Pastry Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer: Through the eyes of an apprentice
"A lifetime is not long enough to learn pastry. One always needs to keep working on mastering this ever-changing craft. That's what makes pastry so fascinating – it's a never-ending story." –Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer.
World renowned pastry chef Jacquey Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago's French Pastry School and author of the new book "The Art of French Pastry," has won countless accolades for his tireless pursuit of perfection in pastry.
He has also been recognized for his exceptional mentorship, which he has extended to dozens of pastry students from Wisconsin. Some, like Chef Kurt Fogle of SURG Restaurant Group, who Pfeiffer mentions by name as a star pupil, have gone on to make their own marks on the world of pastry.
On January 12, Fogle and a team of some of the city's finest culinary talent – including Chefs Justin Carlisle of Ardent, Matt Haase of Rocket Baby Bakery, Andrew Miller of Hom Woodfired Grill and Jarvis Williams of Carnevor -- will host a dinner honoring Pfeiffer. The five course dinner will serve as a celebration of his life, his work, and his new book.
The menu is being kept under wraps, but Fogle says each chef will be pulling out the stops in an effort to pay homage to Pfeiffer.
"We all work together, and we're all a little competitive," Fogle remarks, "So, you know everyone is bringing their A-game. There's something--without trying to sound like too much of a weirdo -- about watching five guys really going for it. To be a person in the room experiencing those dishes."
Fogle has a particular investment in the dinner, since Pfeiffer was a key influencer in setting the direction of his career.
During his tenure with Pfeiffer, Fogle was one of very few Americans who had the privilege of taking part in the prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition (Best Craftsmen in France), a competition captured in the documentary, "Kings of Pastry."
NPR's Ella Taylor remarked, "Kings of Pastry is about the craft, the teaching and learning, the collaborative work, the tedium, the heartbreak and emotional backbone it takes to make something lovely, even if that something is destined to disappear down a gullet in seconds — and even if the maker ends up a noble failure."
"The whole damn experience was indelible," Fogle says. "Working with Pfeiffer was two years of just having my mind blown day after day. And it was exhausting. Nothing will ever be harder than that. Nothing. I'm going to continue to challenge and push myself, but that's the highest level."
Working together created a professional and personal bond between the two chefs. Fogle says Pfieffer continued to be his mentor even after he left Chicago. In fact, it was Pfieffer who encouraged Fogle to move back to his home state of Wisconsin after completion of the competition.
"Since I was 15 working at O&H Danish Bakery in Racine, I had a passion for this part of the culinary world, and Pfeiffer encouraged me to come back and see where I could enhance pastry here," he says.
He credits Pfeiffer with launching his career, as well as setting the direction for his art.
"To sum it up," Fogle tells me, "He's one of the best pastry chefs on the planet, and in turn I'm one of the luckiest apprentices to walk the planet."
He went on to talk about some of the things he took away from his experience.
"I don't want to say I didn't learn to cook from him," Fogle explains. "But what I really learned is how to think, how to be organized. He didn't teach me how to bake, he taught me how to think."
And for Fogle, part of that experience was learning that he could do anything to which he set his mind.
"One of the first things you learn from him is that anything is possible, because if it's impossible we're just going to create a technique or a tool or a trick to make it happen," he tells me. "It wasn't how to hold a spatula and fold mousse. It was the commitment and philosophical aspect I gained – learning to be tenacious and resourceful so that when I get out into the real world... when I don't have a proofer or a sheeter-- and I have an oven with hotspots hotter than Mercury -- that I could still put out a great croissant."
Fogle, who has known Pfeiffer since 2006, says he's more than just a great teacher and pastry chef.
"He's really really good at foozeball and ping-pong," Fogle goes on. "Like he makes me feel bad about even playing against him."
But, Fogle says his gentle disposition is what really makes Pfeiffer exceptional.
"In all the time I've known him, he's never raised his voice," he explains. "He's the sort of guy who just makes you want to do things better – whether it's pastry or what it is… he just never loses any steam. He's ok going back and back and back and making things better and better. That's really what rubbed off the most."
Fogle, who teaches part-time at MATC in their culinary department, says he learned a great deal about teaching from Pfeiffer.
"I think the most important thing that I learned from him is that you have to be patient, and you have to let people struggle through it… a good example is that he was trying to teach me how to pipe something. I was struggling with holding the bag and not moving it. A couple of years later I realized I was doing it properly. But, I don't know when it happened. He instilled in the idea that you just need to do it and do it again."
So, when he teaches, Fogle says he always keeps that in mind.
"The fact is, I can't talk you into being a good pastry chef, and I can't make you into a great chef. But, I can be there for you and work with you and help you get there."
Sounds like the sort of teacher we'd all love to have had.
The dinner honoring Chef Pfeiffer will take place at Carnevor, 724 N. Milwaukee St., on January 12 beginning at 5 p.m. The cost is $150 per person, which includes a champagne toast, appetizers, a five course meal with wine pairings, and a signed copy of Pfeiffer's book. Seating is limited; reserve your seat by calling 414-223-2200.
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