I am always up for a challenge,” says maître chef pâtissier Nicolas Houchet to me, when I asked him why he decided to become a teacher at Le Cordon Bleu five years ago. Watching him dexterously multitask his way to creating two delicious entremets (desserts) in just two hours with nary a flub or a misstep, it’s clear that he has learnt to embrace his challenges. The occasion was a patisserie making demo of fraicheur citron (pistachio, lemon and white chocolate) and L’Été Indien (a confection of dark chocolate and mango), hosted by Novotel Bengaluru Techpark for the Chaine des Rotisseurs, Bangalore, and facilitated by the famous international school of gastronomy, Le Cordon Bleu. Houchet teaches the art of pastry making and entrepreneurship to enthusiastic young chefs at the London branch, so his French-accented English is quite spot on, with the occasional “alors” and “voilà!” underlining his French roots.
So last week, 20 Chaine members and a bunch of the city’s best chefs sat down in the theatre-style classroom at the Novotel to watch Houchet do what he does best: swooping from one station to the next, tempering the chocolate, making intricate cake decorations brushed with gold dust, plying the spun sugar like golden plasticine, even while seamlessly stirring, baking, chilling, cutting and assembling all the elements, assisted by Novotel’s young executive pastry chef Vishal Sharma. Later, as guests nibbled on Executive Chef Kunal Kumar’s delicious canapés — especially his miniature duck confit gougères and smoked salmon mousse in tiny waffle cones) and sipped on sparkling wine, I had a quick chat with Houchet. What distinguishes an outstanding pastry chef from others in the culinary arts, I asked him. “I think being passionate is a must, dedication and the right attitude are also needed. The skills come with time and being patient helps. It’s okay to make mistakes in the beginning!” Of course, the job has its rewards too. “If at age 10, someone told me my work day would consist of making cakes, I wouldn’t have believed him!” he smiles. Houchet decided he wanted to be a pastry chef at 14, but the decision isn’t as easy for everyone. “Seeing all those chocolate eggs and truffles, petit fours and entremets being made actually sealed the deal for me,” he admitted, “Decide. Do you want to be a baker? A cake decorator? A chocolatier? Work in a hotel or opening your own place? The choice is vast.”
Houchet is master of the croquembouche, a traditional French wedding cake made of caramelised almonds and choux buns shaped like a tower, where every tiny element must spell perfection or end in disaster, and he’s won several top French culinary competitions, including top places at editions of the national and International Festival International du Croquembouche (yes, they have those too).
The bigger the challenge, the bigger the reward, he adds. Tasting the silky chocolate and mango L’Été Indien, made wholly from Indian ingredients, I’d say he is right.