Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What is Project Sweet Tooth?

The mission is simple. My goal is to be in Paris for 2 weeks by next Fall, enjoying a green tea macaron from Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki, stare wordlessly like a kid in front of Laduree's pastry cases, and eat my way through the City of Lights.

Getting there though is a tad more complicated, and that is where I'll be using Project Sweet Tooth. It's where I'll document my journey getting to Paris, making my way around, as well as all the baking and eating throughout it all.

So, first order of business, what road blocks stand in the way of me and the Land of Croissants & Champagne?

1. The first obvious obstacle is funding. Taking a rough estimate of the flight fees, housing costs, and (of course) the food budget, the trip will set me back around 4-5k. Without a source of constant income, this is where I'd need to get creative and summon the wise entrepreneurial spirits.

2. The second (and more enjoyable) obstacle is figuring out the itinerary. So far, I've got Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki, Laduree, Fachon, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Simply not enough to fill two weeks—or two days even. No worries though, as I am well armed with a copy of "Gourmet Shops of Paris: An Epicurean Tour," written by Pierre Rival and Christian Sarramon.

3. Housing: where am I going to stay? In my fantasy, I would be living it up like Marie Antoinette (pre-beheading) by staying in a palace not unlike the Versailles. Realistically though, I'll be looking into a mixture of options for different cultural experience. Bed & Breakfasts is a must have, as well as a night in a nice hotel, but strangely enough, I'd like to stay at a nunnery. And, I'm looking into couch surfing—a concept that sounds both sketch and awesome at the same time.

4. Language. Need to make a trip to the library stat.

5. Last, but not least, training, because two weeks of non-stop eating is essentially a gastronomic marathon. Athletes train for months to prepare for the triathlon, working out daily and learning all there is to know about the race. I too, will train by baking and learning about a different dessert each week with my arsenal of cook books. So, when the time comes, I will be able to discern between the boring from the fabulous in order to make the right ordering decision. Not to mention it'll help me gain a greater appreciation by knowing first-hand how difficult it is to create the perfect tarte tartin,  crepes, creme caramel, etc.

Now, I have no intention of getting diabetes by stuffing myself with rich desserts weekly, so this is what I propose. Since most recipes serve 6-8, I'll be recruiting a team of "sweet-tooths" to taste, rate and consume the extra portions. In exchange, they'll help me gather ingredients for my next project—in essence, continuing the circle. So, if you have a passion for desserts, leave a comment or contact me and we'll make magic happen!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

An Unconventional Love Story

I must confess, I am in love with desserts.

This love struck me early in life—when my parents presented me with my first red bean roll. If you've never had one, it's a soft brioche bun, glazed with egg yolk to a mirror-like sheen and marked with sesame seeds like freckles. Once you bite in, you are rewarded by the sweetened maroon paste made of Azuki beans. When it's done right, nothing tops it for me—not even chocolate.

Once I tasted this wondrous baked confection, there was no turning back. I was hooked. I started neglecting my usual haunts of toy shops in favor of bakeries. Yes, I was that peculiar kid that stood in front of baked good cases  staring in awe. Too afraid to touch the clear glass, but couldn't stay away. To me, the contents inside the cases were infinitely more valuable and delicious than any jewel. Believe me, I tried eating one and it was no good.

Even more enchanting though was watching the baker in the back transform what I originally thought was play-doh into artfully shaped tarts, breads, and cakes. Who cares about Santa Claus and his yearly feat of supplying the children of the world with toys when bakers supply people, both young and old, with little edible works of art daily?

It was a traumatic day when I learned bakers do not magically create bread out of play-doh, but with more conventional ingredients. But, after the initial shock subsided, I wanted to learn more and be closer to the object of my affection. This was easy enough when I lived in Hong Kong, where a bakery resides on every street corner. It was another story however when I immigrated to Los Angeles. My next place of resident was a sleepy suburban town that seemed to switch off every night at 6p. If that wasn't bad enough, its sole "bakery" was the donut section in the local Albertsons. Que horror! Where am I to get my red bean rolls, mont blancs, fruit tarts and swan-shaped profiteroles?

I had to make due. I learned to love the other parts of a meal and my new friends introduced me to various snack foods, most notably Doritos and Hot Cheetos. Yet, my heart still yearned for the sweet stuff.

And so began the monthly trips to Little Tokyo to satisfy my cravings. I also signed up for French in high school, because I found out France was the birthplace of my love. When I was in college, I recruited my friends to accompany me all over LA to visit bakeries of all sorts.

But it was not enough, I wanted, nay, needed to go to France to experience "sucre plasir." After graduating from USC, I had plenty of time for such a trip, but alas, no funds. I did the next best thing and wrote to Boule, the best patisserie in town, for a position.

The catch was that I had no formal culinary education—I majored in fine arts and minored in business. Even so, I wrote in my cover letter I trained with the greats (namely Martha Stewart and Jacque Pepin) by watching them on TV and practicing their techniques afterwards. To seal the deal, I sent them my design portfolio.

Looking back, it was a wonder they replied back, but as luck would have it, their pastry chef extraordinaire, Ramon Perez, called  me in for an interview. He told me he enjoyed my cover letter and was impressed by my paintings, but I was not a good fit for Boule. Just as my heart broke, he asked if I would like to work pastries in Sona (Boule's sister restaurant) instead.

I didn't know it at the time, but this was big, epic even. Holder of a Michelin star and one of the leaders in Nouveau French cuisine, Sona was the boot camp for budding chefs. I learned about the existence of tasting menus, of amuse bouche, of mignardises, and most of all, the endless possibilities for desserts. Chef Ramon incorporated meats, vegetables and even squid ink to push the boundaries and change my perception on what constitutes as a dessert.

Long story short (we'll save the details for another time), as much fun as I've had during my summer at Sona—blowtorching cakes, learning the finer points to a perfect macaron—I realized I am not cut out for life as a cook, but I know I am destined to be connected to the field. This led me to design for Pizzeria Ortica and a year of work for Shook Kelley, a architectural and strategic firm specializing in retail and consumer brands.

As much as I wish I could end the story here by saying, "and I lived happily ever after," unfortunately, the economy happened. After a year of constant routine, I found myself newly unemployed and lost. It is quite unsettling to find myself with an abundance of time and no direction.

To cope, I consulted Psychology Today and came across an inspiring article on facing failures and setbacks in life. It got me to reexamine my goals and although I can't foresee what the future holds for me, one thing is for sure: I am going to visit Paris, the culinary capital of the world, next year, no ifs or buts.

This is where Project Sweet Tooth comes in. From raising the capital needed to researching my itinerary, I'll be documenting every step I take to accomplish this dream of mine. In addition, as I continue to further refine my baking skills, I'll be sharing cooking tips, recipes and trivial tidbits. In short, this is an insider's look in the life of an extreme dessert enthusiast.

I hope you join me in this journey. Merci!

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