Sculpting Pies, Tarts, Tortes, Or Simply Sugar

IT'S 8 a.m. in the pastry kitchen at Le Meridien Hotel in Boston, time for Pascal Lachaud to take inventory.

"The first thing I do is check to see that everything is here, nothing is missing," says the chef patissier, surveying a collection of three-tiered silver dessert trays.

"Today was a good day for you to come," he tells me in his French accent, as we dodge busy dishwashers. "Today will be slower than usual."

After a quick tour of the kitchen and the formal dining room - restaurant Julien - Chef Lachaud walks into the Cafe Fleuri, largely populated by power-breakfasting business crowd.

He stops at two glass cases that display sugar sculptures he created. Shiny and brilliant, the sculptures don't look like they could possibly be made from sugar. Rather they look like glass or plastic.

Lachaud explains that they are made through a process not unlike glassblowing - it involves intensely heating a mixture of sugar, water, and acid; then working it - pulling it - over and over until it is just right for sculpting. It is this artistic endeavor that is Lachaud's biggest passion. His sculptures have won many awards and been presented at "Salon Culinaires" throughout France.

Back to the pastry kitchen.

All along the pale yellow walls are rings, molds, and whisks so large they could stir up a small swimming pool. A special oven lightly bakes tartlet crusts. A high shelf stocks dry ingredients, such as chocolate chips, brown sugar, and almonds, in large plastic containers. Flour and sugar are in 50-pound sacks in garbage-pail-size containers. The walk-in refrigerator is filled with crates of cream, butter, and eggs. The freezer holds pre-made cakes and petit fours soon to be dressed up, decorated, and se rved.

Pastry worker Don Maliani has been here since 5 a.m., preparing breads and pastries for the cafe. Assistant pastry chef Gina Cosentino rolls in more ingredients to stock the refrigerator, then starts mixing melted chocolate in a giant metal bowl.

All the sweets here take one of four routes: restaurant Julien, Cafe Fleuri, banquets, or room service. With a staff of six, "We can do everything right, everything maximum perfect," Lachaud says.

Lachaud received his pastry degree at Ecole Hotellerie de la Chaise-Dieu and went on to work at Paris restaurants and hotels, several of which acquired Michelin-star status. (Before Boston, he was pastry chef at the Hotel Meridien Piccadilly in London.)

"He's definitely the pastry chef you'd want to finish any entree with class and style," says Meridien sous-chef Charlie Prentis. "He's dedicated to what he does, and he takes things that step further presentation-wise ... he makes the difference."

As we talk in the kitchen, Lachaud prepares petit fours. Taking small tartlet shells, he fills them with pastry cream, tops them with fruit - such as an orange slice and a kiwi slice - then finishes with apricot glaze. He also decorates three cakes - chocolate with praline cream, nougatine mousse, and peach.

Many people are surprised to find out the amount of freezing done by this kitchen. But such a practice is traditional in France, notes Ms. Cosentino. "Yesterday I made 24 cakes."

There is a big difference between the pastry done for a hotel and pastry done for a restaurant, Lachaud explains. When you work for a restaurant, you are focused only on one place. In a hotel, there are more outlets. Whereas a restaurant would focus on 10 to 15 different desserts; here, the capabilities must be for 70 to 80 desserts.

Indeed, even day-to-day quantities can change. This particular Wednesday, one corporate luncheon doubled its seating at the last minute - from 22 people to 64 people. That's not unusual, Lachaud says.

Speaking of feeding the masses, I ask Lachaud what he thinks about "bad pastry" such as on airplanes. Everyone can recall recent flights' fare: the dry carrot cake with gluey frosting, the lemon sponge cake that tasted like a sponge, the wooden cookie.

Lachaud frowns and says that pastrymakers have some work to do to educate the public. While airline food in general seems to have gotten better, he observes, "pastry - every time it's horrible."

If there is one word to describe the challenge Lachaud sees in his job as executive pastry chef, it would be change. "When you do the same thing every day, it can be boring for everybody," he acknowledges. So Lachaud is always thinking in terms of new presentation, new combinations, much like a choreographer might think in terms of originality in dance.

Take for example the Meridien's Saturday "chocolate bar," an all-you-can-eat buffet of 25 different chocolate desserts, voted "Best Indulgence" by the editors of Boston Magazine. (Imagine chocolate cakes, mousses, tortes, crepes, cookies, pies, chocolate fondue, and more.) Every two months Lachaud takes almost everything off the menu and creates a totally new selection. "It's good for us, the challenge," Lachaud says. Mr. Maliani can vouch for him: "When he says he likes to change things, he really chang es things."

Keeping track is not a problem. Lachaud documents his work by taking photos. He shows one of his many photo albums that reveals sugar sculptures, chocolate delights, and dashing desserts of all kinds and colors, for holidays and every day.

Lest we forget what they are for (eating), Lachaud stresses: "Taste is the most important."

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