Supplying a large volume of pastries daily to our three boutiques as well as a host of other clients, the vast, windowless offsite kitchen just outside Paris where I did my internship was a considerable operation. I'm no good at estimating square footage (and even worse with meters), but to give you some idea of the scale:
- I worked with a team of about a dozen others.
- In addition to the main lab, there were separate rooms for each the pesée (weighing ingredients) , four (ovens) and tour (large machine that churned out laminated doughs).
- The primary walk-in freezer (yes there was more than one) was about the size of the biggest kitchen at LCB.
Normally I worked in rotating teams in the main lab, but after about a month into the internship I would periodically be assigned to S, the chef in charge of le four . I'm fairly certain this all started because everyone else was tired of dealing with me - with my slowness and clumsy French - but I didn't care; S was the first person who extended kindness and patience, eventually becoming one of the few true friends I made there. She was the life preserver that helped me stay afloat in a new and (at least in the beginning) unfriendly environment, and I learned a lot from her.
During my final week I switched from the day shift (7am - 4pm) to working nights (10pm - 7am). While adjusting my schedule to sleep during the day was brutal, I found that I really enjoyed the night shift. Whereas during the day we mostly did prep work and intermediate steps, the night crew finished everything to be delivered on time in the morning. So in a way the tasks felt like more of an accomplishment because the results were so tangible; for most of the night we worked to put together and garnish everything until the deliverymen came to take the pastries away.
On one particular night I was, once again, assigned to work in the four . But instead of S the pâtissier in charge was a young guy, about my age, whom I'll call A because he was Algerian and also very attractive, to the point where each time he showed me how to do something I was more focused on looking at him rather than what he was doing. Over the course of the next several hours this made for several silly, careless mistakes on my part.
"C'est pas grave," he would say, with a slight smile, showing me once again how to do the thing correctly. And all was forgiven.
The following night I was back in the main lab working with the manager when A, en route to the plonge to drop off dirty dishes, came up behind me and proclaimed, in English, "I miss you."
As he walked away I asked the manager if he was always like that.
"Ouai," she said emphatically.
In addition to the ovens, le four also houses a few other machines that I can only describe as giant food processors with temperature control mechanisms. S had shown me how to use them to prepare various crèmes and confit in giant quantities, but with A I made praliné , a kind of syrupy paste derived from caramelized hazelnuts and almonds. We had learned about praliné in our first lesson at LCB, and I distinctly remember chef saying not to attempt to make it at home because the processing of the caramelized nuts to achieve the final product is too much for domestic machines. (In fact, as a consultant to kitchen equipment companies, he often uses praliné as a test to see if the motors on food processors are up to strength).
A explained how they first heat the water and sugar to 118C, then add the nuts and periodically scrape down the sides of the mixer as the mixture caramelized. My job was to watch the temperature of the syrup, since between that, making crème pâtissiere in the adjacent machine, and monitoring the simultaneous baking in the three ovens, he was likely to forget. I suppose my presence was an additional distraction, but from what I could tell it was a welcome one. Afterwards the contents of the mixer were emptied into large metal trays to be taken to the Robocoup in the main lab.
Interns rarely got to touch any of the machines, perhaps for good reason. I had been instructed to use the industrial processor (Robocoup) before, but each time something always went awry. Either I messed up assembling all the parts and the machine wouldn't turn on, or I didn't mix the contents enough, or I made a huge mess when emptying the bowl. The night I was to blend the praliné into its final form - also the last night of my internship - was no exception.
A colleague helped me set everything up, explaining that the machine could only take 3-4 trays of caramelized nuts at once and that I was to leave it on the highest setting for exactly four-and-a-half minutes. I did exactly that, but when I came back and opened the machine after the timer went off, instead of a nice homogenous liquid there was a grainy paste. Puzzled, I called the same colleague over, who determined that the blade hadn't been locked in properly and the motor had jammed. Naturally, this was the exact time that the executive chef came in.
I understood enough of what the chef, an intimidating and fast-talking sort, was saying to my colleague to know that he was berating me for not being French and therefore not understanding how things are done. I could have been thrown under the bus right then and there, but instead my colleague claimed responsibility because it was she who had initially set up the machine. At that moment I felt immensely relieved that the chef and I had never had a formal introduction and that therefore he didn't know my name; I suppose from now on I'll just be remembered as the intern that broke the Robocoup.
Each shift had only one brief break. During the day it was for lunch, usually taken around 12:30pm at the cafeteria of the complex that housed the kitchen, and at night we had "breakfast" at 5am after the goods had been dispatched, when we feasted on all the superfluous or damaged pastries that couldn't be sold. For me it was much too early to be eating rich mousse cakes and cream-filled choux pastry, so I always reached for the viennoiserie (brioche, pain chocolat) and tea cakes that were scraps from the four. My favorite? The dainty little Financiers.
When I worked with A he showed me how to fill the molds with batter (almost to the top but not quite) and then, using another piping bag with the smallest tip cut off, inject a bit of praliné into the center. The result was an insanely addictive little almond cake.
Alas, the recipes at work were also off-limits to interns, but this one from Dorie Greenspan comes pretty close. And unless you have a professional grade food processor at home (or even if you do...), I'd suggest buying your praliné from the store.