Butter Cream: A Year In A Montreal Pastry School
Something else becomes apparent this week. I could never, ever, not on your life, do this for a living … I begin to resent the fact that I have to do this at all … I’m a writer, I want to cry. And in that endless last day I see that I loved learning to do this. I just don’t want to keep doing it and doing it and doing it.
The question is not why Denise Roig didn’t want to complete her stage (her apprenticeship) in a pastry shop. The question is why, at 56, Roig, a fiction writer, would enrol in a school for professional pastry chefs. Why would someone with life-long serious body image issues subject herself to a year surrounded by butter, whipped cream, nuts, chocolate, and pie crust, all of which she could take home every night? How did she intend to juggle a house, a husband, children and her writing assignments around the physical and mental demands of a cooking environment that had her running for most of the day?
The answers are wrapped up in Roig’s factual account of her year at pastry school. A situation during a journalism class she was teaching left her considering an alternative profession. She came from a family of dedicated cooks. And, she thought, she could get a book out of the experience.
Cautiously, she told the other 23 students and her instructors that she was a teacher and a writer who wanted to move into food writing. However, before the year was out she admitted she was writing about the experience. By then, in spite of the age and academic gulf between her and the rest of the students, she had become such an integral part of the group that they encouraged her to tell it like it was. She did. The result is sweet and funny, thoughtful, provocative, and richly layered, filled with the behind the scenes lives of the people who feed us in public.
What Roig takes away with her, beyond new skills, is a deeper understanding of herself, her interactions with other people, and her emotional strengths and weaknesses. “This is another country, a place with strict rules, yet where intuition is all. I want in.” Roig’s observation on professional bread-making might also be her new vision for life as a friend, wife, parent, and writer. Meanwhile, she learns that while making one pie is an art, making 100 pies is drudgery.
Butter Cream is a peek into a world where most of us have never travelled. Tempers flare, accidents happen, batters curdle, but perfect food must be produced on time and in quantity, and the diners nibbling Black Forest cake and nursing a second coffee must never be disturbed by the frantic activity behind the kitchen doors.
Roig has the gift of humour. Over time, she mastered the precise method for beating eggs into her choux pastry dough, and how to make bread with fresh yeast. Meanwhile, she was taught to record the list of ingredients, but to store the method for each recipe in her head. Just as skilfully, she blends a touch of the absurd into high-stress situations and leavens tense encounters with a soupçon of humour, creating a product that is light and delicate but filled with substance.
Perhaps this is not a book to be encountered when the reader is hungry and there is a pastry shop down the block. But, like French meringues and chocolate mousse, this is most definitely a book to be experienced, enjoyed, and savoured, with no residual guilt feelings at all. mRb