I wasn’t sure what to expect from an event billed as a “pastry think tank.” Instead of political science professors discussing diplomatic relations with Iran, would pastry chefs debate the nuances of different flours for macarons? Would papers be presented on the best approaches for tempering chocolates or making bonbons?
Regardless, I was intellectually—and physically—hungry to see what awaited me at the grand opening of French chocolate manufacturer Valrhona’s first U.S. school outpost, L'École Valrhona Brooklyn, on Monday.
Perfect little squares of chocolate with salted caramel, stylish cones of churros, and breathtaking mixed berry tarts filled the Brooklyn loft spaces as I arrived. Larabars and Liquiteria cold-pressed juices were also remarkably abundant, along with crates of fresh apples and oranges at the seminars.
Panels featured what one guest described as the pastry world’s version of “the Olympics—without competition.”
But woe unto those looking for a cupcake.
I was not exactly surprised when flared nostrils and poorly disguised sighs greeted me when I asked chefs at the L'École Valrhona Brooklyn for their thoughts on the cupcake, the dessert that has won American hearts in a sugary haze.
The result is nary a block of Manhattan lacks a cupcake shop (even after the fall of Crumbs).
However, asking about the lowbrow cupcake is the pastry chef’s version of trolling.
Bernard Casse, a French chef who works at Croissan’ Time in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, appeared somewhere between utterly baffled and simply exasperated when I asked him his thoughts on the cupcake’s popularity.
“For the cupcake…” He struggled for words. His face contorted, as if he were trying to figure out if he had been punked. Or, to put it in culinary terms, it’s as if I just asked him if he preferred lukewarm Franzia in a red Solo cup or straight from the eight-dollar box.
“We are French people. We do not think about a lot of cupcakes,” he finally said.
Kate Mansi, a pastry chef from Baltimore, was warmer in her response, but no less dismissive of the cupcake. “I think Georgetown Cupcakes was on TV [actually called DC Cupcakes on TLC from 2010-2014], and everyone was like ‘Oh, I can make a cupcake,’” she said, alluding to a frustration that would be echoed by Michelin-starred and James Beard award-winning chefs throughout the think tank: people think they can do what we do because it’s on television and looks adorably simple.
“I think it [the cupcake] will be replaced by more technique-based trends,” said Mansi, perhaps more hopeful than accurately predictive.
Pride in traditional craftsmanship was the predominant theme at this pastry think tank. Classic precision and skill more than eye-raising creations were on display, values the great François Payard espoused point-blank.
“With a pastry shop, you have to be careful not to get too crazy with the mix of flavors,” he said. “I think at one point, people were trying to be too complicated. They [customers] will view you as an exception. You want them to view you as a necessity.”
If anyone knows what encourages people to spend on the high-art of pastry, it is Payard, the decorated pastry chef with locations in New York City, Las Vegas, South Korea, and Japan.
I am no food snob—Pop Chips and a pint of frozen yogurt consumed while standing is my meal of choice. But even I could see there would have been something utterly indelicate about a cupcake appearing in its frothy, garishly-colored state near Payard’s creations.
Despite my hunger, I could barely bring myself to touch the desserts at his pop-up station at L'École Valrhona Brooklyn.
His macarons in beautiful shades of lavender, with flavors like “Cassis Violet,” lined tables besides chocolate infused with ginger, jasmine tea, and fresh key lime. I got physically anxious holding a small piece of Payard’s famous Decadence cake and almost dropped the divine flourless chocolate creation.
But the delicious delights created by some of the world’s most renowned pastry chefs were (almost) second fiddle to the larger debates.
As with any think tank, the organizers had a presumed agenda they sought to advance. While the Heritage Foundation fights the spread of same-sex marriage laws, it appears that Valrhona is combating the “bean-to-bar” movement.
I had never heard of “bean-to-bar” prior to the Valrhona think tank, but it is actually a manifestation of the farm-to-table, do-it-yourself movement that is fairly commonplace in the foodie world. “Bean-to-bar” is the idea that chefs make their own chocolate.
Obviously, a chocolate manufacturer, like Valrhona, would likely not endorse this approach. The concept was roundly dismissed by nearly everyone I approached at the think tank.
“I’m not a fan,” said Chris Kollar, a cofounder of Kollar Chocolates in the Napa Valley. “They want to recreate the wheel. One of the seminars used the great example of a baker doesn’t want to recreate how flour is made.”
“It’s completely silly and ironic because cacao is only grown in super specific regions in the world. There are only, like, five genuses,” said Shuna Lydon, who is a pastry chef at Bakeri, which has locations in Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn.
However, the rejection of “bean-to-bar” did not preclude some, shall we say, controversial ingredients from the pastry dialogue.
Perhaps fitting for a grand opening on April 20—aka the unofficial national weed holiday of 4/20—marijuana emerged as a hot topic.
Joey Gentry, the vice president of Altamira Foods, a specialty foods distributor in Denver, was only partially joking when he said marijuana was a future trend in the pastry world.
“One of our top customers is a dispensary,” he said in all seriousness. Gentry declined to name the distributor. They make chocolates that “look like little pieces of dog shit, but they are THC-infused,” he said.
Far more controversial, though, was a discussion of the unique constraints on female pastry chefs, which flared up unexpectedly at the “Michelin Star-Studded Panel.”
A question about the difficulties balancing work and family obligations directed only at the female members of the panel—Stephanie Prida of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, Anna Bolz of Per Se in New York City, and Ghaya Oliveira of Daniel in New York City—exploded into outcry disguised as questions from the audience.
One woman, who identified herself as a hotel chef, said, “I’m 30. I’m about to become a mom. I’ve given ten years to my career. I feel like it should be okay to add this to my life, but it’s presented huge challenges. We have enormous pressure. It’s really tough.”
What complicated any fruitful debate was that the French patisserie world, which many of the speakers and moderators came from, has been critiqued as unusually hostile to women.
Ironically, France has one of, if not the, best social safety nets for women having babies. The different backgrounds and high emotions produced an interesting but muddled mélange of remarks.
“There are some of the greatest pastry chefs in the room, some of the most incredible chocolatiers and patissiers are in the room, and we have to focus on this heteronormative, totally straight conversation about where women should be. It’s bullshit,” said Lydon.
She felt the discussion was useless—even as someone who had been denied a job because she was a woman. “I applied at Daniel to be a pastry cook when I was in my twenties. I was looked up and down by the pastry chef at the time, and he said, ‘Yeah, we don’t hire women.’”
Even though Lydon finds it upsetting that “the old school French pastry world has completely blocked women from coming into kitchens,” she thought “one comment was okay but to go on and on was a waste of time.”
To be fair, the three women on the panel did not seem especially interested in debates about feminism. From my admittedly millennial perspectives, the questions posed by the moderator unfairly presupposed that only women worry about work-life balances.
As beautiful as the desserts were and as passionate as the attendees were, the think tank seemed more like the pâtissier equivalent of grumpy, old men screaming at kids to get off their lawn at times.
Slamming the up-and-coming generation of chefs as too entitled and lazy was all but universal.
Even the relatively young chefs, like Oliveira, who is the executive pastry chef at Daniel, which boasts a two-star Michelin ranking (enviable even after its recent demotion from three), was dubious of the latest crop of chefs.
“It’s hard to find the right cooks who are really dedicated and want to put in the effort. People think it’s like a simple thing, ‘I make cupcakes at home,’” she said at the panel, throwing yet another jab at the already beleaguered cupcake.
“We used to work long hours to hours to reach the top. Nobody wants to do that anymore. I think with this generation, everybody thinks they’re ready right out of school.”
The rise of the celebrity chef was more than subtly blamed. Members of the panel were very quick to poo-poo the fame heaped on culinary personalities by the Food Network and the spate of reality shows on cable (Top Chef, The Best New Restaurant) and network (Hell’s Kitchen, The Taste) channels.
“I think when they’re watching Food Network, it sends the wrong message. They just want to watch Bobby Flay. He’s very successful for what he does [but] the rest of the world doesn’t do that,” said Sebastien Rouxel, one of the panel’s moderators and a renowned pastry chef who helped lead the way at Bouchon Bakery and Per Se in New York City.
This sentiment was echoed outside the panel, as well, with the kind of blunt candor that I doubt one would hear at any Washington D.C. think tank event.
“[Being a chef] appears so glamorous, so it attracts a middle and upper-middle class crowd,” said Lydon.
“Guess what? They don’t know how to work hard,” adding with a scoff. “They don’t even know how to use a sponge.”