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Winter 2001

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Top chef creates fine art from fine food

by Sue Rosenberg

Leading U.S. pastry chef En-Ming Hsu ’87 exhibits a few of her creations.

     Executive pastry chef En-Ming Hsu ’87 inspects a large plastic candy mold sent from a chocolate manufacturer. “It’s not quite right,” she says. “I’ll need to draw the curve I want and have them make a new one.” She’s standing in the busy kitchen of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Chicago, but the mold in question will be used this winter in Lyon, France, for one of her entries at the 2001 World Pastry Cup competition. No wonder she’s so exacting: this is no Pillsbury Bake-Off, this is a prestigious international contest among twenty of the nations’ top pastry chefs, and she’s the captain of the three-person U.S. team.

     Hsu and her fellow team members—Ewald Notter, owner and founder of the Notter International School of Confectionery Arts, and Michel Willaume, executive pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco—have been training hard for a year, ever since they won the national pastry team competition. “I’m the captain because I’m the only American-born member!” Hsu laughs. But credentials certainly figured in as well: she was chosen Pastry Chef of the Year in America after the 1997 Patisfrance competition and was named one of the top ten American pastry chefs in 1998 by Chocolatier and Pastry Art & Design magazines.

     Like a sports team, the pastry team relies on good coaching, and they’ve been getting it from executive pastry chefs at the Las Vegas Hilton, the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, and the White House. And they’ve been working with representatives in France to make sure their chosen ingredients are available and ready (if necessary, they’re allowed to bring a few specialty items from the U.S.). The contest itself allows nine hours for the three chefs (no assistants or sous-chefs) to create several entries, including a cake, a serving of a dessert presented on a plate, an ice cream cake, a sugar display piece, a chocolate display piece, and a carved ice display. Reflecting this year’s theme of Cirque du Soleil, Hsu’s custom-made chocolate mold will help shape her “interpretation of a clown.”

“There’s been a trend toward really architectural dessert presentations. They looked great, but sometimes underneath all that architecture there wasn’t much to eat. I’d rather make something that tastes great. But it has to have lots of visual appeal too. ”

     But for now, Hsu faces more immediate pressures. It’s Friday afternoon, and the hotel’s four restaurants will soon be busy, there’s a huge sit-down banquet on tap, and who knows how many room-service orders might come from the 435 hotel rooms. The crowded kitchens, a-hiss and a-clatter, are swarming with cooks and cleaners; in the baking and pastry prep areas, Hsu’s cooks are pureeing bucketfuls of raspberries and whisking big bowls of thick white cream.

     Hsu provides a seasonally changing menu of six or eight different desserts for each restaurant, plus specialties for banquets and events—a repertoire of some seventy-five desserts in a typical year, she calculates. Just for example, consider topping off your café meal with chocolate pot de crème served with peanut butter shortbread, or perhaps poached pear and almond financier with cinnamon ice cream. Or choose the more formal dining room and finish your evening with a hickory nut tart served with poached pear and bitter orange ice cream, chocolate and cardomom cake with coffee ice cream, or a frozen lemon parfait with verbena-scented strawberries. Today, Hsu says, she’s working on a sour cherry crumble to be served with crème fraiche ice cream and carmelized quinces.

     Hsu reflects, “There was a trend a few years back toward really architectural dessert presentations. They looked great (if the waiter could get them to the table without toppling them!), but sometimes underneath all that architecture there wasn’t much to eat. I’d rather make something that tastes great. But it has to have lots of visual appeal too. That’s the greatest challenge: to create something that looks good and tastes good.”

     And to do it on short deadlines, in huge quantities, and to exacting standards.

     “Organization is one of the most important skills,” says Hsu. Calm and pleasant on a complicated Friday afternoon—even after learning that the hotel doesn’t have enough electrical power for the new oven she was about to order—she seems a natural. With a lifelong interest in food and with a Skidmore bachelor’s in art, she quickly went from a catering job to the Culinary Institute of America and then to fine restaurants like Lespinasse in New York City and Café Didier in Washington, D.C. (She briefly considered graduate school in jewelry design, but when she found herself uncharacteristically unable to complete her application portfolio, she realized cooking was the better avenue for her creativity.)

     A more recently developed skill is personnel management. When Hsu arrived at the Ritz in 1994, her boss was busy competing in the World Pastry Cup, and she quickly took on higher responsibilities in the hotel’s kitchen. Three years ago she succeeded him as executive pastry chef, overseeing a staff of about ten. Says Hsu, “You really need to keep everyone interested and learning new things. Otherwise—with the pace and the deadlines, and always being on your feet—this kind of work is no fun.” Hsu likes to rotate her staff through several specialties, from baking and sauces and fillings, to menu planning and buffet design, to decorative chocolate carving and sugar pulling (or spraying or spinning or sculpting). Still, most pastry cooks move on after a year or two, eager to try new techniques and learn from new chefs, so Hsu is almost always in the process of hiring a fresh recruit.

     And somehow, sometime in her twelve-hour days, she also produces a wide array of artwork for the Ritz. This fall her staff was erecting a giant gingerbread house in the shape of Chicago’s historic Water Tower—part of a lavish Christmas display that includes a frozen pond made of sugar, with skaters and other figures entirely made of confectionery. Several months ago Hsu created a lovely classical-looking sculpture of a nymph or goddess (with one arm broken off à la Venus de Milo), which she cast in white chocolate and carved in fine detail; it’s on exhibit in a glass case, soon to be replaced by a new work. Even serving trays and candy dishes are often made not of china or silver but of sugar dough or tempered chocolate. In fact, Hsu’s 1997 Patisfrance honors were for Symphony, a “rose granite” music box with a lifelike hand conducting music, all fashioned from chocolate.

     While she enjoys the learning and collaboration of big competitions, Hsu clearly misses the time away from the daily bustle of regular dessert making. “I’ve been doing this for a while, but I still enjoy touching the food—selecting and buying the ingredients, creating the dessert, finishing the plate—it’s so much fun!”

     And she means it: with her kitchens on track for the busy evening ahead, she’s hurrying home to greet her visiting sister, for whom she promised, voluntarily, to cook dinner.

After interviewing Hsu in Chicago, Scope editor Sue Rosenberg ate so many barbecued ribs that she had to skip dessert.


© 2000 Skidmore College