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Wanderings

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.

Fin.

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.

Saint-Honoré

Saint-Honoré – my newest favorite.

Failure smells like burnt caramel.

It isn’t always easy to get pâte à choux right. Indeed, failure is a precedent to success, but it feels awful to make the same mistake again. Prior to culinary school, I’ve made a couple of attempts to bake a proper batch of choux pastry. The results are not perfect, but somehow better than what I did just yesterday.

Pâte à choux uses water as a “leavening agent”, when water becomes steam in the oven. And thus, I think, the amount of eggs needed depends on how much water is lost during the initial stage of boiling the milk. I added too much egg, and the batter became too watery.

I have shared something about learning in the previous post in the series, and it is apt to say mistakes are part of learning. We can wallow in our mistakes and not achieve anything at the end of day, or simply move on. This is probably one of the most cliché advice given. But it takes aptitude to “move on”.

In the professional kitchen, mistakes can be costly. I have no experience in the professional kitchen (the closest was my short stint as a barista), but I can imagine how it affects one’s feeling when something turns out wrong. It can be a relentless blow to one’s confidence, one’s outlook. Of course it doesn’t kill, but any self-respecting person will feel a dent on his or her esteem. This is probably true in any profession.

Serious talk aside, it’s getting quite cold in Paris, and it just might snow. Having spent most parts of my life in a tropical country, I look forward to a snowy Paris. Although my ‘virgin’ snow experience was lost in Mongolia (in summer), it’s still an experience to see Paris blanketed in snow. I just might curse myself next week, when I’m shivering in the streets.

And I’ve decided to visit SIRHA, albeit for two out of the four days of foodie heaven. SIRHA is a grand food exposition, and Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie is part of it. There are many other exciting competitions going on – cheesemaking, latte art, breadmaking and catering, so I figured it was worth the train ticket and a bed for a night. Hopefully it so inspires me, I’ll fall in love with food and live happily ever after.

Speaking about food, I was enticed by a bistro claiming to serve “traditional french cuisine”. I prefer to cook most of my meals, because it’s way more economical. So out of foolishness and curiosity, I decided to pay 14.9€ for an entrée, a main, and a dessert. It was sorely disappointing, especially the tarte aux pommes – poor garnish, unspectacular marmalade, and worst of all, a crust with a cardboard texture. I’m usually not picky about food, but well, I had expected more. I guess, another mistake made, another lesson learnt. Never enter a bistro near a tourist attraction. You’re probably better off with a sandwich from anywhere else.

Voilà voilà

Image

It was a cold week, to say the very least. This week marked the start of lessons proper at the culinary school. Demonstrations have begun, and practical lessons followed suit. Each student was given an impressive set of tools, which they certainly paid for. Some of these, like the chopper or the fish knife, will be put aside for now, while the others were put to good use in the first few practical classes.

Being back in school again feels nostalgic. It’s a different type of school, in comparison with high school, but it’s still an institute of learning. Not that I didn’t learn anything in the past two years in the army, the setting of the demonstration theatres and the kitchen classrooms is homologous to the lecture halls and tutorial classes. I’m happy to be back, learning again.

In a small country like Singapore, the government has always emphasised the importance of learning. The Ministry of Education, of Manpower aims to mould a learning nation, one in which its citizens constantly upgrade themselves to support the various pillars of the economy, and so on. Besides that little patriotism to contribute one’s value to society, what is the individual’s motivation to keep learning? Is it the process, the consequences, or just doing so because everyone is learning?

A little bit of everything. We like learning in general. In the process, we feel productive instead of wallowing in laziness or slogging away for cold, hard cash or promotions. As a student, we have subjects that we like, and others that we don’t, but it is always a positive process. Studying for exams, on the other hand, can be a little annoying. Although studying and learning are not identical processes, they are part of each other. That’s when the other reasons of motivation come in.

We learn because we want to succeed in life. In a meritocratic society like mine, certificates and results make a great deal of difference in determining the outlooks of one’s future. The number of As on the high-school final year report matter. And various schools have established a diversity of extra-curricular programmes – science research programmes, student-leader conferences, or overseas exchange programmes. While it’s true that some students genuinely participate for the delight of learning, there is always a harvest for portfolios or CVs. He attended this science fair and she organized that community project – experiences that can make an impression during interviews for prized placings in undergraduate schools.

In my struggle, not mine alone, between ideals and pragmatism, I think that either, or both of, these reasons are legitimate. Sometimes we enjoy what we learn, and other times we envision the reward of learning. After all, learning is not all sweets and rainbows. Needless to say, the third reason is unwelcome.

I’m sharing my thoughts on learning because I am pondering over the value of learning. What is worth learning, and what not? Time and youth are limited, so we must be choosy. Ideally, there shouldn’t be a difference in value-judgement between learning in a cooking school and in university. Practically, an undergraduate degree weighs much more than a culinary diploma. I’m unsure how other countries and cultures weigh such practicalities  but from a Singaporean perspective, it is so. The paper matters. It’s a truth that I had hoped otherwise for.

It’s ironic, to realize that accepting this truth subscribes myself to the third reason. The paper matters because everyone else hold high regard for it. I will be doing something because everyone is doing the same thing. I can turn a blind eye and “learn what I want” and “do what I want”, but it is easier said than done. In the coming three months, I have to figure an answer out.

Moving on, it has been a rewarding experience learning how to live independently. Living alone takes skill, because you have to take care of everything yourself. Your laundry, your meals, your room hygiene etc. But those are the simple stuff. The challenging tasks are keeping your spirits up, finding motivation, and cooking healthy meals for yourself. If these don’t matter, I’ll probably end up as a couch potato,eating microwave-ready meals and sleeping the day away. It’s been one and half weeks, I’ve coped well, but it’s been only such a short time. Time will tell the tale.

P.S. WordPress has a new interface, seems pretty decent!

I’m going to name this series of posts made in Paris, and about Paris, “Where plump pigeons fly”. I’ve not seen many different populations of pigeons, but the ones in Paris are certainly plumper than those in Singapore. I day I’ll take a picture of a flying pigeon.

After spending an entire day at home to recover from the long night of New Year’s Eve, I decided to venture out to Champs-Elysee, and it was worthwhile. I found a place great for lunch, it’s Monte Carlo, just 100 metres from the Arc de Triomphe along Ave. de Wagram. Arc de Triomphe was magnificent but the food was more comforting. The cold weather makes any warm food delicious, and it didn’t take me long to finish half a chicken and a plateful of rice, which I have missed it since my departure.

With a warm stomach, I walked down Champs-Elysee just like any other tourists, queuing for Ladurée macarons (yummy comfort food) and taking pictures. But I had a mission – to get a mobile phone, and I accomplished it to my great satisfaction. I think it’s these small little things that make me feel more comfortable in a foreign land. For another instance, I realised the lady in my neighbourhood’s tabac store speaks Chinese. With my proper business settled for the day, I headed toward and past Le Grand Palais and Le Petit Palais, ending up at the Hotel des Invalides. I spent the rest of the afternoon browsing the artifacts of human’s military prowess – the arms and armors of the medieval past, and the world wars. To end of the day’s exploration, I visited Napoleon’s Tomb and the Church of St François Xavier. Architectural beauty has moved up quite a few notches in my account.

Dinner was exciting, as I tried to cook risotto for the first time. It took some time, it turned out a little salty, but the texture and the richness were promising. That means more tries to come, with a greater variety of ingredients. I’ll get wine, mushrooms and perhaps broccoli to go with.

School’s starting tomorrow, I’m pretty hyped up for that!

So here I am, in Paris, living indepedently for the first time of my life. Many would flock to this city to enjoy this “moving feast” and so did I. Just turning 21, I flew halfway across the globe, first time out of Asia, and landed myself in the city of light. In these three months of my stay, I have taken up a culinary course in pâtisserie. Whether or not I would pursue a career in the food industry, I’ll have to find the answer in this short period of time. Life decisions are always hard to make.

My first day in Paris had been quite eventful. After settling down in my accommodation, instead of taking a nap for the long night ahead, I decided to venture into the city proper. I’m living in one of the suburbs, so it wasn’t until I arrived at St-Germain-Prés that the thought sunk in – I am in Paris.

It’s the architecture, the details, the people and the food. I haven’t seen much yet, but the feeling that everything is different has overwhelmed me for a moment there. The milk tastes richer, the tomatoes tastes greater, the baguette – pure awesomeness. And one thing for sure, people here eat well, and take the time to savour their meals.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting a friend from a language exchange website. She invited me to dinner, and that was my first proper meal in Europe. We had steak, and I had a wonderful créme brûlée to finish the course. She brought only her boyfriend, and another friend, and they both speak Chinese. Strange enough, it felt comfortable to meet someone who can speak something you understand (I can’t converse in French, yet). Well, I’m learning, and I’ve had some accomplishments, such as buying a monthly transport pass. I’m able to pick up some words here and there, but it’s still a far cry from conversing.

Nonetheless, we went of to a NYE party, and rendezvous-ed with a few more friends from Taiwan. They’re exchange students. And honestly, that was my first clubbing experience, probably my last too. I enjoyed it, it was on a yacht parked near the Eiffel Tower, but mindlessly moving hands and legs along to the loud music just isn’t the kind of thing I would enjoy. Nevertheless, it was good exposure, and I think it took me some confidence to let loose for a while.

So that concluded my first day (and night) in Paris, although technically it ended with an awfully arduous journey (in which I struggled to stay awake) back to my place. That’s the bad (perhaps good in some way) thing about travelling alone. You’ve got to fend for yourself. But it’s always nice to have met friends along the way, and I’m glad I did. Still, a long journey ahead, I had better get some rest after the long night.

Voilà voilà !