What does it take to perfect a flawless éclair? A picture-perfect macaron? The answer: an intimate knowledge of the fundamentals of pastry.
Today, pastry chefs have earned one of the most respected positions in the culinary arts, earning their keep creating magic from basic ingredients like flour, water, sugar, and butter.
Thanks to consumer demand for high quality baked goods, pastry chefs work, not only in high end restaurants, but also local bakeries. In fact, a talented pastry chef may share equal rank with the head chef, even collaborating on the flavors used for an entire meal. Pastry chefs have hosted cooking shows, written cookbooks, and even established schools to train new pastry chefs.
Jacquy Pfeiffer is one such chef.
Pfeiffer has worked with pastry his whole life, beginning at age fifteen when he apprenticed his family’s pastry shop in Strasbourg, France. When he decided to make pastry his life’s work, he began by studying food technology at Baldung Grien College in France, where his talents won him accolades as "Best Apprentice".
After graduating, he refined his skills by working in a series of celebrated pastry shops in Alsace, France, including Chocolaterie Egli and Patisserie Naegel. But, he wouldn’t be confined to the borders of France for long. Soon, he moved on to serve as head pastry chef for the richest man in the world, the Sultan of Brunei, and then worked as top pastry chef at the Hyatt Regency in Hong Kong.
Eventually, he realized that the greatest opportunities awaited him in the United States, and he moved to Chicago in 1992 to become pastry chef at the Fairmont Hotel. That same year he won the title "Best Pastry Chef in America" and went on to win it again in 1996 and '97. In the years that followed, Pfeiffer cemented his reputation, garnering awards in both national and international pastry competitions.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, however, is the establishment of the French Pastry School in Chicago, which he founded with Chef Sébastien Canonne, M.O.F.. The first year, they had 12 students. Today, the school is considered one of the leading pastry institutions in the world, training more than 800 students annually.
I had the opportunity to propose a few questions to Chef Pfeiffer about his life’s work, his book, "The Art of French Pastry," which will be released in December, and his experience as a mentor to pastry chefs around the world. Here’s what he had to say.
OnMilwaukee.com: What led you to your career in pastry?
Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer: My dad was a bread baker and I wanted to join the culinary field and explore my creativity as well. Pastry is the perfect field for that.
OMC: Define for me what a pastry chef does, at his/her essence?
JP: A pastry chef assembles and transforms multiple ingredients into a delicacy. The trick is to understand the food science behind the ingredients as well as the combination of the flavor profiles. The presentation comes second.
OMC: Being a chef is often about continual improvement. Do you have any techniques you’re currently working to master or improve?
JP: One technique? How about 100? That is the (good) problem every chef has: techniques always evolve and a chef will never be done learning or improving. He or she will always have another test to conduct to achieve a great result. I could be working on something as simple as a muffin or a cookie, it does not matter – it could always be better.
OMC: Your book, "The Art of French Pastry" is coming out Dec. 3. What part of the book did you most enjoy creating?
JP: I most enjoyed writing the beginning of the book when I was allowed to explain the books’ purpose and why I was writing it. My intent with that chapter was to inspire upcoming chefs or even just a baker at home; this is what I was meant to do in life.
OMC: What’s your hope for what the audience gets out of the book?
JP: I hope that first and foremost they feel inspired to bake and expand their skills in the kitchen. I want them to have not only recipes that work, but also detailed explanations of why they work. I’ve included fun facts and stories about my experiences with the recipes so they feel excited to create their own.
OMC: What are the myths surrounding pastry chefs? And how true/untrue are they?
JP: French Chefs are supposed to be yellers – disgruntled bosses who lead by intimidation. This was true in the old days (there are some of my own stories in my book) but times have changed and chefs are now much more human and patient – especially pastry chefs (smiles).
OMC: Is there anything in the pastry world you don’t really love to do?
JP: Breads, they are alive!
OMC: What about trends in pastry today? Where is the industry going?
JP: Thank goodness, the trend is to go back to basics while using more natural ingredients.
OMC: Talk to me about mentoring? What does that opportunity mean to you?
JP: It means everything; I was taken under someone’s wing at the age of 15 and it changed my life. I wish the U.S. would embrace fully the apprenticeship system as it would give young people something to believe in, someone who would believe in them, and help keep them out of trouble.
OMC: You’ve mentored some of our chefs here in Milwaukee, yes? Any star students?
JP: Chef Kurt Fogle is the obvious pick; he accepted to be in a type of apprenticeship with me which then, I hope, shaped his entire career for the better. It allowed him to gain a vision for his future.
OMC: Do you have any particular success stories to share with regard to mentoring?
JP: There are too many to share but the main idea during my mentorship is that my mentor never allowed me to be lazy or to think small. I thank him for that because he injected so much common sense in my 15-year-old brain; it pushed away all of the junk that was in there. I try to impart that same lesson to each one of my students.
While not everyone is lucky enough to be mentored by Chef Pfeiffer, soon everyone will have the opportunity to be influenced by his wisdom.
Pfeiffer’s first book "The Art of French Pastry," will be published on Dec. 3. It is an invaluable tome for anyone interested in the culinary art of pastry, starting with fundamentals like making simple syrup, pastry cream, brioche and ganache, and moving on to more complex recipes that build on the basics.
But, it is more than a simple cookbook. Recipes not only detail each step but also explain the "why" behind combining certain ingredients first, using certain tools over others, and baking at the right temperatures. Photographs assist in the process by visually demonstrating details such as knowing when you’ve achieved the right consistency for choux paste or meringues.
Martha Rose Shulman, co-author of "The Art of French Pastry," is also a cooking teacher and food columnist for The New York Times. Of the book, she says: "I’ve been able to incorporate some of the techniques I’ve learned testing and writing pastry recipes into my savory cooking. Anything I make that has a crust now has a better crust, no matter what type of flour I use. My whole-grain breads have a moister crumb. I’m more adept at baking in general, whether I’m making a Black Forest cake or a savory cabbage galette."
In an effort to celebrate his new book, Le Reve Patisserie & Café will host an Alsatian dinner in Pfeiffer’s honor on Wednesday, Dec. 4. The dinner will include five courses expertly prepared by chefs including Patrick Murphy of Le Reve, Matthew Haase of Rocket Baby Bakery, Tom LaPierre of MATC, Kurt Fogle, Pastry Chef of SURG Restaurant Group and Andy Schneider of Le Reve. The dinner will also feature preserves from Elizabeth Madden, Founder of Rare Bird Preserves.
Tickets are $125 per person, excluding tax and gratuity. Each ticket includes a signed copy of "The Art of French Pastry." The dinner will begin with passed hors d’oeuvres and book signing at 5:30 p.m., with dinner to follow at 6:30 p.m.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.