Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Conversation About Charity with Top Chef Masters Marcus Samuelsson

Why did the producers of Top Chef Masters paint Marcus Samuelsson as the villain in Episode Two, It's My Party?  Just because he chose to focus on his own cooking and not prep for the MIA Carmen Gonzales, who spaced out and forgot her main course at the studio, doesn't make him a bad guy, or an "ego chef" as CultureMap Houston called him.  It makes him a serious competitor who wants to win a chunk of cash for his charity.  As an advocate myself who has devoted much of my own time to charitable causes, I'd have done exactly the same. 

Marcus Samuelsson takes his charity work seriously, and when I met him at last year's International Chef's Congress, we sat down and talked about why he's so actively involved in advocacy. 

Samuelsson is UNICEF's first and only Chef Ambassador, appointed in 2000.  He's traveled to Africa on behalf of UNICEF, and is a strong supporter of both the TAP project, which works to bring clean drinking water to communities throughout the world, and the Believe in Zero campaign, which aims for zero child deaths from preventable causes like malnutrition and malaria.  He's also active with Chefs for Humanity and C-CAP, Careers through Culinary Arts Program, which helps inner city high school kids pursue careers in the culinary industry through training, scholarships and job placement.   

When I asked Samuelsson what motivates him to devote so much time to charitable work he replied, "When you come from where I come from, you have to do something." 

Unlike the Samuelsson presented on Top Chef Masters, the Marcus I conversed with was a soft-spoken man who has managed to maintain humility in the face of his huge success.  Hardly an "ego chef," Samuelsson was genuinely down-to-Earth. 

An Ethiopian who lost his parents to Tuberculosis as an infant and was adopted by a Swedish couple, Marcus Samuelsson remains true to his roots.  I asked him why he doesn't try to run from his background as many with humble beginnings do.  He said "Being connected to poverty is one of the richest things I have in life." 

About UNICEF's TAP project—his designated charity for Top Chef Masters—Samuelsson  hit on a truth we rarely want to think about, that people in rich countries like America take clean tap water for granted, we buy tons of bottled water just because it tastes better.  "But in most parts of the world," explained Samuelsson, "clean tap water doesn't exist, and people die every day because they don't have something we take for granted—clean, safe drinking water." 

Samuelsson also talked about "the connection between food in America and internal conflicts and refugees in places like Africa and Asia,"  about how our Agribusiness and government subsidies of crops like corn can literally topple communities and even governments.  "Everyone needs to understand the global consequences of food production, so I try to maintain a dialogue with the public about these things."   

Anyone who understands the politics of food or has seen the documentary Food, Inc. will know what Samuelsson is talking about.  (If you haven't seen Food, Inc. yet, watch it!) 

I don't know Marcus Samuelsson on a personal level, but I do know his record working with charities, and that's enough for me to root for him on Top Chef Masters.  It's just unfortunate that Samuelsson's devotion to winning $100,000 for a charity he's so strongly supported was edited to make him seem uncharitable. 

Marcus Samuelsson is no villain, and he certainly didn't seem like an ego chef to me.  He seems like a driven, talented chef whose appearance on Top Chef Masters is more about helping his charity than it is about helping his career.  Samuelsson's illustrious reputation is already secure, but, as he said about TAP, "We need to secure clean, safe drinking water for everyone."

TAP Project
UNICEF Believe in Zero campaign
UNICEF Chef Ambassador Marcus Samuelsson
Chefs for Humanity

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Esteemed French Pastry Program Offers Courses in English

For Americans wanting to study real French pastry, in France, few choices are available unless you actually speak French.  Until recently... 

L'École Nationale Supérieure de la Pâtisserie is now offering several pastry arts programs taught in English.  The school, renowned for 25 years as a program for professionals looking to hone their pastry skills, recently developed an international program geared towards foreign, English speaking students.  Located in Yssingeaux, France (about a 2h 30min TGV from Paris, and 30min from Lyon—the home of the Bocuse d'Or), the courses are taught in the newly renovated Château de Montbarnier (pictured). 

Four specific programs are now offered in English.  Three two-month programs are offered in the summer (July-August) and winter (January-February), and were designed for various levels of experience.  The "Initiation Campus" offers beginners and hobbyists an intensive pastry program covering the fundamentals of French pastry.  The "Perfecting Campus" is geared toward recent graduates of pastry programs and admission requires prior experience in professional pastry.  The "Professional Campus" is also designed for professionals, those with minimum two to three years of experience, and includes added instruction in sugar and chocolate showpieces and ice sculpture. 

The fourth program, The French Pastry Arts Program Nicolas Toulliou, is a six month pastry certification program that provides students with the fundamentals of French pastry and baking, upon successful completion of which the student earns their CCA, Certificat de Compétences Académiques

What makes L'École Nationale Supérieure de la Pâtisserie, and the French Pastry Arts Program Nicolas Toulliou, just about the best choice for people who want to pursue a career in French baking and pastry is the level of instruction—no other pastry arts program has so many instructors and lecturers with the M.O.F. title (Meilleurs Ouvrier de France), the most coveted in the universe of culinary distinctions.  The M.O.F. is awarded to only a handful of masters of their craft, even woodworkers, and in pretty much every culinary discipline from Pastry and Chocolate to Bread and Cheese. 

The most surprising thing about the French Pastry Arts Program Nicolas Toulliou at L'École Nationale Supérieure de la Pâtisserie is the cost.  At 13,000 Euro ($17,500), the pastry program is less expensive than the most prestigious pastry programs offered in America.  A few examples are the French Culinary Institute in New York City, where the six month program costs between $37,000-$43,550.  The Institute for Culinary Education, also in NYC, costs up to $28,000, and Chicago's French Pastry School will set a student back $21,500.  The two-month programs range in price from 5,000 - 5,900 Euro ($6,725 - $7,900).

Considering that housing costs are not included in any pastry program's tuition and fees, a prospective student looking to study in New York City or Chicago will also be faced with high rent on top of high tuition.  For housing, L'École Nationale Supérieure de la Pâtisserie has made arrangements for its students.  At 390 Euro per month ($525), students can live ten minutes walking distance from the campus.  Add to that the fact that breakfast is included in the cost, and lunch can be added at 10 Euro per meal (appetizer, main, and of course dessert), and the French Pastry Arts Program Nicolas Toulliou looks even more affordable by comparison. 

What should make this program even more desirable to English speaking pastry students are the 80 hours of French language instruction.  Not only will French language skills help future pastry chefs communicate with their French peers, students will need those skills when it comes time to do their one month internship.  Another bonus of the program is their placement of students into choice internship positions throughout France. 

One thing to understand about the program is that it focuses strictly on classic French Pâtisserie, so if you're interested in doing wedding cakes covered in fondant, or want to follow in the footsteps of Ace of Cakes Duff Goldman, then this isn't the pastry school for you. 

The French Pastry Arts Program Nicolas Toulliou is accepting applications for its October 11, 2010 session.  For more information, just follow the links... 

International Programs Homepage: 

Overview of The French Pastry Arts Program Nicolas Toulliou:

Brochure for The French Pastry Arts Program Nicolas Toulliou:

Overview of the Three Two-Month Programs:

Brochure for the Two-Month Programs:

Accommodation/Meals Information: