Reflections upon a Parisien Winter

The white uniform

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man (or woman), then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.” With this oft-mentioned quote, Hemingway has epitomized the experience of living in Paris. It’s a city where countless have flocked to for decades, centuries past, for all the wonders it holds. I have some friends telling my how they have come to dislike the city. At first, I rejected their opinions outright for their stay was short, and I tried vehemently to convince them to change their mind or give the city another chance, for all that they have missed. On second thought, as in all places, each individual who has stayed here one time or another constructs for oneself one’s own version of ‘Paris’. That image is unique to every person, made up of different memories, peculiar events, and vastly diverse experiences. It’s possible to leave with a sour feeling of the city; it’s not too hard to find complaints about the place. The metro smells, homeless aplenty, and in some places, aggressive tourist hustlers roam the streets for their prey. I consider myself fortunate to have stayed here long enough for my ‘Paris’ to be a memorable one. I had the chance to turn a blind eye to the uglier side to appreciate the better. It’s the company and the circumstance that made the difference. My picture of the city isn’t without scars, but these blemishes serve as the imperfect basket of fruits to contrast the flawless Mario Minniti in Caravaggio’s ‘Boy with a Basket of Fruit’.

I’m not trying to pretend to be profound in art, but I made the analogy to substantiate my claim that one will learn something about art being in Europe. Art is everywhere, but hailing from a city where art is hardly appreciated, Paris, and Europe in general is an inspiring place to know more about art. I have learnt much, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Nonetheless, it’s something that one will pick up whether one wills it or not. I didn’t come here for art, as many would, but I have been rewarded with some much-cherished insights into the expansive world of the aesthetics. I came to Paris for other reasons. Foremost, I came for the food culture, in particular, the bread and the pastries. In all honesty, what I knew about French pastry was limited to my visits to Japan. The Japanese have their own traditional desserts for tea, which are fantastic in their own right, but they have equally amazing French-inspired pâtissieres. With their knack for details, service, and creating ambience, I have always found it difficult to leave a food place empty-handed. Intricate cakes that line the racks of a clear glass cabinet are well-complemented with the overwhelming array of bespoke sweets and delicate biscuits that adorn the shelves. Entering a bakery is yet another experience. After a while, you will learn to recognize a good bakery meters away by the aroma of fresh bread it exudes. That was the initial spark, and so my sense of taste and smell brought me to Paris.

Cafe Pouchkine

It’s a romantic way of explaining myself. The more ‘hideous’ reason was… to escape reality. It is an extreme way of putting things. My world didn’t crumble, nor did the sky fall. I love it back home, but I could recognize some sub-conscious nuances of the idea of ‘running away’. I merely made a perfectly rational decision. I made a choice to not compromise my ideals in exchange for a much-sought after education in America. That brief moment of courage I mustered to turn away from the ‘American dream’ also marked the end of formal training in Biology. Yet the decision didn’t sequester the longing for an education abroad. Home is fine, there is nothing to run away from, but I just wasn’t satisfied with the ordinary. Consequently, that distaste for the ordinary, and the buried enthusiasm for food, sublimated into a desire for an alternative pursuit of the pastry arts. It was also somewhere away from home, where I can learn to be independent, and experience what another part of the world has to offer. So, I enrolled myself in a culinary school, in nowhere else but Paris.

Going back to school again was nostalgic, having been in the army for some time. The military gave me an enriching experience, and the camaraderie I had with my peers was to be treasured. However, the green uniform was a facade; I had to be someone else but myself to shoulder the weight of authority and responsibility. Being able to put that mask and burden back in school was liberating. It couldn’t be better, for I had an irreplaceable company of classmates from all over the world. From the lessons, I’ve learnt much and developed a passion for pastry, but that exposure to an international community was as educational. Most overseas graduates would attest to that learning experience. The school itself, whilst it can still work on its pedagogical methods, has provided a wealth of experience from the chefs. There were ‘extra-curricular’ sessions, when they invited renowned chefs in the industry from all corners of the world. While the food I had in the demonstrations was bliss for the palate, the invited professionals with their life stories and perspectives of food were more than inspiring.

Invited Chef

Beyond the school, the city had much to offer too. I am a firm believer of independent education, or so-called ‘self-learning’. At some part of my stay, I have adopted a philosophy: to bake something great, one has to taste something better. It could be a disguised self-rationalization to spend on pastries and bread. In any case, I have made a resolution to not spend a cent on personal effects, though admittedly I was almost tempted by the winter sales. I resisted, and thus with less guilt, if not none, I have ventured all over the city to taste bread, pastries, and chocolate. In the process, I have stumbled upon the butter of my life (Bordier butter). With much delight, I have found its perfect match – a Poilâne loaf baked with slightly more attention at the original shop. I have also developed an idolization for a genius, Monsieur Jacques Génin. A chocolatier at heart, but he makes the perfect tarte au citron and millefeuille. My visits were rather obsessive, and the servers could recognize me in a crowd and would ask how was my day. You get the idea – I was indulging. To justify myself, I held on to that new philosophy, and consciously ponder over the flavors, the texture, the presentation. For that I wrote a couple of post on food. Raspberries and tarragon, lemons and basil, chocolate and bergamots.

It brought me to a whole new level of perspective on pastries, on food. While the Japanese do their stuff well, I didn’t know what I was in for when I decided to come to Paris. Fortunately, food wasn’t the only thing I’ve learnt about, for that would have been an unhealthy obsession. In light of an holistic self-education, I kept my mind open. One of the other things I’ve learnt was the language. I didn’t sign up for a third language in secondary school, but taking up a new language is rewarding, and in my French study, I have learnt more about English as well. My level of French is still dismal – functional yet not conversational. Nonetheless, I am content with the improvement I had in three months, because it takes time to master a language. Another aspect I had for ‘self-improvement’ was art, as mentioned. The brief glimpses into the history of art was enlightening. Van Gogh, Monet, and Renoir in Paris; Bernini and Caravaggio in Rome. I should have some names for London, but I’m not going to lie. My trip up north was more of visiting and spending the lunar new year with friends than exploring. And you cannot be at a country for a couple of months without reading about its past, especially so in Paris where so much has happened, and you’re still surrounded by the artifacts of the city’s vibrant history.

Tiber of Rome

I have to thank a close friend for his advice to capitalize on the fact that I was in Europe and make an effort to travel. It was expensive, but it would be even more so to return once more from Singapore. London holds a different culture altogether, and Rome is by itself a museum. These places are inseparable in the book of European history, so it was interesting to explore beyond Paris. Rome in particular rang a resonance with my childhood, somewhat boyish, obsession of Roman warfare tactics and gladiators. I have much to write about Rome too, but I will reserve that for another day. Nevertheless, Paris remains as my first love amongst these cities. It is a bias opinion, in part due to the circumstances, the time spent, but so be it. I’m happy. Another noteworthy life skill to mention: I’ve picked up the recipe for fried bee hoon (Singaporean style).

After being in the clouds for a period of time, I am obliged to reflect on how this trip has change me. I am not returning to Singapore as the same person I was – I will it not. The most apparent take-away relates to primary objective here as a pastry student. Food has become an ever-more important aspect of life. Not that it wasn’t important before, but I just didn’t realized its significance. In fact, there are only two things we need to do – to eat, and to die. (It’s a crass way of defining life, but accepting this mortality propels us to do what we really want to do.) Back home, I will be paying more attention to what I put in my mouth. It isn’t about organic food or foie gras or truffles. I’ll have none of that. Instead, it’s about being more conscious of my food choices, where they come from, how they are prepared, and how healthy they are. I don’t need expensive food; I could live on simple, earthy bread. Everyone deserves affordable, wholesome, and delicious bread.

Delicious honest bread.

I am also returning with a stark self-realization: I am adverse to growing up. It sounds strange, but in other words, I refuse to put away idealism for pragmatism. The urgency of making a career choice barks at me every now and then. On certain nights, waves of practicality would hit me, and I would seriously consider going to business school. I would wake up the next morning with an unmistakable conviction that I could never imagine myself in suits and making pitches, learning business. There’s nothing wrong with that; it just isn’t my thing. Certainly, being pragmatic doesn’t necessarily entail studying business. I could well go back to biology, or perhaps psychology. Why not?

I would attribute my reluctance on my obsession with purity. It’s problematic, for I would only study something out of interest, and not for a job. Only after graduation from high school did I understood how ‘impure’ the pursuit of knowledge can be, as a researcher in industry or in academia. It is tainted with the need to pander to sponsors for funding. At the end of the day, money makes the world go round. It has always been so, but in my relentless endeavors in school I was blind to reality as such. Perhaps I was too engrossed with dissecting lifeforms and exploring the theories of evolution. Why sex? (To rephrase, what benefit does exchanging genetic material provide for an organism.) Why are we not hermaphrodites? Why are we intelligent? Useless questions. Evidently, there was a phase of disillusion. I have come to acknowledge that practicality, hence I don’t hate the world or anything. Conversely, there is no other way about it, and I love pretty much everything else. Yet that acknowledgement didn’t translate to acceptance of compromising idealism. I need to find something that I partake not for the want of money. (We all need money; want is another thing.) It’s nothing inspiring, it’s not a glam struggle. I never believe in stories where people proclaim they give up their career for their passion. Personally, it isn’t about the passion; it’s the idea of pursuing something out of passion. I would rejoice in that purity. That’s the reason why I think I couldn’t grow up.

The Assistant
Photo by Nancy

Being a pastry chef appeals to me because I can focus on food. Making food is an honest occupation, more so as a bread-baker. You’re making a living with what you make with your hands. The idea of perfecting the art of bread-baking, and making affordable yet delicious bread in a country where it is still scarce intrigues me. I have yet to decide on many things, so a decision between bread and pastry isn’t a priority. For one, I’m not even sure about being a chef. I was comfortable in the white uniform – it didn’t feel like I needed to assume another identity, as I did in green, or in a suit. Baking is also something that I lack the natural talent in. I’m not bad at it, nor am I spectacularly good. That makes it a greater challenge, and thus satisfying, for it’s something that I need to invest time and effort to excel in.

I am not without self-doubt. Why am I plagued with this issue, where many others have sailed through it smoothly and built spectacular and satisfying careers for themselves? It has been, and still will be, a roller-coaster ride. What I’m missing now is that last bit of certitude to free myself from the chains of pragmatism and responsibility. The only conviction I made in these three months is that I will aspire to set up a bakery or pâtisserie, some time in my life. The current deadline is somewhere near the end of my third decade in existence. The more befuddling conundrum now is how to spend the next decade. Should I invest four years for an insurance with a conventional degree, or should I accumulate relevant experience instead? And what insurance? There is no need to digress on this, for it is no help in making a decision.

Good Company
Photo by Betsy

At last, I have to express my sincerest gratitude for the fantastic company I had along the way, and the encouragement from people who care. I have learnt a great deal, and experienced the first winter in my life, but indubitably there is much more to discover. In my last few days, I have found a more wonderful croissant which replaced the erstwhile favorite, and a few cafes brewing amazing coffee in a city where people can expect quality in all things but coffee. It would surprise some that I have not visited the Louvre or Musee d’Orsay or the other big museums. I had that part in smaller museums and in Rome, and I am certain I will be back some day. I will miss my new-found friends, my time in school. I will miss the bread, the butter, and even the milk. I cannot bring these with me, so Hemingway was lying, to interpret him literally. What I could and would bring back are the memories, the inspirations, a fresh attitude towards life, and unfortunately the calories. Perhaps, that’s growing up. My last words here goes to a big ‘thank you’ for my family for all the support they have given me, no matter where I tread. It is the most important thing that matters.

Well... They are always there wherever I tread.


P. S. I wrote this in a newly discovered cafe named ‘Telescope’. It may well be a sign to look far into the stars and acknowledge the insignificance of our existence. That just might give me what the Wizard gave to the Cowardly Lion. Just a thought, nothing too serious.