As I buttoned my crisp white uniform and tied my apron round my waist, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “This is it!”. I was finally taking my first steps towards a career as a pastry chef. That was my first day at FERRANDI | L’école de Gastronomie in Paris.
A Heritage of Food
It was a long journey to reach that day in FERRANDI. The appreciation of food and cooking is in my blood; my parents emigrated to the UK over 40 years ago and opened the only Chinese restaurant on the Shetland Isles, in Scotland, where I was born. I grew up in the kitchen. My mother, a formidable woman, was the chef and cooked all the Chinese dishes herself. From a young age, I was immersed on a daily basis in a multitude of aromas that tickled my nose and taste buds. We moved south to Hampshire when I was four, where my parents set up an open kitchen Chinese takeaway, which was quite avant-garde at the time. I remember many weekend nights where my parents would stow me away in a little cubby hole directly under the counter and I would hear customers mull over the menu. I would be nodding off to sleep with the sound of my dad shouting orders and mum’s wok banging against the gas cooker. I guess that was the life for most first generation British-born Chinese in those days.
I grew up watching British television programmes, which had a strong emphasis on cookery shows. I would admire Delia Smith on television teaching her viewers how to make the perfect Victoria sponge cake. I would linger on the dessert chapters in mum’s cook books willing the photos to come to life. I remember my first ever dessert was a disastrous banana cake. As a typical Asian family, we did not have an oven at home; we had a rice-cooker and a mega powered gas cooker for the wok. I naively thought that a microwave-oven was the same as an oven so when the recipe instructed me to bake for 25 minutes, that is exactly what I did – 25 minutes full power in the microwave. Mum did not enjoy scraping the charred remnants of banana cake from the “oven”. This minor setback did not deter me and instead I focused on Asian desserts with mum’s assistance and we would make steamed sponge cakes, and crispy peanut puffs for Chinese New Year.
Law and My Journey Down a Different Path
My mum never went to school, but like most Asian parents wanted the best for me and had high hopes. In my family’s eyes, there was no doubt I would be going down the professional degree path, it was just a question of which degree: accounting, medicine or law. Spurred on by witnessing how hard my parents worked to give me a better future (and watching copious episodes of Ally McBeal), I chose law. I was the first generation to go to university and the first to study law in my family. Although I studied hard for my degree, my passion for cooking never dissipated. At university, finally equip with an oven, I would host dessert parties and that was the first time I experienced seeing the delight on people’s faces from tasting desserts that I had made. It was immensely satisfying and I was hooked on that feeling.
As with most other professional careers, once you are on the legal track it’s pretty hard to get off and you follow what your peers do. Therefore, after law school, I did an LLM degree and then came back to Hong Kong to do my PCLL at HKU. I secured a training contract and qualified as a solicitor. Throughout my legal career, I continued to bake and thanks to my years as a trainee, became very resourceful with researching on the internet for dessert recipes and also looking beyond the recipe and into the science and technicality behind it. I would accept birthday cake orders and enjoy the huge sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when friends expressed how beautiful and tasty the cakes were.
I believe life is a journey and we are presented with a multitude of crossroads where we make choices that take us on different paths. One of my defining crossroads manifested itself when I went to New York for a holiday and upon a friend’s recommendation, went to the French Culinary Institute’s adjoining restaurant for dinner. The students of the culinary school would cook the meal for diners. The food was impeccable and made me realise that a career as a chef did not have to start when you were in your teens apprenticing in Michelin starred kitchens. A seed was planted in my head that it was not too late for me to gain the skills needed to be a chef from a professional culinary school.
The decision to leave law and go to culinary school was tough, partly because culinary school is expensive, so I had to save the money, but mostly because I was afraid of stepping into the unknown. I had a stable professional job, which was respected in society; whereas a pastry chef is not a celebrated profession in Hong Kong. When I told most people my aspirations, they raised their eyebrows and asked why I wanted to “downgrade“ myself. However, I knew I would regret it if I did not take the leap because I really loved to bake and be creative. If I stayed in law, I could be financially stable, but I would not be happy. I knew I would always wonder “what if?”. So after a year of deliberating, I enrolled in one of the best culinary schools in France, FERRANDI | L’école de Gastronomie in Paris for their intensive full immersion pastry course. I would be spending a year in one of the culinary capitals of the world learning the art of dessert making.
The course at FERRANDI entailed five months of hands-on classes and afterwards the school would arrange a 6-month internship for each of us at our chosen hotel/patisserie.
A typical school day would start at 8 AM, when we would have to clean and disinfect the kitchen before the chef would demonstrate how to make a certain dessert and we would then have to replicate it. The course was called “full immersion” because it would imitate the professional working kitchen environment. Unlike some of the other culinary schools where there were kitchen assistants to do all the ground work, we were treated like kitchen staff and had to do our own cleaning, stock taking, manning the oven and constantly respond to the chef’s every command with “Oui Chef!”. Our day would end at 4 PM with one final big clean of the kitchen; mopping and disinfecting the floor, cleaning the fridges, oven and sink and ensuring we had enough stock for the following day.
Time at school flew by so quickly, but I had the opportunity to meet like-minded people from all backgrounds – teachers, graphic designers, accountants, pharmacists and even a professional wrestler. Although we had very different backgrounds and nationalities, we all had a common passion: pastry.
If we thought that being at school was tough, we were all in for a shock as soon as we started our internships. I secured an internship at Hôtel Barrière Le Fouquet’s, Paris, a five-star hotel on the Champs-Élysées which also housed a Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Diane. As soon as I stepped into the kitchen on the first day, it was all hands on deck, with the chef shouting commands in French. Although my French was conversational, I had not prepared myself for how quickly they talked and the special kitchen language that was unique to each person. Everyone had a different word or description for doing the same task. It was day one of being a trainee again, only everything had to be done yesterday and to absolute perfection because your client was going to eat it immediately. Stress levels were high, but I felt so alive, plating a hundred desserts for banquets within a set timescale. Everyone was working as a team and patting each other on the back when a particularly busy service had ended. This was what being a chef was all about, and I loved it. Working in a professional kitchen you learn so much more compared to school because you are working alongside people who have been in the profession for decades and can give you pointers that no recipe book or teacher will.
Back to Hong Kong
In what seemed like a flash, I attended my graduation ceremony in FERRANDI which brought my adventure in Paris to an end. I had spent a year in one of the most beautiful, magical and romantic cities in the world. It seemed somewhat of an anti-climax to then come back to Hong Kong.
However, Paris was just a spring board, I now had a year of pastry knowledge under my belt and I was eager to put my knowledge into practice in Hong Kong. One key aspect I learned from the chefs in Paris is that if you are passionate about something, then you never feel you know it all, there are always new techniques to learn and flavour combinations to play with.
I managed to secure a job at the two Michelin starred restaurant, Caprice, and under the tutelage of French pastry chef, Nicolas Lambert, my pastry skills were taken to another level. The discipline needed to consistently produce plate after plate of top-grade, wow-factor desserts is absolutely incredible. My time at Caprice was invaluable, not just because I got to learn from such a talented chef, but also as Cantonese was frequently used in the kitchen, I got to know and become friends with many Hong Kong pastry chefs.
It was during my time at Caprice that I realised I wanted to explore my own creativity and not replicate the executive chef’s creativity. This is why I have set-up my own brand, “CAKED_by_Isabelle”, to see where my own creativity would take me. I design and make desserts for events and I am able to utilise my years of pastry knowledge and skills to give client’s products that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also gives you a firework of flavours and textures on your palate.
The last couple of years for me have certainly been life changing and opened my eyes to so many wonderful experiences; experiences that have on occasions challenged me both mentally and physically but the sense of accomplishment that comes with knowing I have pushed myself and not just settled in my comfort zone makes it all worthwhile.
I still meet my friends and ex-colleagues in law and I do wonder where I would be if I had remained. Maybe I would be working in-house now, or as a senior associate in private practice. Nevertheless, it is only a fleeting thought. I do not regret studying and practicing law. It has taught me so many life skills and allowed me to meet lifelong friends. However, I am also happy where I am now. Not because I am making a lot of money. Not because I have risen up the social ladder, but because I found something I was passionate about and pushed myself to step into the unknown. I hope others will realise as well – that they too have it within themselves to step into the unknown and see where life takes them. As one of my favourite authors, Paulo Coelho puts it, “Remember our dreams and fight for them. There is just one thing that makes your dream become impossible: the fear of failure.”