Kitchen Rhythm: A Year in a Parisian Pâtisserie

An Oxford grad learns to navigate boiling sugar, sleep deprivation, and exacting pastry chefs with whom she can barely communicate.

Frances Leech | Vintage | March 2013 | 14 minutes (3378 words)

The Longreads Exclusive below is based on Frances Leech’s ebook of the same name, published in 2013 by Vintage UK.

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To make chocolate mousse, enough for 150 people, say, first whip the cream — liters and liters of it. Then, separately, whisk the egg yolks. Boil sugar and water and add to the yolks, still whisking, in a thin drizzle. Melt the chocolate, then stir, fold, and whisk everything together with some gelatin.

What is missing from this description, the bare-bones sketch in the red address book that alphabetizes all of my work recipes, is the physical sensations. When I started my apprenticeship in Paris a year ago, I learned that baking can be at once precise and vague. Measure everything to the last gram, simple enough. Harder to describe what the meringue mixture should look like when it is just right, hard to put the steady pressure of a hand piping cream into words. I looked and looked and was frustrated over and over.

Then I started listening. When the dough for puff pastry is sufficiently kneaded it will start to clunk in the mixer. When the cream for the chocolate mousse is softly whipped it will fall with a slap slap slap into the bowl. Drifts of cream, like rumpled silk, not stiff damask. Pour the boiling sugar onto the egg yolks and listen as the hornet’s nest whir changes to a pata-pata-pat-a-pat.

Sound is so important in baking. White chocolate squares clink like Scrabble tiles. Properly tempered chocolate makes a slight crack when you bite through the shell to a yielding ganache, as all the molecules have been neatly lined up — a different guilty pleasure altogether from the cottony thunk of a cheap candy bar. There is a perfect word in Japanese for the thin chocolate sheets we use for decoration, pakipaki, the sound they make when snapped into shards. One of the quiet moments in the otherwise doom-laden film Perfect Sense shows a candle-lit restaurant with a couple of patrons — they had all lost their senses of smell and taste in a global pandemic — carefully breaking a long cheese biscuit in half and in half again, holding it up to their ears.

When talking about food we tend to focus on the visual effects as well as the obvious taste and smell, and forget about its aural and tactile qualities. But when the world becomes too much, too loud, I use crisps to fill the space between my ears with white noise. Traditional comfort food, mashed potatoes or rice pudding, is much too quiet to muffle my worries.

Sound is the reason that Jacques Genin, one of France’s pastry deities, serves his millefeuille à la minute: for the shatter-crack of the puff pastry as it puts up resistance to fork and ear. Texture is firstly sound — or the absence of it — and millefeuilles are often a soggy thud, a disappointment full of claggy custard. Genin’s version comes down the spiral stairs freshly made, three perfect squares of puff pastry enclosing a few piped drops of vanilla-specked cream. You can feel the “thousand leaves” crackling with caramelized sugar as you demolish it. Listen really carefully and you hear the vanilla seeds pop between your teeth.

In our tiny bakery on the other side of Paris, the cakes are made in the early morning, to preserve that freshness and crunch. At 5:37 a.m. my alarm goes off for the first time. By 6:09 a.m. I will be waiting on the métro platform. Normally I’ll be greeted by a stale smell of urine, at least one mouse. In the carriage, plenty of silent people, men, bundled up in black coats. No one else has a small jam jar full of porridge. Eating on the go is frowned upon, and the cold and early mornings do not count as mitigating circumstances. By 6:27 a.m. I pull open the swing door and duck under the pink curtain of the pâtisserie. I am probably last. If my check trousers are still damp from the wash, I drape them over the oven door for five minutes. There are four bakers. The floor space we share is not much larger than my bedroom.

Although we make classic French pastries, almost everyone is Japanese: the boss, the manager, the shopgirls, the bakers. There is one French girl who works nights making chocolate, but she is fluent, and enjoys the language practice. A never-ending supply of keen Japanese cooks come over to France to earn their stripes, or rather their checked chef trousers. Though Tokyo now has more Michelin stars than Paris, working in France still has cachet. Here there are several high-profile Japanese pâtissiers — Yamazaki, Sadaharu Aoki — and even a Japanese pâtisserie school somewhere in the Parisian banlieue. In my shop, I am the odd one out. I have only high-school Japanese, which, as most kids know from language lessons, means ordering a beer, catching a bus, and maybe reading a pre-prepared discourse on the environment, most of which I had forgotten. Over the last year, I have learned how to sweep the floor in Japanese, how to ask for the sugar, how to shriek DANGER HOT HOT HOT.

“There, can you hear it? Pata-pata-patapatapat.” Add eggs to the butter and sugar mixture for the vanilla tart dough and listen to the mixer making the curious sound. I think I can hear it but I can’t define it in words. Such is the problem with a manual skill, so too with a new language: how to translate your sensations through a new filter. After the inevitable swear word comparison, the second most common conversation for beginners making their way, forging cross-cultural bonds, is on animal noises. No specialist lexicon necessary, just funny faces, moos, clucks and whistles. But something that seems so intuitive is not, in fact, at all: animals sound different depending on how many phonemes there are in your language. That even my “ouch!” is not a natural reaction but restricted by phonetics fascinates me. My colleagues hear “ow,” like a barking Japanese dog.

Any explanation of baking is likewise limiting. How do you describe the pressure of a hand or the bubbles in a simmering crème citron? Okakura Kakuzō’s Book of Tea effectively elaborates on the three stages of boiling water: “The first boil is when the little bubbles like the eye of fishes swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle.” But he also acknowledges the difficulties of translation. Like the reverse side of brocade embroidery, the basic colors and shapes are there, but the finesse is missing.

The fact that my colleagues and I are lacking a common tongue sometimes helps me. After our halting exchanges in French, I have to look again to confirm the thick consistency of the custard, hear the plop as it falls off the whisk. I have to use all of my senses to confirm if the eggs for the génoise mixture have been properly beaten. After baking it for 45 minutes, as written in the recipe, I still have to check by pressing the springy almond sponge with the heel of my hand.

Just before 9 a.m. the shop girls arrive, greet us politely. Ohayo gozaimasu!  They make us tea and baguette, which the others normally leave to get cold as they rush around bruléeing apricots and chopping pears. At 10 a.m. someone will call out a stern warning — ju ji desu! — as the shop is about to open and the cakes are not yet all lined up in their diagonal regiments in the window. After that, washing up, always washing up, and the heavy lifting for the day. 100 passion fruit and coconut mousses, 18 kilos of chestnut and rum paste for our Mont Blanc tarts. Bear in mind that this is a very small operation: nothing can be wasted. In the big factories outside Paris like Ladurée, there are machines to stuff tarts and cook custard. Half of their production is lost along the way — lopsided or broken, it goes in the bin. Here, the margins are small and the pressure is on.

Later in the day, I might get to play with the pastry break, or “laminator,” a conveyor belt that shuttles pastry dough back and forth to roll it thinner. Or my favorite task, to stir the vat of chocolate mousse: after the egg yolks, sugar, chocolate, cream, and gelatin are whisked together, I have to plunge in an arm elbow-deep to scrape the bottom, to remove those graduated swirls of brown and white to make a smooth, even color. The cool mousse coating my skin does not feel like work, it feels like a spa.

Touch is key. For tempering chocolate, just holding the spatula to the soft upper lip should be enough to check the temperature, the same for testing fondant icing with a little finger. Scariest of all, the appareil à bombe (the boiling sugar that transforms egg yolks into pillowy fluff) must be tested with a forefinger quickly dipped in very cold water. If the sugar disappears, wait a little. When it forms a fudgy ball, it is ready to pour. Hard filaments and it might be too late.

Like a child, I make continual mistakes with my grammar and with my hands. I listen and copy without understanding the structure. I mimic the movements but miss the knack, the flick of the wrist. For the piping I just have to practice and practice. For the language, I can look it up later and write a vocabulary list. The Japanese I use is an odd mishmash of the words closest to hand: French culinary terms and brands, English adopted words like chizu (cheese). There’s also the curiously onomatopoeic subsection of Japanese vocabulary. The bun bun is the hand blender, kachi kachi means and sounds like “hard,” whereas suppai mimics the lip-smacking effect of “sour.” My favorite colleague, the one whose name means something like “the color of the sky just before sunset,” taught me her own brand of Japanese, repeated and sketched out in the flour coating the bench. The others started laughing when I asked for a giji giji knife (doesn’t that just sound like a serrated knife sawing through a loaf of bread?) or for a chibi chibi (teeny tiny) tart ring. It isn’t textbook learning, but I liked discovering the logic of her Japanese, how its terminology echoes the sounds of the bakery.

As a former language student who has lived in France and Italy, I revel in words, in finding patterns and tricks in poetry, in discovering foreign words for concepts previously unknown. But it is still hard for me to talk about food without being reductive or using an excess of similes. We make crème citron, crème aux marrons and crème pâtissière which all have different densities and textures. English is not much better; lemon curd, chestnut paste and baker’s custard still do not pin down the particularities in the range of different creams. Even the English translation for pâtissier is not quite right. Calling myself a pastry chef sounds limiting, just empty tart shells and hollow moulds. If I say baker, it sounds too much like bread, which under the French system is a whole qualification in itself.

Near 1 p.m., if I am not too slow, hopefully we get to eat. More tea, pork and sesame stew, and a rice cooker full of sticky warm rice. Around Christmas, when we have to spend 15-20 hours in the little subterranean space, someone will set the oven timer and we can take a short nap on the stainless-steel counter, plates pushed back, faces pillowed on soft arms. Eventually, we go again. More pastry, more stocking up. If yesterday was the fromage blanc mousse with red-fruit coulis, then today will be the air gun. White chocolate is blasted through an airbrush with a loud buzz and a cloud of chocolate smoke to coat the triangular mousses with a velvety powder. The oven also roars as puff pastry slowly rises inside.

It was a millefeuille that led me to my bakery. An American friend had voted our strawberry version to be better than the one from the famous Lenôtre two doors down. So I applied. In the way of chance meetings, I found myself making those layered desserts every morning for a year. A strip of puff pastry, a layer of vanilla crème patissière lightened with whipped cream and just half a capful of Grand Marnier, then strawberry triangles interlaced across. Repeat, and finish with a third layer of pastry. Press some crackly feuilletine onto the sides and freeze for an hour to get a clean cut. Dust with icing sugar and top with one raspberry, one red currant, and a glazed strawberry half.

Only when I had graduated from apprentice to full-time working staff did they move me from millefeuille, éclairs, and all things cream — just cutting and sticking really, nursery-level tasks — to the oven with its exponential possibility for mistakes. Then I learned how to bake the puff pastry: finely sprinkle caster sugar over a whole sheet of baking paper before placing the pastry square, more paper, and a wire rack on top so that it puffs evenly. (180°C for 20 minutes.) Press the rack gently to even out the puff, remove paper, and dust generously with icing sugar. Back in the oven to caramelize the top, an extra baking tray underneath to protect the bottom from overbaking. (210°C for 10-12 minutes.) The sugar will turn to toffee and start a lava ooze towards the edge of the baking paper; be careful when pulling it onto a rack to cool.

If the hot sugar hits your skin, you will hear a slight hiss — the hiss of a drop of water in a frying pan — before you really feel it.

I have burned both cakes and myself. I wear my scars like badges — a thin line from a seven-liter bath of crème pâtissière, an isosceles from the first time I was allowed to make four trays of the cocoa sponge sans farine. When I am in disgrace there is mostly silence, as yesterday when I let fall seven shiny raspberry-chocolate desserts onto the floor. I get no Ramsay-style lambasting, none of the bravado of Bourdain’s circles of hell. (The most familiar element of his book was the repeated description of various chefs’ sallow skin from years underground, under fluorescent lights.) No one yells at me. Instead there is a deflated-balloon sigh of disappointment, then work continues at its usual steady pace. For half an hour or so afterwards I imagine the electric beaters are muttering chigao-chigao-chigao, the Japanese rebuke that literally means “different,” but signifies a harsher “No! Not like that at all. Did you not write down the instructions?” These little sounds knit my day together with their soft rhythm. The evening that I spent hand-dipping hundreds of caramels was punctuated by the endless tap tap tap of the skinny fork on metal. A bum note would tell me just before the caramel globe would topple back into its chocolate bath. Another girl was renamed Koro, after the noise of the wooden rolling pin clunking onto the floor. She repeatedly let it drop.

During December we all worked long crazy hours, overnight. At 9 a.m. on Christmas morning I came home in an empty métro — only a couple of tourists and a few of the Chinese local to my area were aboard — and promptly fell asleep in the bath. But there was a certain camaraderie, a shared masochism and pride in the hundreds of bûches de Noël so painstakingly prepared. For lunch on January 1st, after another all-nighter, the boss prepared special Japanese New Year soup with sticky mochi. My colleagues all love food, sigh over the memory of a proper bowl of Tokyo ramen, compare addresses. (This I can understand, the litany of ramen sashimi unagi donburi.) They come from different cities but can always bond over past meals. They are delighted that I know okonomiyaki, a pancake full of noodles and bean sprouts, maybe egg and pork, roughly translated as ‘as-you-like-it-cooked-thing.’

Sometimes we have more in common than just being foreign together, Japanese and English in an uptight French city. We discover a mutual love of proper tea and a similar knack for apology. (Elsewhere in Paris, you get a pot of lukewarm water with a tea bag abandoned alongside, and a defiant shrug.) We repeat “excuse me,” “shitsurei shimasu,” “sorry,” “gomen nasai,” as we squeeze past the narrow corridor between freezers and countertops. I am saving the queen of all apologies, moshiwake gozaimasen, for a special occasion. (More than seven cakes on the floor, then.) It means “there is no excuse. I am so ashamed that there is nothing I can say to make this better.” In my tiny Japanese corner I have some escape from the “service is a privilege,” nose-in-the-air attitude common to Parisian shopkeepers.

“Franpi!” (My new nickname.) “The chocolate disc is not supposed to be perpendicular, but at a slight angle. Better. And you forgot the gold leaf!” Woe betide me if she notices that in my haste, the gold has stuck to the last smudges of glucose on my fingers, and is now wasted, embedded in the cracks on my hands. Our head pâtissier’s precision comes from the steel core of a mother who can keep six recipes spinning at once, and, rail-thin, can heft a 25-kilo sack of flour without a problem.  Sometimes she accidentally calls me by the name and familiar suffix of her toddler son, though she is my age. I’m not sure if it is exasperation or affection — my clumsiness must frustrate her. If I do get the mirror glaze just right, deep black and brilliant, she nods an approving jōzu, a word usually used for hopeful tourists who manage to pronounce konnichiwa, bestowed with all the tenderness and pride of a pet owner. Just as Paris beckons you in, only to then snub you fiercely, so does this word — a frontier between actually speaking Japanese and only trying. Jōzu is a pat on the head, a gold star that I need to get past, in language and in pastry.

About 4 p.m., the final job is always lining the tart shells for the next day, chocolate and vanilla. Then the crumbs are swept up, the cupboards wiped down, and the floor mopped. On hands and knees sometimes, to get around the corners. It is a relief to turn off the oven and the murmur of the air conditioning and leave the laboratory mute.

Sometimes I like to imagine being one of Zola’s miners, covered in dust and sweat, digging kilos of butter underground, blinking into the sun upon finally emerging. It is a brief reminder of all the books read at university, and how different this last year has been. Abandoning the proper career prospects an Oxford degree should have laid out for me was not an act of bravery or defiance. It wasn’t out of misplaced nostalgia for a simpler time, for edifying manual labor. To talk about working with one’s hands as more fulfilling is to fall into the trap of looking for an imagined creativity from times past. I started pastry school because I was baking compulsively in my spare time anyway, mixing and folding and stirring, and because I loved the taste, the fireworks of sugar. Now, I appreciate the possibility of using all of my senses at once.

Like living in Paris, there is satisfaction in the very idea of pâtisserie: so romantic! Free cakes! Maybe a floral apron! The reality turns out to involve scars and a lot of bleach. Reality is mundane. The city is cold, the bakery exhausting. But just as it begins to wear me down, the idea catches me by surprise again. Paris puts on her brightest autumn coat and winks, and once again I fall in love. Someone opens a box of vanilla sugar and the scent inundates the tiny room. I feel the chocolate mousse up to my elbows. I learn a new word. Beguiled again, won over, I carry on making cakes with my ears and eyes, hands and heart.

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Frances Leech is a writer and pastry chef living in Paris. She co-wrote and illustrated A Pocket Feast, a Paris food guide. Her work can also be found on tangerine drawings.