This is the story of how I gained ten pounds in two months. I’d have never known, using fanciful excuses to explain away my tightening jeans, if it weren’t for having to weigh my suitcase on the second to last day. So going on a run once a Saturday didn’t counteract eating over 20 cakes a week in pastry school? How rude.
Alas. The way I see it, this was 10 pounds of life experience I’d carry around on my body for a while — just a little something to remember it by.
Who needs souvenirs? I had butter, sugar, and bread.
Off We Go to Yssingeaux
I’ve always loved making sweets. In high school, I used to bake multiples times a week, bringing the leftovers to class in a Tupperware box. It got to the point that even strangers recognized the Tupperware and knew they could come to me for a treat. Back at home, it was always understood that I’d be the one to supply the dessert at family meals, eventually taking on the mantle of preparing our annual Christmas brunch.
Store bought pie crust? Canned biscuits? Get out of my kitchen.
My parents talked me out of pastry school, and while I think they were right to steer me toward a more standard college experience, I still wanted to find a way to get some formal training. Plus, getting out of the country one way or another was a must. L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Pâtisserie showed up in my extensive Googling, I worked hard for a study abroad scholarship, and off I went to Yssingeaux.
The school itself is quite literally a castle on a hill, and its location is more of a village than a city. Think Beauty and the Beast, but only slightly more modern. When I went on my weekend runs, I jogged past cow pasture after cow pasture, and once I counted the number of rooster crows I heard during a 45-minute route. Any guesses?
Fifty. Fifty cock-a-doodle-doos, or should I say cocoricos. That’s more than one a minute, and I can assure you they were not the result of one particularly zealous poultry. They rang out from all directions. The hills were alive with the sound of roosters.
I stayed with a host mom before the start of the program, and she looked over my shoulder once when I was exploring Yssingeaux through Google Street View. She shook her head and told me, ah, mais c’est vraiment le trou du cul du monde là.
Translation: “That’s really the a$$hole of the world right there.” Oh French, the language of love.
11 Ladies, 1 Chef
Cooped up in this little town was my class of eleven women, aged anywhere from nineteen to the mid-forties, from USA, Honduras, China, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Romania, Germany, and Italy. Many of us were in relationships, but that certainly didn’t stop us from flirting with and thoroughly flustering our poor chef, Jérôme. We all wore ENSP-branded chef’s jackets with baggy restaurant pants and hairnets, while he strode around with his hair spiked underneath a tall white toque, cinching an apron tight around his waist. He must’ve been somewhere in his early thirties, smack in the middle of our age range, and we buried him up to his toque in constant attention.
The poor guy had to juggle eleven pastry newbies in a state-of-the-art, complex kitchen, half of us looking up at him with moony-eyed crushes (guilty), and the other half looking down at him with a kind of motherly amusement. A good chunk of the program was spent conspiring to make him admit to the class whether or not he was seeing anyone. Incidentally, he was. Not that we let that stop us.
To make matters worse for him, this particular program, as it was intended for international students, was taught in English. This meant that not only did he have to explain complicated techniques in a language foreign to him, but he also had to understand nine different accents. Everybody put in a great effort, but we had our moments.
For example, the word “grater” in French is une râpe, the verb “to grate” being râper. You can imagine the shock and confusion when, forgetting the English translation, he just subbed in the French word and hoped we’d understand. Our dear Jérôme had his lessons locked down for the most part, and his accent just made him all the more endearing, but it was an uncomfortable moment when he was trying to teach us how to, “euh…use the raper, to, euh, râpe down the edges of this tart crust.”
While I did hurry to correct him, I didn’t blame him. How can you? For all of y’all out there reaching fluency in a foreign language, do you know the word for piping bag? Food processor? Offset spatula? What about the difference between a freezer and a deep freezer? If you’re like me, and occasionally Jérôme, the answer is absolutely not.
So everybody join in and give a big hand for Jérôme. Even if he did ignore the friend request I sent him at the end of the program.
Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Sugar
Oh man, but those pastries. We worked hard to create them, and the effort showed. From 6 AM to 2 PM, we were on our feet, with nothing but a fifteen-minute break midway through to lean against the stainless-steel counters and eat croissants leftover from the advanced courses. Those who smoked went out and did so, while the rest of us closed our eyes for a while or edited our pics into Instagram-worthy food porn. Being terrible at social media, I just hung out and ate more croissants. Waste not want not.
Every week had a new focus, from chocolate to confectionery to bread to tarts to small cakes to large entremets to anything you’ve seen in that pristine window on a sidewalk boulangerie. It was a whirlwind. It was a tornado. It was a tidal wave of heavy cream and melted chocolate.
Since we were beginners with only two months to learn it all, we were up to our elbows in sugar and stress, and everything seemed to be happening too quickly. The idea was to give us a crash course, with the word ‘crash’ coming in quite literally sometimes as we bumbled around the kitchen, and we were supposed to develop our skills more fully during a 1-month internship at the end. I, unfortunately, didn’t get to participate in the internship since I was already missing the first week of senior year in order to finish out the pastry classes. Missing a month on top of that would’ve been a quick path to a delayed graduation, which neither I nor my parents were willing to pay for. Also, did I mention the internship was unpaid, with no food or housing covered? Turns out you can’t always have it all.
Still, the two months alone, sans internship, went beyond my wildest middle-school dreams, back when I’d crank up Phantom of the Opera while making pie on a Saturday night. Although, truthfully, that’s still something that sounds more appealing to me than hitting the club. Don’t let anybody tell you I’m not a lady who knows how to take life by the throat.
We burned our hands pulling sugar and flexed our forearms rolling out dough, then squealed in delight when we poured a perfect glaze, or cursed the heavens when we mistempered our chocolate. Pastry school is a real rollercoaster, mentally, physically, emotionally. We went on a ride.
At the end of every week’s adventures was buffet day, when each class would pick their prettiest pastries, clean out the kitchen, and arrange them beautifully across a cloth-draped table. After taking several group pictures with at least five to ten different phones, we’d scurry to the other buffets, drooling over the advanced classes’ intricate sugar sculptures or tiered wedding cakes. Those of us who spoke French would strike up conversations with the local students. My classmates confidently peddled Instagram handles. I just asked them nervous questions about their pastries.
Then, every buffet having been properly admired, we’d return to our own spread and set about destroying it. There was always a surplus of cakes even after we went around tasting each one, but we did the best we could to reduce waste by boxing them up and taking them home to augment our weekend group dinners. Is it any wonder I came back home with a heavier step?
So What Now?
To be honest, I’ve slacked off a bit in my baking since then. It’s still a dream to open my own bakery one day, but I’ll go on pushing it off for now.
Opening a bakery means you’re tied down to one place, pouring your everything into making that business work. There was a time I thought I’d start right out of college, but now I’m not yet ready to be anchored to an oven. Until then, I’ll keep up with the endeavors of Uni, Yevgenia, Ming, Rose, Alina, Yulia A, Yulia B, Sarah, Katya, Sayda, and of course Jérôme, to cheer them on and savor the time we all had together in a pastry kitchen in “the a$$hole of the world.”