Monday, February 8, 2010

Extended Q&A with Sébastien Canonne of French Pastry School

Editor's note: A portion of the following Q&A was featured in the "The art of the cake business" article (page 22) that appeared in the Spotlight department of the February 2010 issue of Chef Educator Today.

The timing seems just right to launch the first-of-its-kind cake decorating and baking certificate program at the French Pastry School of Chicago with a new kitchen facility set to open June 1 and nearly 200 eager applicants already seeking a space. But only 36 students will be called to the kitchens Aug. 30 for L'Art du Gâteau, as FPS co-founders Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sébastien Canonne, MOF, prefer to keep class sizes small. L'Art du Gâteau will aim, in 16 short weeks, to arm students with the skills and knowledge to launch their own wedding or specialty cake business. Up to seven capable instructors--among them master cake artist Nicholas Lodge--will teach the five-part course that includes cake baking and construction; gum paste, rolled fondant, sugar and chocolate decorating; technology; sanitation; and cake business planning. Canonne recently sat down with CET to discuss the program.
Chef-instructor and master cake artist Nicholas Lodge with kitchen assistance coordinator Kristen Ryan demonstrating the finishing touches on a celebration cake using gum paste flowers and leaves.*

How did you come up with the curriculum?
Canonne: It was a collaboration. Jacquy and I have selected teachers who are each specialized in their area. So for instance, Nicholas is known to be the best among British sculpted cake building, which is more free-form. And we have teachers in the regular pastry program teaching air brush, molding, sugar work--which for instance is rarely used on cakes here because people aren't competent to do it--who now jump in and become part of the faculty that teaches that in the cake program. Same with chocolate work and with taste. ... So we are all working together in the end because of the chefs' expertise on how a good cake can be a proper wedding cake. But we also cover marketing and legal knowledge--all things you need to know before you open a business. The intention of this program is that when you come out of it, you should feel comfortable to jump in and start a business. A lot of our students open within two to three years, which is really quick. Everybody thinks that you can just bake and have a business, but the hospitality business is actually a lot more than that. We are going to have people who've had businesses for years to show the students what to do because there are a lot of little things they have to know.

CET: How flexible is your curriculum going to be about changing trends with regard to baking and pastry ingredients and new technologies?
Canonne: We always are aware of trends, but what we teach is actually the best of the classics. That we don't want to change because if we just teach the trends, we are not going to make a lot of successful people. ... It's about learning from the best in the field who know how to do what's considered to be the best in their area, and that's how we've built the program. We encourage our students to find out what the trends are and what the new equipment is, and then that's their choice. Before you build a rocket, you've got to make simple little engines. And you have to be really good at building those little engines before you can build a rocket.
Chocolate flower technique is used to adorn many celebration cakes.*

CET: Since you'll have both food enthusiasts with no cake experience and people coming out of the continuing education program enrolled in the cake program, how will you account for knowledge gaps?
Canonne: Everybody starts at zero. Even for the people who are taking the 24-week program or are coming from the outside with industry experience, you re-evaluate yourself and what you know. Then you can get better and grow. The way our program is made is like a little puzzle. Every week you learn a little more about something and over the weeks you constantly learn more about each thing you've learned and put it into practice until it makes sense. You may retain 80 percent of it in class, but the rest is practice. That way, the whole group goes at the right pace because the program is pretty intense. They have three days of exams, four times a year. So it is good for everyone to be on the same page.

CET: When did you start to see a need for this program?
Canonne: The first day I landed a foot in the United States in 1991! It was always somewhere in the back of my and Jacquy's minds. But three years ago is when Nicholas, Jacquy and I started talking about combining forces to offer to the industry a package like this. Customers' expectations have changed over the years. They see these beautiful cakes being made in competitions on TV, and they want it. It's making people aware that it should be the kind of thing you want and buy. The problem is, there are very few who can do it since many people who are in the cake business start out baking cakes at home. And if you just try to do this from home, you will get eaten alive by competition because all you will be able to do is sheet cakes. And there is more to that recipe than just baking good cakes. This school was built on continuing education for professionals. We want our students to do well--to win, so the recipe's going to be the same as all the other programs we offer. It's just a very specific program and you learn in depth about one area, and it's one area that has demand.
Celebration cake techniques include gum paste work, rolled fondant and royal icing piping.*

CET: Who should take the program?
Canonne: People who want to start their own business, or work as a wedding cake maker, a cake decorator or private chef. What's 16 weeks of focus? That's four months of 100 percent-dedicated wedding and celebration cake work. This program is broken down and focused just on that area--so it's a lot. But that's also why it's so exciting.

CET: Were there any major challenges you faced in coming up with the program or preparing to launch?
Canonne: No, because it's just what we do every day. We have specialized people here so they know what they're doing. That's where the strength of our program is unique. It has come together very easily. The hardest thing is to get everybody together and to work out the logistics of it like ordering and storing product.

CET: How will classes be set up? Lecture, demo, hands-on?
Canonne: They will be all hands-on. First everything is demoed. You will see everything done, and then you will go and do it! If we do have lectures or technology classes, we try to do most of them in the lab as we're doing the program. There's no better time to explain about a wedding cake than while you're actually doing it. So it's very hands-on for us and for the students.

CET: People's goals are all so different. As a mentor, how do you help students with all their different questions?
Canonne: We do that all along. We are together six hours a day, five days a week. And you have 18 people in your class who are freaking out about what they're going to do after the 16 weeks are over. They all have the same questions. And by the time you've had them for those 16 weeks, they will have asked you all their questions, sometimes more than once. Again, each chef comes with a lot of experience. Every time we get someone new on the faculty, often it's someone we've known for a long time, or someone who has worked with people we know. At the end it's really about the experience you gained while you were working in the industry. And someone who takes that jump after the 16 weeks will have learned a little something from Jacquy Pfeiffer, and something from Nicholas Lodge and Mark Seaman, for example. We also have career counselors who meet individually with students about what they want to do next and how to get there.
Hazelnut, bourbon vanilla bean and salted caramel layered wedding cake is one of many taught in L'Art du Gâteau.*

CET: How did you determine the best way to divide up each segment of the program?
Canonne: Well, you could probably do just air brush for five years! But in a week's time you can combine air brush with mold-making--which has a lot of down time--so you can feel comfortable enough to go on and practice a lot more on your own. On the other hand, for the actual taste factor of making cakes, you need two full weeks to make and taste so many different cakes. And again, you're going to need to learn many different kinds of cakes, so that's how we've gone about it. We didn't decide ahead of time that the program would only be 16 weeks and that's it. We put everything we wanted to have in this wedding cake program. We wanted to have taste, air brush, mold-making--we feel we've created a program that is like nowhere else. We have a lot of people interested who've taken a continuing education class already, and we also have a lot of alumni of the 24-week program coming back.

*Photos courtesy of Paul Strabbing