This morning my daughter sat and ate a croissant with her hot chocolate. It was store bought but it was fresh and good. I watched her peel off some of the top and scoop out some of the insides and drop it down on her tongue. Then she sipped her hot chocolate through a straw and repeated the process.
Pastry chefs and many Chefs de Garde Mangers are like artists, and overall, in part, what distinguishes a pastry chef from a patissier, a Chef Garde Manger from a cold food person and an Executive Chef from a first cook or even a Saucier is that artistic quality, the ability to make a masterpiece out of a suckling pig or a decorative turkey. The saucier will make the sauce for that turkey, a cold food person will slice it and rebuild it on its frame, but the Chef Garde Manger will take it like a canvas and make it a work of art for display and even eating if that is part of the purpose. Like the visual tricks in the making of movies, sometimes display foods are made for looks and not for consumption.
Arturo was a true pastry chef and he ran the baking department at the St. Regis. That was his career, his job and his life. He was from Italy. Working with him in the pastry department (that name in English does not do justice to the work these people did) were two Frenchmen. One of them mainly baked and decorated cakes. The other made all the French pastries that you could ever want, from the delicious little cookies to the exquisite eclairs and everything else in between.
A moment’s pause to celebrate gourmet food. One of the great things about working in that hotel’s kitchen was that anything and everything you ever wanted to eat was simply there for the taking if you had the position and authority to take it. When I became Saucier and then moved on to Floor Chef, I was in that position. I could walk into the bakery department and take any pastry I wanted. I could walk into the Garde Manger and eat as many cocktail shrimp as I wanted, or whatever else I wanted, and I could have anything to drink I wanted, from espresso to Rum 151. I rarely abused this privilege, but sometimes when the craving for meat would hit me I would go to a freshly made prime rib, cut it in half and take the middle piece for myself. I generally never ate that whole piece of meat. I cut it into squares and shared with the workers on my shift.
Dominic was the baker. He was the fifth man on the Pastry Department team. He made the breads, rolls, challahs, croissants, brioche and everything else of that sort served in the hotel. When I started in the hotel, he worked days, but then the management began making payroll cuts and after awhile he went to working nights so that he would come in while we were doing dinner, at around nine or so, and he would start baking. He worked into the wee morning hours.
The first trays of croissants came out of the oven around 11:00 PM. By that time dinner was over although there were always late orders and room service orders that came in. My friend Francisco and I would be cleaning up and getting ready to get off work, but we took to having a quiet moment together every night. So I would order us espresso from the pantry and we would walk back to the pastry department and choose from the several trays of them the exact croissants we wanted.
Imagine. I liked them light and moister inside. Francisco liked them darker and drier inside. We would sit at the table and shoot the breeze with Dominic, an Italian from Brooklyn, and we would enjoy the best of the best. MMMMM.
I don’t get too excited about gourmet food. I’ve had it all up to a certain point. But some thirty-five years later, I remember the smell of those croissants. I remember the smoke pouring out of them and how they melted on my tongue. I remember looking at maybe a hundred of them and picking the very one that pleased my fancy.