Podcast Episode 40

Great Bakers Need Great Mentors with Certified Master Baker Colette Christian

Colette Christian | 45 Minutes | April 26, 2022

In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Escoffier Baking & Pastry Chef Instructor Colette Christian, Certified Master Baker (CMB), a published author, and host of Baking with Colette. She mentored under the great White House Pastry Chef Albert Kumin, worked in upscale restaurants and luxury hotels, and owned a bed & breakfast and a successful wedding cake business.

Colette is a Certified Executive Chef® (CEC®), Certified Executive Pastry Chef® (CEPC®), and Evaluator for Certifications by the American Culinary Federation. She taught at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and has been teaching baking and pastry classes as the Dough Doctor for over a decade.

Listen as we chat with Chef Colette about obtaining her Master Baker certification, the importance of great mentors, and the balance of art & science in baking.

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Chef Colette Christian, a certified Master Baker, Escoffier baking and pastry chef instructor, author and creator, and host of Baking with Colette. Chef Colette is a Chicago native who began working in restaurants at 14. Since that time, she’s worked in upscale restaurants, luxury hotels. She’s run a bed and breakfast as both the chef and the pastry chef. She also ran a successful wedding cake business. She’s a certified executive chef, executive pastry chef, and she’s an evaluator for certifications for the American Culinary Federation. She has taught at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, and has been teaching baking and pastry classes for over a decade as the Dough Doctor.

Join us today as we chat with Chef Colette about becoming a Certified Master Baker, her role as an educator in the industry, and what it’s like to Bake with Colette.

Welcome, Chef. Thank you so much for chatting with us this morning. I’m exhausted! I’m out of breath doing your intro.

Colette Christian: Thank you for that, Kirk. Great to be here.

Kirk Bachmann: Wonderful! First I was going to apologize for being so early. You’re on the West Coast, but you’re a baker, so you’ve probably been up for hours, right?

Colette Christian: I have. I’m actually not baking early any more, but my last bakery, my call time, my alarm was set for 3:45.

The Peace of Morning and Love of Baking

Kirk Bachmann: Ouch. Ouch. I grew up in that sort of family. My folks came over from Germany in the early ‘60s and my father – we’ll talk about this in a minute – is a master baker as well, according to the German standards. They call it a Meisterbrief. But growing up for us, Dad would go down to the bakery at 11 p.m., work throughout the day, and not come back up to the flat until two or three in the afternoon, from which time we had to be silent so that he could relax a little bit and then go to bed at six and do it all again.

That leads into my question, of how do you fall in love with baking knowing that that’s what’s ahead of you, working when no one else is?

Colette Christian: There’s a certain peace to that, Chef. So much can be done in the quiet hours between five and nine in the morning. Every early bird knows this. Every baker knows this as well. That’s when I think the bulk of the work is done. I think that peacefulness. As far as falling in love with baking – and cooking, but especially baking – I’m very specific about this. We need to eat to live. No shade on cooking. Cooking is wonderful. But baking is something extra. It’s part of our celebratory life at all stages of life. There’s a cake or there’s a special dessert. There’s something commemorating those touchstones, those touch points in our life. Also, it’s such an easy way to lighten someone’s day and spread joy.

My parents had a very tumultuous, to put it lightly, marriage until they finally divorced. But I found as a nine or ten year old when I really started messing around in the kitchen and blowing up Easy-Bake Ovens, that I could stop them from arguing by making something yummy and delicious. That was the light bulb that went off in my head. “I really enjoy doing this.” Then I started working at restaurants when I was 14. I’m a Chicago native, so I started working in the mall at Water Tower Place at a lovely little health food cafe.

The genesis of getting that job and really working – you’re not a professional when you’re 14 – but working in a restaurant was a bread baking class that I took in high school that our geometry teacher hosted. That’s when I was really hooked. Year’s ago, bread baking was a little bit different, but she got enough into my head where I was completely dialed in and then got that job in that cafe.

Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t it amazing how so many chefs, so many people we talk with think back on a mentor? Somebody, whether it’s a grandma or a teacher, who inspired them. I absolutely love that.

Did you grow up in the city?

Colette Christian: I did. I grew up on the Gold Coast.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, wow! Okay.

Colette Christian: I had very strange childhood. It was normal for us, but I don’t think people think it’s normal to grow up on the 34th floor or the 52nd floor of a building. But I did.

Kirk Bachmann: I think people dream of that. I grew up probably about eight miles from you then, Irving and Austin is where my family had the bakery.

Colette Christian: I grew up at Lake Point Tower and then I swear I had the smallest apartment – I loved it though – in the John Hancock Tower.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, which probably cost $10 million today.

Colette Christian: At the time, I did have to work my tail off. It was this teeny, tiny studio. The view was amazing. The clouds would nest around my windows. The pool was fabulous. I swim every day a half hour as a good part of my life. It was worth every penny.

Baked Goods Change Minds & Hearts

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I love that. So let’s talk about those early moments. You started to touch on it. I love those kind of stories. It’s a teacher in school that inspired you and then some of the challenges that you had at home. This put you into your own world. By the way, it took years for me to realize that there really is a light bulb in the Easy-Bake Oven. It’s like I never thought to look until my girls were growing up.

What was it about that inspiration from that teacher that kept you going? You’re 14, are you thinking about this seriously as a career?

Colette Christian: I began to, yes. My maternal grandmother who died before I was born, she was the mythic cook in the family. She had taken classes at a cooking school, not a culinary school, Chef, but a cooking school in Chicago called the Antoinette Pope School of Fine [sic] Cookery. This was a couple, husband and wife team. Wife was Italian, husband was French, and they started in the 1920s in their basement. In the end, when the school closed in the ‘60s. In the 50s, they had a daily radio program and a locally produced TV show. Their school was on Michigan Avenue. They went from very humble. They published books.

She [my grandmother] took every class they offered. My mother didn’t cook. She was a model. I didn’t. But my mother did give me my grandmother’s books and her notebooks. But I didn’t quite understand what was going on.

But that bread baking class! Mrs. Bareli, explained it, specifically about how yeast worked and I was off and running.

Then I got Beard on Bread, which was published in 1977. Fanny Farmer Baking Book. At the end of high school, I applied to the Culinary Institute of America. I was accepted, but my mother was diagnosed with her last and final breast cancer. I couldn’t leave. There was no cooking school in Chicago except for Washburne. Mother would have had a stroke and died right then and there if I had gone all the way, every day. I had to go to school. I was taking care of her. I was working. I was still modeling. I modeled as well. I had so many jobs.

I had to go to school. I was started working on a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute, the school that’s behind the museum.

On Her Own, Shooting for the Stars

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. I love that story. I love the commitment to family. That’s another great theme when it comes to talking with chefs about their careers: their love for family.

Talk a little bit more about how you believe your love for all things food, baking in particular, changed your family’s life a little bit as you got older.

Colette Christian: In the end it was just my mother. When she passed away, I had no living relatives. I basically, a few years later married and had my son. I was basically alone in the world. Thank God, my boyfriend at the time would become my husband. I had him. But as far as blood relatives? Gone. Everybody was gone. And I don’t mean that in a sad, maudlin way, but it did give me a different perspective. It wasn’t like I had big family gatherings and crowds of people to cook for. Everything was pretty – I don’t know – small, I guess is the only word I can think of. I basically was just working part time in restaurants.

Then my first husband and I moved to California. And one very important thing, Chef Kirk, something we don’t think about too much any more. I did try to work in fine dining in Chicago during those years. So by now I’m 17, 18 years old. I was told more than once that I was too pretty to work in the kitchen. I was offered, “Oh, you can check the coats! Would you like to check the coats?”

Kirk Bachmann: Can you imagine that happening today?

Colette Christian: No!

Kirk Bachmann: Imagine that happening today. But before I let you off, just a word of congratulations and appreciation for the strength and courage that it must have taken to continue to pursue your dreams in the absence of any family. That’s an amazing story, Chef. Really is.

Colette Christian: Thank you, Chef. I didn’t think about. It was just the way I was wired. My mother was very much a tiger mom before there were tiger moms. You always did your best, and you shot for the stars. I think that set me up really well to go to good schools, have amazing instructors, myself.

Starting back with Mrs. Barelli and that long-ago geometry class. But I set my sights on teaching because of the teachers I had. Some I had in programs, and some I just was with for three weeks of my life. For example: I may be one of the last bakers alive to have studied with Chef Albert Kumin, the great White House pastry chef. Windows on the World in New York when it opened in 1976. Just an amazing! He was a Certified Master Baker’s Master Baker. All right? If I have to do an elevator pitch, I always say, “I had a Forrest Gump career. I was in the right place at the right time, and I had mentors that people would just kill for.”

A Macaron Master Burned Out

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. Spoken like a teacher, by the way.

Here comes the silly question that you probably get asked all the time. What’s your favorite thing? Now that I know that you have more a balanced interest in savory and sweet, feel free to go either way, but what’s your favorite thing to bake? I’m going to guess macarons, but I don’t know. Because of the book.

Colette Christian: I do love making macarons. It took me three years to write that book. And credit to Amoretti flavorings, because they sponsored me and published the book. It’s beautiful.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s beautiful. Beautiful book.

Colette Christian: I’m hoping to encourage them to put it on Amazon. Right now it’s only available through Amoretti.com. It’s definitely find-able. So here’s the thing: I do enjoy making macarons, but it took me three years to write the book and I spent weekends from 2012 to 2020 teaching baking at my local Sur La Table. The Sur La Table which has, before the pandemic and still some to this day, though they have been sold. We had cooking classes and we sold beautiful cookware. Their flagship store here in Los Angeles at the Grove, I taught there on the weekends. I did hundreds of macaron classes. The whole West Side? They can make macarons because of me!

I’m going to confess here on the podcast: I got burnt out.

Kirk Bachmann: Okay. That’s fair.

Colette Christian: All pandemic. I have to say, when the pandemic hit and Sur La Table closed and all the changes happened, thank God for Escoffier. I would have gone right out the window.

But my heart broke. I just didn’t really make macarons until a couple weeks ago when I did a blog post about a shamrock macaron on my Instagram. So I would say not macarons.

My holy grail at the moment is a deeper dive into croissants so that possibly, maybe in collaboration with Chef Gina from Escoffier, we write a book on laminated doughs.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it.

Colette Christian: So I would say right now what’s going to get me up out of this chair and into the kitchen besides content creation would be: let’s nail croissants in book form.

Superpowers

Kirk Bachmann: I love the passion, because there’s no doubt that you’re probably very proficient in croissant making, but yet you want to take it to the next level.

You mentioned holy grail, which reminded me that you have a superpower. Is that something you can share with our listeners?

Colette Christian: I have two superpowers. My first superpower – and I don’t mean to sound like I’m all that and a bag of chips, because I’m not. I’m working every day to grow my skill set. But, it occurred to me, especially after being a Craftsy instructor for many years, and the first two iterations of Craftsy, original Craftsy and then Craftsy.com owned by NBCUniversal was constant questions from students. I would say I have easily had over a 100,000 Craftsy students between the eight classes I teach on Craftsy.com. For years, I logged on several times a day answering questions. That set me up to really be good at that.

Then, being a regular on-ground instructor and now an online instructor and answering students’ questions, messaging, blah, blah, blah. It’s something that I realized I love doing, and I can do it without all the arduous prep of a demo. And it’s actually a service, because if my followers and my bakers listen to my Dough Doctor show on Saturday on Instagram Live and they bring my questions, I can answer them, tickety-boo, right out of the gate and get them back into the kitchen baking without them having had gone on the internet trying to find the answer and having that internet range rain, and whoever they find, that expertise could be great. That expertise could be not great. So back in the day, whoever was the person in your life who was THE baker, right Chef, you’d ask them. You’d ask your dad. “Hey Dad! I have a question.” He’s a Master baker! You’d ask him. But what if you didn’t have your dad. You’ve got to have somebody.

Kirk Bachmann: Someone you trust.

Colette Christian: I want to be that person. Plus, the way I set it up is on Fridays there’s a post that asks for questions. The questions come in. I do my background works so that I can answer cleanly and efficiently and get them back into the kitchen baking, which is what they really love. I’m sure you really notice this, too: if you’re searching on the internet for something, and you’re searching and you’re searching. Is this right? Is that right? It’s exhausting! Okay, do I really want to go start those croissants now?

But you come to the Dough Doctor, I answer your question about yeast, you’re like, “Great!” and you’re off and running. Not you, Chef. You have your dad, but you know what I’m saying.

Kirk Bachmann: You know what I love about that. From a purely academic perspective, this idea of Q&A, this idea of needs analysis. When students ask you questions, they’re almost serendipitously, subliminally telling you what they don’t know or what they do know. That’s why we always encourage our instructors: start your lesson with asking your students what they know or what they think or what they’d like to know. Then you can get right to the context. To your point, when you’re on the internet searching and searching and searching, you start to forget what you’re searching for. So that’s superpower number one.

What’s superpower number two?

Colette Christian: Forgive me if I sound grandiose, but I think I inspire people to bake.

Kirk Bachmann: I don’t know if there’s a first and a second. I think those are both on the top podium. If you’re able to answer people’s question, self-esteem comes into play. I always think about young students, elementary school, middle school. Self-esteem doesn’t come into place. Teacher asks a question and a thousand hands go up. They don’t know the right answer! They just want to be engaged.

But when you start working with adult learners, self-esteem is on the line. Sometimes they keep their hands down because they don’t want to be that person in the back of the room asking if the report has to be typed. That kind of thing. So if you’re able to coax people, students, to ask questions and then at the same time inspire them, I can’t think of two better superpowers to have.

Colette Christian: That’s why I’m so in love with my Dough Doctor brand. I am in love with this brand. I am so grateful that the synapse fired and I got out of the…I still do it, Chef. I create. I have the recipes. I have the website. I maintain. I try to put inspiring content on there that people would want to bake, but I had to distill it down. What is my real gift? At this point in my life and career, and all these decades of experience, what can I give to the baking world that’s truly useful. And so it feels like it’s growing every week.

I’ve started adding a little demo in there, piggybacking off of one of the questions. Last week I tempered chocolate in about six minutes because there were these chocolate questions coming in. It all kind of feeds together. I don’t know where it’s going. Actually, I don’t care if it just stays in this apartment forever with my iPad because it’s wonderful to reach them and know that this community is building and people are having more satisfying baking experiences.

One last thought: here’s the thing both with our culinary students and any home baking audience we cultivate – the better they bake, the more successful their outcomes, the more they will bake. Baking is one of those hobbies that if things consistently go not well, it is the easiest thing to shove the mixer to the back, close the cupboard and move on.

The Challenges of the CMB Exam

Kirk Bachmann: The even better news is that our Escoffier students reap the benefits of your passion and your superpowers as well. That’s greatly appreciated.

Let’s talk about you for a second. This is big. Becoming a Certified Master Baker is no small feat. I don’t know all the details. I just have the context of my father’s experience. I believe you have to complete up to eight years of experience, tons of hours of education, exams, practical testing of your knowledge. I know that when my father went through it, it was mandatory to have at least a three-year apprenticeship and a six-year journeyman-ship in order to hold that title and in order to just own a bakery in Germany. You could work in a bakery, but you couldn’t own one unless you were a Meister.

Walk us through that journey. As you’re sharing, Chef, I think it’s super important to explain why. Why was it so important for you to reach the highest level of that craft?

Colette Christian: I’m an overachiever. That’s number one. Number two, I have to credit my ex-husband. He was very involved with the ACF, so the precursor to my CMB, which is from Retail Bakers Association. My ex-husband’s involvement with the ACF, his going for certifications. It was something we could do together: training for our certifications, going for our certifications, and then actually competing as well. We did that.

So I would be remiss if I didn’t credit him. He really knew how to flip that switch in me to be like, “Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s go!” Maybe it was something from way back when, from not being able to work in a fine dining kitchen as a late teenager. I don’t mean this in a sexist way. I’m not really a great feminist, but it was a lot more challenging for women. For example: Certified Executive Chefs, Certified Executive Pastry Chef, there’s not a lot of female chefs that hold both titles. When I found that out, I was like, “Yeah. I want that.”

Then the CMB, there are more male chefs that hold that title than women. But here’s the other thing that’s really interesting. I already had my ACF certifications. I was already working as an evaluator. My ex-husband had no [desire.] He wasn’t going to become a CMB, though he was super helpful helping me train. He did my dishes, especially when I got toward the crunch. The thing that I liked about the CMB, is once you have it, you have it. Not like ACF, where you have to keep paying and you have to keep earning points. It’s yours for life. I was like, “Yeah!” Because sometime life hits its curveballs, like cancer and pandemics and divorce, and you don’t always have the funds to pay those ACF dues. I liked that. That was mine for life.

I started on that journey, and I did the CB, the Certified Baker, first. Because I was really used to ACF and I wanted to see how this worked. So the first run was an eight-hour baking session. Of course, they comb through your work history and interviewed you. Of course, there was a baking exam with that. That I passed with flying colors, no problem. But the CMB is two solid days of baking, more exams. And Chef, it’s production based. It’s not four danishes. It’s not four plated desserts like the CEPC. It’s 32 danishes, and they weigh every one. It’s not two baguettes. It’s not a batch of rolls, like the CEC. It was 12 baguettes, with perfect ears.

Kirk Bachmann: Looking for consistency.

Colette Christian: If you’re a Certified Master Baker, it’s all about the law! You can’t sell things that are under.

Kirk Bachmann: Okay. Makes sense.

Colette Christian: There were components for the CMB that were really difficult. But I had some great mentors helping me with the CMB. Chef Crawford, who wrote this amazing book on owning a bakery. I thought once I got my CMB, the committee would come to the door. When Chef Crawford got his CMB, Wiley offered him a book deal.

The committee hasn’t quite come to the door. I so appreciate you talking about it. It has given me a lot of pride that I have my CMB. It was worth it. I probably put at least $10,000 into the training. And I traveled. My first CMB was done in San Antonio at CIA there. Full disclosure – wait for it – I failed my challah.

Kirk Bachmann: And you learned from it.

Colette Christian: And some of the best bakers on the planet who have their certification failed at least one thing. But if you fail only one part of this eight-part exam, they let you go to the next exam and retake it. I passed my challah at Kendall in Chicago, and was awarded my CMB.

Kirk Bachmann: To be able to pass that in Chicago, I bet that was heartwarming.

Colette Christian: Yes.

Kirk Bachmann: In your hometown.

Colette Christian: You cannot proof challah with a lot of humidity because the humidity melds the strands together. Down in San Antonio, I’m sure the judges watched me do it. The judges are right there, Chef. Right there. A little proof box set at 76 percent humidity. Instead of proofing my challah on my bench, I just threw it in the proof box. So I failed because my strands melded together.

I’m very grateful to RBA that I was able just to do one, because if you fail more than one, you do the whole thing again.

Prepare, Practice, and Compete

Kirk Bachmann: You do the whole test again.

As we speak of this, I’m thinking of students and a two-part question. I so appreciate the journey and your transparency and your vulnerability as we discuss this. Two-part: This is intense! This is stressful for some people. What’s the best way, number one, to introduce young people not only to the craft of baking, but to take their game to the levels that you had?

And the second part of the question: there’ll be other bakers that listen to this conversation and think to themselves, “Wow, I want to challenge myself.” What’s the advice for them to get involved with this program?

Colette Christian: Number one: check your ego, and leave it at the door. If you are an established baker and you want to go for your CMB, do the CB – the Certified Baker – first. I saw a lot of CMB candidates who were corporate chefs of corporations. I won’t drop names, but big ones, Chef. Just came into the CMB and failed. The failure rate is intense. Can you imagine decorating a cake with a chef standing there? Your judge has a stopwatch on you?

Kirk Bachmann: Especially when you’re used to being in charge. All of sudden you’re the student.

Colette Christian: Do the lower level first. Check your ego at the door and know that this could be a two, two-and-half year process, because they’re usually six months apart. Do that CB and do well, and feel the vibe of the room, of the judges. It’s different from ACF. It’s longer. I feel that the coterie of judges for RBA is a little bit more close-knit, as opposed to ACF. It’s a little big more far flung because the person who’s hosting the certifications has got to get those judges in there and people’s availability. I’m stumbling over my words.

Take the lower level. Learn the room. Learn the vibe. Learn the judges. Go home. Train for that CMB.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s not a one and done. You’ve got to be committed to the long run.

Colette Christian: Look at ACF. For CEC, even for CWPC, you have to train for it.

Kirk Bachmann: Sure.

Colette Christian: You have to do more than one. The first thing the judges ask for both ACF – I know I ask it when I’m evaluating for ACF and then certified CB or CMB – how long did you practice? How many times have you run through this thing?

Kirk Bachmann: I love that question, and I’ve heard that question back in the day when I used to compete. Those were the questions that they prepared for. When the judge came by and said, “How many times did you try this?”

Colette Christian: Back onto something you just said, Chef. Compete. I’m a little worried, in our post-covid world. I think for young culinarians the best way to train for certification is competition. It kind of massages. It can either pump you up, if you do really well. Or if you think you’re all that, and then you get a CMPC or a CMC takes you to task. I really hope, I really believe – I don’t know how we can do it. We’ve got to put our heads together, to bring competitions back. Because that is especially…that switch flips. They get that taste of what it feels like to do well. They have that sense of accomplishment. That, I really feel, is a great starting point for young culinarians.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great advice. It reminds me. I’ll give a little plug for what went on last week. At our Austin Campus, our Boulder Campus, and virtually, we had the Young Escoffier Competition for high school students. I have to say, Chef, this past Friday we had it here in Boulder. When we announced the winners, these students screamed. They were so, so excited. To your point, it’s been a couple of years since we’ve had live events. There are a lot of young people who enjoy being in the kitchen, and they love the sense of competition.

It’s stressful, and God bless those competition coaches and teachers and counselors who do this year, after year, after year on tight budgets to promote culinary education in their classrooms and their kitchens.

Building Skills and Business Acumen

We’re starting to get towards the end of our chat, but I really want to touch on, in your mind with all the years of experience in the engagement and certification and your commitment to social media and training and mentoring. When it comes to building skills and even business acumen in our industry around our craft, you mentioned how important consistency is and the legal behind it. What are some of the most important lessons that Chef Colette has learned along the way? Even if you fell down and had to pick yourself back up again. I think these are great things to share with students.

Colette Christian: I fell down a lot. I think especially, Chef, we have a real spirit of culinary entrepreneurship. I would say the bulk of our students instead of thinking, “Oh, I’m going to go work at this restaurant or that restaurant,” which was more of my generation of up-and-coming culinarians. It’s all about entrepreneurship. Number one, time management. It’s no fun doing a wedding cake for an order at five in the morning of the day that it’s due. Really having strong time management skills.

Number two, do not wait until you feel like doing it, because it will be too late. Do it. Whatever it is, whether it’s an assignment, whether it’s an order, get it up on its feet quickly. Honestly in life, Chef, the only thing we can control is our preparation. That’s it! We can’t control anything. Just think about Ukraine. We can’t control anything else.

Be faithful to the math, especially with baking. Also with cooking, but especially with baking. Lose your fear of math. When I teach the cake class, I go hard on bakers math, and they are kind of like, “Whoa!! What’s she doing? We’re making cakes here!” The magic is if you can calculate your batter correctly, you never – and it’s always those late nights – you never come up short and have to start over mixing again, whether it’s the batter or the buttercream.

When I had my wedding cake business, it was at my bed and breakfast. I had a young child and a husband and guests, and when I was in the weeds with wedding cake, it was not only four o’clock in the morning and I had to prepare breakfast for our guests and I was working on this wedding cake, but my two year old had a fever, or the sniffles. Get your stuff. Get it up. Start early. Time management. Embrace the math. And with our Escoffier tutors, there’s no reason not to get that help.

Embrace the business. Even something so simple. Let’s say you’re doing a home business. Make sure that the way you’re taking your payments is separate from your own personal account. Small details. Time management. Embrace the math. Learn enough basic business, like in our classes, and follow it. Know the laws in your jurisdiction, if you are going to jump on the entrepreneurial bandwagon.

Baking Is a Science with Art on Top

Kirk Bachmann: I love that advice. That’s TikTok advice right there. Here’s the podium. Time management. Urgency. Embrace the math and the business. Absolutely great advice.

I just keep coming up with questions, I apologize, Chef. There’s so much! We’re probably going to have to do a part deux at some point, but here’s the Letterman question: baking, science or art?

Colette Christian: It’s science with art on top of it. Once you learn the science and the technique, you can become as creative as possible. As an instructor, I’m very strict. I know I break their hearts left, right, and center. Especially in the cake class, because we’ll have our specific assignments and the students will say, “Can I do another cake? Can I make the buttercream chocolate?” And I’m like, “No. I want it just like the assignment. No interpretive dance until the final.” Week six they get to do their creative. For one thing, cakes, you’ve got to follow an order to the T or your customer will walk away and then pan you on social media.

But also, it’s all about learning the technique, the ingredient function. The science, the math, the percentages. Then nailing that, and then – then – the knowledge sets you free. You don’t learn to become a good musician without learning the scales and learning how to read music and going through that very boring theory and all that stuff. It’s the same with baking.

Ingredient function. I’ve thrown a lot of spaghetti at the wall. I used to do a little series called Ingredient Function Friday, which nobody watched because I think it bored everybody to tears. But ingredient function and math is the key for bakers to really have the strong foundation. Then you can paint fondant until the cows come home. You can get fresh strawberries into that filling and make it work. You can substitute agar agar for gelatin. Then you can be Mr. Wizard. But until you take that dive, it’s always awkward.

Chef Colette’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: And Auguste Escoffier would be proud of that response. It’s about the fundamentals, the foundation. Your students, our students, will thank us later when they realize that we kept the reins on them until they had a command of ingredient function. I love that response. You’re going to see that again on social media. I love that.

So Chef, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. Always the toughest question. What is, in your mind, the ultimate dish?

Colette Christian: Well, Chef, I’m going to answer that not from my point of view. I’ve been very fortunate to dine in some of the best places on the planet. Again, I credit my ex-husband for that because he’s so into find dining. It was great.

But what I prefer is to answer that ultimate dish question, if you don’t mind, a little bit more from the student’s point of view. What is the ultimate dish to master?

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, I love that.

Colette Christian: As a pastry chef. In my point of view on that, just like when you’re in training as an athlete, you begin our program. You’re baking on your own, or maybe you’re already established. Really strive to go for those projects like croissants or macarons or kouign-amann, or maybe some classic desserts like the French marjolaine. Those dishes. Nailing them so that it lifts your confidence. “Okay. I’ve got it. And then I’m going to go on to the next. And on to the next.” By the time you’re done, you have this wonderful repertoire in your toolbox. You feel like you can take on the world.

So the ultimate dish, I think for me, is when my students – it’s more about them than about me anymore. I’ve had my time in that regard. Week six of PA 134, when they have a perfect honeycomb on their croissant. You break open a macaron and there’s no hollow. They haven’t cracked. Or their ganache is silky smooth. It doesn’t always have to be shooting the moon. It can be the simplest things. That sense of satisfaction, that deep breath that they did it, and then they move on.

Kirk Bachmann: Which builds their confidence. I love that. That’s a beautiful answer. Perfect response. We haven’t had that response from anyone yet. Thank you for that.

Colette Christian: Oh good. I really feel it from my heart.

Kirk Bachmann: No, I could tell.

Colette Christian: I could tell you all sorts of ultimate dishes. We could go for hours.

Kirk Bachmann: Super meaningful, so thoughtful. So appreciated.

Chef, thank you for spending some time with us. This has been really, really fun. I didn’t realize we were both from Chicago. I should have assumed we’d have a good time today. Thanks for everything you do for our students. We’ll do this again, okay?

Colette Christian: Absolutely. Thank you, Chef. It was a real pleasure.

Kirk Bachmann: You bet.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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