“I WAS born in the kitchen. Well, not literally, but I’ve spent most of my time in the kitchen ever since I was little,” confides Chef Jean Francois Arnaud, in his lilting French-accented English. “I grew up in a family of chefs — pastry chefs to be exact. My grandfather, and later my father, they were chefs. Whenever I needed my father, I’d always find him in the kitchen, cooking and creating. I’d end up helping him out. He was truly my culinary mentor.”
So begins the charming middle-aged Frenchman, who looks rather dapper in his white chef jacket with stripes of blue, white and red (the colour of the French flag) on the collar, as he recalls his early source of inspiration when we meet at Fonterra Brands’ head office in Subang Hi-tech Industrial Park in Shah Alam, Selangor.
A look of fond wonderment crosses his blue-ish eyes as he remembers his hometown in Oleron Island, a beautiful island famous for its attractive fine sand beaches and beautiful forests, located off the Atlantic coast of France on the southern side of the Pertuis d’Antioche strait.
The chef reveals how he used to help with the family pastry business called Palais de la Gourmandise and from there his passion for pastries grew.
Now 58, he’s one of France’s most reputable patissier (pastry chef), so it comes as no surprise that he was appointed the head judge for the pastry category of the Anchor Food Professionals Pastry & Culinary Challenge 2018.
The competition, which aims to provide a platform for sharing knowledge and uplifting the professional standards of the local bakery and culinary industry, will be held from March 13 to 16 at KDU University College in Glenmarie, Shah Alam.
This is the third challenge organised by Anchor Food Professionals, and the first to feature a Culinary Challenge.
For the pastry category, the competitors, comprising those bakeries and hotels in Malaysia that use Anchor products, will be given five hours to create their best signature plain croissant and a selection of Danishes to be evaluated by Arnaud and another pastry judge.
Previous winners have enjoyed the opportunity of competing in Fonterra’s global competitions held in Australia, giving them priceless international exposure to further elevate their standards as chefs.
“A challenge is always good in this industry. We can discover new talents and push them to go higher and elevate themselves. We don’t just judge them; we also explain to them how to improve,” elaborates Arnaud, his accent growing thicker.
It’s through competitions like this that Arnaud has been able to build his reputation. “It all starts from zero — with just eggs, sugar and flour and you combine the ingredients, which everyone can do,” he says, matter-of-factly.
But to elevate yourself to a point where you can achieve the best pastry is not a piece of cake, cautions Arnaud. “You need to work hard every day. You grow by learning from other chefs and spending long hours in the kitchen. After a while, you’ll find the pleasure in creating something that’s yours,” he explains.
Early on in his career, Arnaud served in pastry catering and events with Chef Christian Lacoste in Toulouse. He then joined Yves Thuries (French cooking and pastry chef and two times Meilleur Ouvrier de France recipient) in Cordes-sur-ciel, where he had the enviable task of supervising the operations of a unique sugar museum and doing permanent exposition of sugar artwork pieces in glass displays.
But, confides the chef, eyes sparkling with pride, the most memorable moment for him was undoubtedly winning the Meilleur Ouvrier de France award (MOF Best Craftsman of France), the most coveted title in his home country by all craftsmen.
It was year 2000 and he remembers the award being presented by the-then French president Jacques Chirac. This accolade puts Arnaud among the 100 illustrious recipients in this category since the creation of this award in 1924.
This unique award is broken down into categories, which include a number of professions, namely florists, carpenters, butchers, jewellery makers and of course, pastry chefs, to just name a few.
Some of the most celebrated chefs and hospitality professionals in the world are MOF winners. MOF chefs have their designation and the MOF logo emblazoned on their chef jacket, to denote that they have attained a high level of excellence.
PASTRY FOR LIFE
Although it may seem that Arnaud has done it all, he’s certainly nowhere near to hanging his chef jacket yet. He’s keen to go beyond the kitchen and share his invaluable knowledge and skills with others.
Despite his enviable accolades, he continues to evolve and create. Now that he’s made Malaysia home for more than a decade, it’s no surprise to hear that he also enjoys experimenting with local ingredients in his creations.
“I like to use coconut and pandan but I still need to refer to the ingredients that I’m used to in Europe,” shares Arnaud, adding that he strives to create something new every day.
His latest creation is a heart-shaped macaron albeit with a little twist. “With macaron, you can have one or two fillings inside. I wanted to elevate it to a point where it tastes really fresh and the texture is different. Basically, what you get is a crunchy base complete with a lychee ganache. Then I put a thin layer of chocolate sheet. On top, I put raspberry and lychee jelly,” he says, his hands gesturing animatedly as he explains.
“You’re making me hungry, chef,” I jest, drawing laughter from the genial Frenchman.
“In France, we eat pastries every day — for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s not the same here in Malaysia, yes? It’s not your custom?” he asks, the corners of his eyes crinkling in amusement.
Asked what his guilty pleasure is when it comes to food, Arnaud replies after a pause: “Pastries! I do have a sweet tooth. I’m also curious and always want to discover new things. This is one of the traits that any great chef should have.”
He adds that to be a good chef, one must do a lot of tasting and experiment with ingredients. “You need to make sense of what you’re doing. You should enter as many competitions as possible in order to grow. If you’re really passionate, then join classes and trainings,” advises Arnaud, adding that these days it’s not about just sharing formula or recipe, but more about attitude and how much one wants to be in the industry.
Chef Arnaud, through his vast experience as an executive pastry chef in Michelin Star restaurants and hotels all over the world, has been instrumental in the development of the pastry industry, globally as well as here in Malaysia.
He came here in 2009 and became the international consultant for brands like Fonterra, Haagen-Dazs and Club Med group. He also set up JFA Consultancy (under the Academy of Pastry Arts Malaysia), the first organised consultancy and training department where a team of world renowned chefs offer onsite training, consultancy and solutions.
In August 2016, he opened the Academy of Pastry and Bakery Arts in Makati, the first pastry school in the Philippines where the instructors comprise some of the world’s top pastry chefs such as chefs Angelo van Toorn, Jess Chiam Ko Seen, Tan Wei Lon and Israel Lazaroo, to name a few.
“My life is all about pastries. I don’t think I have any other passion. It’s terrible,” he chuckles, before concluding: “But I can’t think of being anything else other than a pastry chef, and I’m happy to share my passion and knowledge with others.”