In one of Will Smith’s celebrated films, The Pursuit of Happyness, there was this line that I could recall:
“I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?”
Amidst an ongoing debate on the pervasive ‘paper chase’ in my country, I thought it was apt to revisit this quote. The socio-cultural sentiment, that qualifications are sieves which separate the successful from the rest, has affected me personally. I am stuck in business school, when I’d rather be in the kitchen. While I am encouraged that there is such debate, it is equally difficult to conceive any imminent change in perspectives. One step at a time, but we must also consider how we relate success to happiness. This is an age-old concern, yet we are still so blind.
Rat race or paper chase, is happiness its attainable goal? Or are we doomed to Sisyphus’ fate in an absurd pursuit, in which we must imagine ourselves happy? Who is Sisyphus anyway? Why does he have such a difficult name to pronounce?
In seeking these answers, let’s not neglect the obvious fact that Sisyphus didn’t have any cake while we do. Because if we can’t have happiness, we can have cake. Let us eat cake.
Last summer, my pursuit has brought me to Tokyo. I didn’t know much about Japanese pâtissiers; I only had chez Hidemi Sugino on my ‘must-visit’ list, thanks to his fame in the blogosphere. By little coincidence, I stayed two blocks away from his unassuming shop. On my third day in Tokyo, I decided to join the queue only 15 minutes before opening. This indifference was duly punished as the signature cake – ‘ambroisie’, was snapped up by those who came even earlier. Disheartened, but unbeaten, I chose four other petits gâteaux to share between my Dad and I. Three days later, I made another visit, only to miss the signature again, but two other cakes made up for that.
All in all, I tasted six cakes out of the 20 over that were charmingly displayed on the cake counter. (You see, I always had a thing for cake counters.) Each of the six has its own merits, but I was particularly inspired by the Framboisier. No photos were allowed, so words will have to suffice. Simply put, this layered cake accentuates our love for raspberries. Alternating layers of buttercream and jaconde offer soft and creamy textures on the palate, while the centre slice of jelly and garnishing raspberries present the refreshing and tangy aspect of this red midsummer gem. A layer of craquelin which sits atop the cake provides a crunchy distinction. With its shades and hues of red, and perfect layering, this cake grabs glances and robs hearts. As a whole, there is contrast, balance, and elegance, notwithstanding the fact that all elements comprise raspberries. Such is a dessert in which the ingredient humbles the chef, and the chef does justice to the ingredient.
The rest of the cakes were delights too. Amber Noix was a classic combination of chocolate, caramel and walnuts. Sous-Boismade another berry heaven. Tartelette au caramel passion, a bountiful tart of nuts and dried fruits wallowing in a smooth and rich passionfruit caramel, complemented by a quenelle of vaporous crème Chantilly. Charmewas griottes, enough said, and Geometrin had an interesting, enlightening pairing of grapefruit and mint. Perhaps they weren’t all mind-blowing, but in chez Sugino I realized how simplicity doesn’t preclude ingenuity. After all, it takes most skill to execute the basics well beyond perfection.
On my first visit, Chef Sugino walked into the salon de thé from the kitchen. The gray hues of his hair suggested a certain frailty, at the same time an evidence of his dedication in decades. In his chef jacket, apron and clogs too, he glanced across the room in all modesty. He approached two boys accompanied by their mother for an afternoon treat, and they traded some words. I was too far away to hear anything, nor could I understand. Yet from the humble grin Chef Sugino revealed as he returned to the kitchen, I could imagine that to be his happiness, if not, close enough.
I have never liked sushi. It’s not that I hate it, but I haven’t actually go to great lengths to appreciate it. Fancy sushi restaurants cost a bomb, and affordable places serve sushi that warrants little merit. Cold, over-sized rice balls ruins the tastiest fish, while tasty fish don’t come by cheap.
On my fifth trip to Japan, I thought I should try some serious sushi. Everybody knows about Sushi Jiro, because it has three-michelin stars, because Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and because President Obama dined there. Unfortunately, I’m just a poor nobody who can’t speak Japanese, and so I had to opt for a more casual, but still serious, affair. A brief search on the Internet led me to Sushi Iwa.
Sushi Iwa is a small restaurant located in Ginza. It isn’t far from Tsukiji market where over 300 sushi restaurants around the area get their fresh produce from. With only six seats, every customer gets the chef’s undivided care and attention. There were two chefs on the counter, and Chef Tsunoda prepared our meal for lunch. I didn’t ask, but Chef Tsunoda seemed to have taken over as head chef/owner, whereas the blog posts, which I referred to, named him as the sous-chef. Such are petty matters… besides, it made an impressionable sushi experience.
For this virgin venture, my Dad and I chose the 13-piece set lunch, over the 10-piece set and the dinner omakase. There was tai, saba, karei, akami–zuke, toro, bonito, ika, hotate, some crab, anago, and I can’t name the rest. I can’t remember the exact order either, which is important in a sushi meal. The chef pressed the rice à la minute, taking care of the temperature of both the rice and the fish, and asked us if the amount of wasabi was alright. Everything was fresh and the natural flavors of the sea shone through. It is difficult to name any favorite, because I never had better of each kind. The saba, the toro, the bonito, the ika… the hotate, the anago… breathe, restraint, breathe… you get the point.
What makes sushi serious anyway? Fresh seafood, restrained use of rice, or serving them at the right temperatures and in the right order? As a novice in all things, I can’t give an informed answer. What I know to be true, is that food becomes serious when chefs are committed to their business. The respect for ingredients, the dedication towards technique, the drive for precision… these may all sound frivolous to the common populace, but in the pursuit for better food, if the men and women in white jackets and tall hats do not uphold these ideals, who would?
From the sushi to the hospitality, Chef Tsunoda’s belief in his craft is noticeable in his actions. What I could admire more is his humility, which I think all chefs, or in fact everyone, should have. At the end of the meal, we chatted for a while, about sushi, pastry, and the weather. He walked us out, and stood outside the place to see us off. I walked away that summer afternoon, knowing that I would be back some day for a great meal, which is so much more than good food alone.
People say summer is a dream. I couldn’t be less sure, on the eve of a new semester. Am I waking up into a dream, or am I falling into reality? Ever since my enrolment at the university, my life has been oscillating between who I am and who I want to be. This incoherence is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be discomforting on occasions. At least, I know where I am headed.
My mom tells me that when I was really young, I wanted to be a fireman. In primary school, I wanted to be an astronomer. For a while, I wanted to be a doctor, then, a scientist. I couldn’t remember if there was a time when I didn’t at least have a vague idea of what I want to be. I don’t need a fixed direction, but I can’t live with having no direction at all. That’s me.
“My name is Han, and I want to be a pastry chef.”
This proclamation sounds frivolous and strange enough, but it helps me stay on track. I don’t suppose it takes such difficulty for most to find their place in the kitchen, but I could use a little more clarity. Business schools and commercial kitchens are rather disparate worlds, and I suck at transitions.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that summer break is over. The previous month has been eventful – leaving Pollen, a week’s stint in the military, a trip to Tokyo, and being a photographer for Freshmen Orientation Week. This summer has been more than rewarding and I hope that the next would be just as fantastic, if not better. Before then, the second year of school wouldn’t be short of adventures to look forward to! For one, I’m taking another French module, super! Getting to see friends around in school will be awesome too, and not forgetting an exchange programme to Hong Kong in the second semester!
As usual, I’ll promise more time for baking and French. More reading too, with more positivity. Here’s to a great year ahead!
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have put off writing for some time, in part due to a recent development in my living arrangement that has left me in partial distraught, and in another part, I was bothered about the legitimacy of writing about food. The former was an unexpected incident of which I am scarce with explanation in respect for privacy. The latter happens to all of us every now and then.
With the return flight in sight at the end of this month, my fervent search for the most inspiring pastry in Paris went up a few notches. While I have tasted a couple of chocolate entremets recently, and made some notes for writing about them, I haven’t had the motivation to churn out a proper post, for all that has happened. They were good, of course, but that’s all I could bring myself to say.
My practical exam in school looms ahead, followed by a trip to Rome next week (with good chance I could witness the emergence of the white smoke from the conclave). I’ve been busy, and I still am, but that is no exemption from a Saturday morning of pastry and coffee.
That led to my first tasting of pastries at La Chocolaterie de Jacques Genin. It wasn’t until this January that he had stopped daily production of his impressive repertoire of pastries, preferring to focus on chocolates instead. Foodies familiar with Paris would know his eclairs and tarte au citron are legen-wait-for-it-dary, and fate ordains (pardon for the cliche that the tarte au citron was available today. It was the only thing that could pull me out of my current existential crisis, and will me to write this post.
I have had a number of lemon tarts that I could easily give a D – for disappointment. In fact, I’ve never had a satisfactory one, so perhaps my prior disappointments were unfounded. At long last, a work of genius justified just how perfect this simple tart could be. Having read a couple of food blogs, I’ve picked up the advice of not using superlatives to describe food, but this would prove to be difficult.
So what makes a perfect tarte au citron? No doubt, the key lies in the lemon cream, although a notable effort must be invested in the tart shell. There was nothing to complain about that of this particular tart – it was crisp, fragrant with butter, thin and crumbly. Going back to the lemon filling – lemon is a difficult flavor to work with. Choosing a wrong variety, or incorporated too much will warrant decaying teeth. One could either use sugar or butter, or both, to balance out the acidity and draw out the refreshing sparkle of the exemplary citrus fruit. Unfortunately, it is hard to come by one with the perfect equilibrium. Some have it too sweet; they have ‘sugar tarts’ instead. Some have it too buttery, which weighed down on the palate. Many others err on having an excess of both. Fortunately, there was Monsieur Jacques Genin.
A friend of mine would say that I’m a die-hard fan of this contemporary master. He’s a fan of Jean-Paul Hévin, and I could understand why. That said, I might have thrown him into disarray, having suggested a session of pastries at M. Genin’s. I could be biased, so having someone else to taste the tarte au citron was a reassurance. To my delight, we ended up with a consensus, that the lemon cream held a delicate harmony. It was smooth, yet it wasn’t greasy. It was light, yet the citrus taste was strong and tangy. The best part – the acidity was well sequestered with the sugar and the cream, and precisely only at the end of every mouthful, so one could appreciate the full glory of lemons without having to shrivel up one’s face. The artful balance saved the tart from a meringue garnish – something too sweet for my liking. Instead, it had fine slices of fresh basil that imparted a herb-y dimension to the lemon cream. Perfect. Period.
My words doesn’t justify his genius, so I could only implore my readers to hunt down this tart should opportunity allow. On my part, I would try to replicate this back home, but this is certainly a tall order. M. Genin used lime for his lemon tarts, or so I’ve read from various sources. I could get a book he has published, solely on his tarte au citron, but secrets would remain as secrets. On a side note, my friend had the ‘made-to-order’ millefeuille with chocolate, and it was also a masterpiece. I needn’t say more.
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