It was a given that my in-laws would eventually come to the restaurant to eat. After all, it was my husband and I who introduced them to the place three years ago and since then they couldn’t get enough. I just didn’t expect them to rush to reserve a table less than two weeks after I arrived. However, it was my mother-in-law’s birthday. And I doubted anything serious would be required of me after only 14 days in: I’d be somewhere in the back of the kitchen chopping vegetables for the dinner service.
I arrived at work Friday morning, started preparing a recipe for Pastry Chef X, then coming out of the back room almost slammed nose-first into the chest (Did I mentioned these guys tower over me?) of Pastry Chef B and screamed in surprise. Usually it’s just one pastry chef per service so I knew something was up if they were both here. And Pastry Chef B scares me.
“Viens avec moi,” he said.
In the kitchen were two identical fraisiers – strawberry cream cakes – and a huge ball of sablé cookie dough.
“You’re going to watch me decorate one cake,” Pastry Chef B sliced the dough in half with a slick motion, “Tomorrow, you’re decorating the other for your family.”
I stared, blinking, wondering if I had translated that right. I looked at Pastry Chef X. He pointed to his colleague with the small knife in his hand, telling me wordlessly to pay attention.
“We won’t be here. We have to make chocolate.”
“Wait – je ne comprend pas.”
They had to repeat it 3 more times before I finally understood that indeed, I’d be on my own for two hours and the task of decorating the cake was all mine.
I watched Chef B’s cake come to life. I thought about what I would like my own cake to look like. Before I went home on Friday afternoon, I took a moment to rummage through the drawers and boxes of the pastry storage room to see what was at my disposal.
“Can I make whipped cream with fruit coulis?” I asked Chef X, “Can I use the raspberries? Can I use the kiwis? Can I make meringue? Can I use the gold leaf? Are those colored balls white chocolate?”
“You can do whatever you want,” Chef X said, “Go nuts.”
“He likes audacity. His cakes are 1/3 cake 2/3 decoration,” Chef B said flecking on some gold leaf as a final touch. “I’m much more classy.”
On the way home I asked my husband if he wanted whipped cream or meringue. I looked at photos of fraisiers on the internet. Some I knew would be impossible. I didn’t have the technique and if I wasted a liter of cream and a box of strawberries only to scrape it off and start again the chefs would probably lock me in the cold storage with the meat for the weekend. My dreams that night were full of cake decoration; one involved roasted onions.
But when I woke up Saturday morning a totally new thought entered my mind causing even more panic. “What if I drop it?”
I’m not a graceful person. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve banged trays of chocolates into the wall, walked into the wall, almost slipped on the floor of the dishwashing room. I’d be on my own to get the cake out of the freezer and walk it to the pastry storage room. Chef and sous-chef would be too busy preparing lunch to help me, and it wasn’t their job anyway.
My hands shook as I measured out the sugar and setting agent for the whipped cream. They shook as I sliced the strawberries and filled the piping bags and set raspberries in between tiny, irregular whipped cream stars. Six chocolate ribbons were sacrificed as I tried to set them into the delicate mousse (luckily they can be melted down and remolded). I considered gold leaf but thought that might be over doing the chefs’ statement of “free reign.”
Chef X arrived. He stared at the cake.
“Is it ugly?” I asked
Lunch service got underway. I was indeed chopping vegetables, whipping cream and piping it into cups of panna cotta. Towards the end I came out of the pastry room to ask the chefs for my next task when the owner – my boss – called to me.
“Get a new apron, you’re serving your cake to your family.”
Chef laughed as he sliced plated a filet de boeuf in Maroilles sauce, “C’est chaud;”
My cake was called for. Chef X set the candles and couldn’t resist adding two more chocolate ribbons to the décor. My boss motioned me to the door, fixing my apron and my toque and out we went into the dining room.
“Don’t drop it. Don’t drop it. Don’t drop it,” chanted round and round in my head while a chorus of Joyeux Anniversaire somehow made it to my lips.
My beau-père had his camera out, my twin brother-in-laws were in hysterics, and all eyes of the restaurant were turned in my direction. Behind me, the server carried 5 fragile glasses of champagne with more ease than I could manage one cake. Chaos that always envelopes these moments ensued as I kissed my belle-mère on the cheeks, posed for a few photographs and gave my husband a kiss. Out of the corner of my eye I saw three toques poking around the door of the kitchen shaking in apparent laughter.
I fled back to the kitchen as soon as I could – with the cake for slicing. Chef X had prepared some plates and ice cream and set one aside for me so that even though I couldn’t sit down with my family I could still partake. (He won’t admit it, but he set one aside for himself too.)
Though the decorations were a bit irregular and shaky thanks to my unsteady and untrained hand, I’m pretty happy with my first try. It was simple, perhaps a bit minimalist, but I knew any daring attempts at complicated designs could and would end in disaster.
Work went on Sunday morning. I entered the kitchen again, arranging my apron and coming out of the changing room, once again crashing into the chest of Pastry Chef B.
“Alors, des photos du gâteau.” He scrutinized them over the beater whipping up yet another bowl of cream.
He nodded. “Pas mal.” And I think there was a tiny spark of approval in his eyes…
…which quickly evaporated when he spent the rest of morning preparations telling me to work faster and throwing almonds at me while I diced tomatoes to test my focus. Any tiny achievement forgotten.