet’s pâtisserie to pass my first day as an apprentice pastry chef.
The chefs are already posed before their marble counters, patting and stretching dough, counting choux, and heating nappage. “Bonjour!” to each chef and kisses on each cheek as I make my way to the changing room. I emerge from the changing room with the impression that I’m in costume for Halloween, simply impersonating a pastry chef. All eyes make their way to get a first glimpse of me in the white button-up high-collared top, oversized pied de poule pants, and ever-so-trendy white sabots.
Wrapped in a white apron with a little towel hanging from my belt, I set about the task of decorating the Capucine, a vanilla mousse cake decorated with fresh strawberries. The head pâtissier pipes a pretty rim around the top of the cake and I slice strawberries in half to fill the center in a nice symmetrical pattern, then brush with a nappage to make the strawberries shine and help them to conserve. No problem. The head pâtissier reminds me that I have no need to rush, precision first, and that speed will come later.
I send the Capucine to the shop and attack the Créquillon, a chocolate mousse cake with praline and crunchy hazelnuts. First, a sprinkle of caramelized hazelnuts. The goal: a seemingly haphazard scatter of hazelnuts, not too many, not to few, and no empty spots. I start with a few, then a few more. I move one to the left. An empty spot appears and I and add another. But two more empty spots pop up and I’m afraid I have already put too many nuts on the cake! I ask the head pâtissier for his opinion. He points out one of the empty spaces and adds a hazelnut, then, with a “pas plus” (“no more than that”) he hands me a case of white chocolate batons sprinkled with cacao. He decorates a cake as an example. In a second, three batons dance on his cake, triumphant and inviting. I jump in.
Carefully, I unroll the chocolate from the plastic wrapper onto which they have been rolled, and I break into lengths to correspond with my cake. After a moment of hesitation, three batons are sprawled out on my cake, sadly mimicking their pretty neighbor. I stand back to try to see why my decoration isn’t working. The two cakes look the same, except that mine seems closed, and well… “home-made.” With a sweep of the hand, the head pâtissier adjusts the placement of my chocolate batons, explaining that each cake has a direction. When our eye falls upon a cake, the decoration opens to our field of vision. I sort of understand. I finish the last two cakes with a better sense of purpose. I work slowly, but these ones make the cut. I place a little green ticket shining in gold with the name of the pâtisserie on each cake, and send them to the shop.
For the next few hours, I’m slicing fruit for tarts, piping little beginner’s roses onto cakes, trying to avoid getting in the way, and searching for beaters, bowls, sugar, and pistachios as I learn where everything is stored.
At 11:30 a.m. the work day is over. I’m exhausted but bright with enthusiasm for my new job. Home again, I make a little lunch and continue organizing all the boxes left from my recent move. I will go to sleep early to be in top form for tomorrow.