Here’s the first “Portrait de Chef” post where I’ll talk about Chefs I like and whom values I share. Although it’s changing slowly, there are still not that many female pastry chefs. Being a woman myself and a bit of a feminist, I’ll be inclined to give priority to the ladies here but I’ll also feature some great guys.
Let’s start with Claire Damon.
I first discovered the bakery Des Gâteaux et du Pain (Cakes and Breads) 2 years ago when I visited some friends in Paris. I’d vaguely heard of Claire Damon and knew she had opened her own bakery recently after working in 5-star restaurants but the main reason I stopped there was because it was conveniently located near Montparnasse train station where my train was arriving. It’s a bit out of the way from the main tourist attractions but if you need to catch a train to western France, you’ll be in the area. She now has a second location in the 7th arrondissement near boulevard St Germain, Musée d’Orsay and Musée Rodin, this one’s easier to get to. Opening your own bakery just sounds like a dream! So it comes as no surprise that anyone who has this vision in mind would look into taking up baking classes/courses with companies like Delhi Baker’s Club. You can even learn to be your own boss once you’ve mastered the basics of baking. Plus, we all have to start somewhere.
I had an amazing Mont-Blanc tart: sweet crust with blackcurrant jelly, pieces of meringue, chestnut puree and whipped cream. The flavours were well balanced, delicate and not too sweet.
For the same reason as the first time (looking for a good pastry shop near Montparnasse) I went back this year to try different desserts (I’ll talk about them in another post). Although I’m always buying pastries, they also sell bread that looks very tasty. I wanted to check out Cyril Lignac’s pastry shop as well but it’s closed on Mondays like a lot of French neighborhood retail stores.
We were in October and you couldn’t see any desserts made with fresh raspberries or strawberries, only apples and pears were featured or jellies like blackcurrant, and lemon tart. She’s educating people about eating fruits in season and although they might ask for berries desserts she will not budge from her position of working with what’s in season. I think it takes a lot of courage to do that when you open a business. I’m sure she’s losing some customers but the respect she gains with other clients who understand her philosophy is even greater, and they’re loyal.
Career path until Des Gâteaux et du Pain
Claire Damon is from Clermont Ferrand, a city in the region called Auvergne, which is a mix of green hills formed by ancient volcanoes, rural villages and medium-sized cities with old manufacturing companies that thrived during the Industrial Revolution. She was often visiting her grandparents who were living in the rural and sunny region called Aveyron in the south of France (between Toulouse and Montpellier if you know any French geography).
From an early age she knew she wanted to work in a kitchen and attended culinary courses in secondary school. She was awarded “Meilleur Apprenti de France Junior (Cuisine)” (Best Cooking Apprentice in France) when she was 19 but she had a revelation when she tasted a macaron from Fauchon, where Pierre Hermé was Executive Chef at the time, and then chose to specialize in baking rather than cooking.
She moved to Paris and was hired as an apprentice at Fauchon. She learned the fundamentals of baking exceptional cakes under Pierre Hermé’s supervision. She then followed him to Ladurée to finish her apprenticeship with him.
She continued her career in high end Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris (Hotel Bristol, Plaza Athenee with Christophe Michalak), always learning from the best.
After a while, she knew she wanted to open her own “haute pâtisserie” shop but she felt like she needed to learn more about baking for retail, which is very different from baking plated desserts in a restaurant. She worked for a few years for a busy bakery and finally open her own bakery in 2007 with her business partner David Granger who’s in charge of the production of bread.
(to be continued)