June 5, 2020

My Road to Mastering Sugar Artistry

I was never very good at taking and following orders.  Even during the Swiss mandatory military service, superiors thought I was better off in the kitchen.  At that time, it was not uncommon to bone out a quarter of a cow to create different dishes. I was stunned and at the same time amazed by the skills of those chefs, but the smell of meat almost turned me vegetarian.  Nothing convinced me more that pastry was the path for my life.

 

From a young age I knew that I needed to find a job that allowed me to develop my senses, that the profession should involve creativity and hands-on skills.  Staging with a carpenter and a florist did not motivate me -it was working at a Konditorei-Confiserie where I found work that thrilled me.  From the very beginning, seeing people buying and enjoying pastries we produced filled me with pride and joy.  Every day and every job since have been an opportunity for me to learn.  What followed was a riveting and highly stimulating rollercoaster ride that led me to the front porch of sugar artistry.

The turning point in my career was when I watched a pulled and blown sugar demonstration by Willy Pfund. He was raw, fast, and spontaneous. From years of hard work and sacrifice, he was confident with his creativity.  I was so fascinated that I signed up for classes immediately.  Seeing my intense enthusiasm, he soon after asked me to assist him in teaching.  I came to his studio every evening after working a full day at Sprüngli.  Assisting was free.  I had to pay for extra lessons,  but I didn’t mind.  On a piece of paper, he would sketch every part of the showpiece that was to be blown or pulled.  I would later collect it and stuff it in my pocket. Every time he asked me to take over and demo the piece, I’d  go to the restroom and study his drawings first. Once he questioned me if I had diarrhea -why else would I be in the toilet so much?

After a year, he asked if I would like to take over the school. I took a small loan and did so.  Quickly, he realized that pursuing his passion for painting was not enough for him.  He missed the interaction with the students and felt lonely, so I sold him back the sugar décor school and decided, at age 27, to start my own.  The only way I was to get recognized and try to establish my name was by doing demos, taking part in competitions, and writing books.  These exercises forced me to find new materials, innovate equipment, and develop new techniques.

Certainly, the most important ingredient that defined my life was sugar.  Introducing the sugar substitute, Isomalt, to a  vast new market in America in the early ‘90s, made things even more exciting.  Even though Isomalt had been around for over 30 years, the pastry world knew very little about it.  For the longest time, the look of sugar showpieces remained fairly the same, but Isomalt changed that. Compared to traditional sugar that always cooked with a warm ivory tone to it, Isomalt boiled clear, allowing the true colors to come through.  It also permits a much longer manipulation without any recrystallization.  Isomalt welcomes the integration of techniques similar to those used in glass blowing, repeated rewarming, even retorching. Pieces are able to appear lighter, taller, and foremost, a lot more artistic.  Veteran pastry chefs initially criticized Isomalt for looking artificial and for being expensive, but eventually its many advantages broke through their resistance.  I personally like to use both sugar and Isomalt in my pieces, separately or combined, for shine, flexibility, and more manageable cost.

On many levels, I am pleasantly surprised by how far the craft has evolved from the pioneering techniques. A small part of me, however, misses the raw, fast, and spontaneous handling of sugar that initially drew me into the craft.  When making custom showpieces was my bread and butter, I was forced to work fast and smart.  I didn’t have the luxury to work on a single flower for hours.  This is why I still respect live competitions and demos more than any other types of competitions.  Working in front of a crowd is still the ultimate test.  When you are judged immediately on your hands-on skills, how clean and efficiently you can work, when you are stripped down to wits and preparation -that’s when the best of the best feed off of the adrenaline.

After all these years, now coaching, judging, or simply appreciating these rivalries, the energy of the craft remains thrilling to me.  Pushing the limits of excellence remains to be what I hope continues to drive the industry’s essence to even higher levels for many generations to follow.