Recently, Joshua Johnson joined world-renowned pastry chefs Sebastien Canonne, Jacquy Pfeiffer, En-Ming Hsu, and others on staff of The French Pastry School in Chicago. Chatting with Chef Johnson covered a wide range of topics from macarons’ “feet”, to experimentation and tradition and whether cupcakes have jumped the shark.
Chef Johnson and the Job of Educators
The French Pastry School operating at its current location for 10 years, is a part of City Colleges of Chicago. Nearing its 100th anniversary, the seven schools that comprise the community college network in Chicago are delivering “exceptional learning opportunities for a diverse population.”
Chef Johnson says they have “a growing, focused and an impressive group at The French Pastry School.” He also notes that right now, there is “lots of growth in pastry and with the right people, equipment and education” new pastry chefs can go far.
Students at FPS are a mix of career changers – those who weren’t exactly planning on a career in pastry but have landed in that opportunity – and others who are very green. “Some land here that don’t know how to crack an egg. Others come here with culinary experience, but to want focus on in a detailed way, on pastry. They want the great training and to work on the best equipment, as we have here.”
One of the things Chef Johnson mentions again and again is the advantage of good kitchen equipment and solid, traditional foundations. For example, they have a new machine that tempers chocolate, students get to use it, to become familiar with it so if they run into it in their career, they’ll know it. But, most of them will start in a kitchen that doesn’t have it, so they must be, and are, trained at tempering chocolate by hand.
Innovation and Tradition
Similarly, when the topic of so-called molecular gastronomy comes up he brings it back to innovation, yes; but based on solid foundation. If you break down categories of cooks, some will say “cooks versus pastry chefs” and to some extent he says it’s true. In pastry “precise is the only way, it is such a science. The addition of molecular gastronomy is like a third category. You must be careful not to let the foundation on which you build suffer. If you move to fast to molecular gastronomy, or some other trend, it may be hot now, but if you spend a year, five years or more doing it, can you shift back? People are always interested in comfort food, will you have the tradition, the discipline or will your practice suffer?”
On the other hand, he knows well and appreciates the role of risk-taking in true learning. “People that don’t take risks don’t learn much.” While he began apprenticing in his uncle’s shop as a teenager, much like the European model, he had several opportunities to take a leap here or there, and took them. Many would have perceived those leaps as “risks.” Chef Johnson believes that by pushing himself to take those risks, to do those things that maybe were a little intimidating, he learned the most.
He has a gentle demeanor that one can imagine is quite comforting in the classroom. In fact, he says he himself is a “slow learner” (despite his notable accomplishments). His learning style, he says, really helps him to appreciate all the different ways that students learn.
“It’s really fun to watch them learn, to see when the light goes on and they get it, it’s really rewarding to be a part of. Now I know I feel good, and I’m finally doing what I’ve wanted to do.”
Another tradition versus innovation question was broached: have cupcakes jumped the shark? Are Macarons replacing them as darling dessert du jour? Well, of course, macarons or “macaroons” as we call them here are quite popular and growing more so by the day. Did you know they have “feet”? That little rolled edge at the bottom shows proper technique. With regards to cupcakes, Chef Johnson notes that the recent BLT cupcake he read about might signal the beginning of the end. (ed. note: ick)
Three Tips for Home Bakers
With good friends, we have the comfort of neither weighing thoughts nor measuring words, and knowing all will be sifted and sorted with a kind hand.
With baking, we must weigh and measure ruthlessly.
- One tip is to get a kitchen scale (more on this later)
- Use unsalted butter, it will make a difference as most recipes call for salt.
- Use the best butter you can afford, this is one of those seemingly simple fixes people often overlook. With many recipes the ingredients are few so quality matters more.
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