The Baked Goods
An American pastry chef comes to Paris, and doesn't turn it into a Cheesecake Factory.
“Taillev-…uh, Jean,” answered Jean-Frédéric Guidoni when I called the restaurant to find out more. He had worked 20 years (mostly as first maître d’hôtel) at one of the world’s great restaurants, Taillevent, before striking off on his own and buying Jean nearly seven years ago. I assume he doesn’t always answer the phone this way, but evidently old habits die hard. I introduced myself and expressed my amazement that he had an American pastry chef in his kitchen. “Ah yes, but what a pastry chef,” he answered, and invited me to taste for myself.
On a rainy Friday afternoon, the 40-seat restaurant near the Grands Boulevards was filled with businessmen in dark suits and cufflinks. The decor was curiously provincial, with fabric on the walls and curtains the color of a well-aged Burgundy. Markedly less traditional was the menu by young French chef Anthony Boucher: pan-fried foie gras on a pillow of butternut purée, sea urchin with Chioggia beets and horseradish foam, John Dory fish with grapefruit and lomo Iberico Bellota in a Champagne sauce. (Boucher took over the kitchen last February after the departure of Benoît Bordier, and will learn in the next few months whether he’ll keep the Michelin star earned by his predecessor.)
The desserts that followed were equally complex yet light, balanced and never too sweet. There was a chocolate-coffee mousse cake with banana caramel ice cream. Honey-poached apples on a sablé breton with a fig/red wine sauce and buttermilk sorbet. And the winner, the caramel cake — a soft little tower with a scoop of pumpkin ice cream on top and a milky orange blossom foam over peanuts at its base. It was buttery, sweet, and salty, and even carried a bit of a kick from a dusting of curry powder. Fantastic. The four suits at the next table over must have felt the same, because they actually stopped talking and devoured their desserts in less than a minute.
Nothing revealed that the chef pâtissier was a New Yorker, unless you were paying close attention to the details: a sprinkling of caramelized cashews reminiscent of peanut brittle, a hint of cinnamon in the pumpkin ice cream. At times, Johnson’s recipes include peanut butter, an ingredient that’s practically nonexistent in France. And her fromage blanc cheesecake on a muscat grape consommé is a nostalgic reference to the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches many of us Americans ate growing up.
| Alison Johnson.
Johnson is tall and slim, despite her profession, with a low-key, soft-spoken manner. Now 40, she spent her childhood on Staten Island. Her career path has often deviated in a way that’s much more American than French, though she’s always practiced the arts in one way or another. At school, she studied metalsmithing and jewelry making. In the 1990s, she was the lead singer and lyricist for a rock band, The Flurries. In an online interview from that period of her life, she said, “I had always wanted to be a singer ever since I could remember.”
Nonetheless, at age 32, after nearly a decade singing her heart out in New York clubs such as CBGB, she abruptly changed direction and decided to pursue a career in food. She taught herself by volunteering at a culinary school, then working for a catering company. She quickly began to focus on French pastry making, drawn to what she calls “the perfection and science, the exacting nature of it.”
She worked in a series of New York restaurants, starting with Terrance Brennan’s bistro Artisanal, then the same chef’s gourmet restaurant Picholine. Here, she exhibited the extraordinary drive that later impressed Guidoni, moving up to pastry sous-chef after just one year. She was subsequently the first pastry chef at Terrance Brennan’s Seafood and Chop House, creating sophisticated updates of retro steakhouse faves such as crêpes suzette and baked Alaska. Her New York adventure finally took her to Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park.
And then, for reasons of her own, she was ready to leave the city. “I wanted to experience something extraordinary and not follow a mold,” she told me. “Coming to France seemed like exactly what I wanted to do.” An American client and mutual acquaintance of both Meyer and Guidoni asked the latter if Johnson could work as an unpaid apprentice at Jean for five weeks. In the spring of 2007, she arrived in the small, four-person kitchen, speaking only high-school French yet immediately proving herself the most competent and hardworking apprentice anyone there had ever seen.
There was no pastry chef at Jean, and Bordier, then head chef, oversaw the whole kitchen. Johnson knew how to do everything he asked her, and even taught him to make macarons, eggless marshmallow, and nougat — “things that were a little more technical than he was used to,” she says. Almost immediately, she took over the desserts, freeing him up to concentrate on the rest. After her apprenticeship ended, the restaurant threw her a party complete with gifts and tears, and she then left to intern at a few other places around Paris. When Guidoni called to offer her a real job, she readily agreed.
It’s not easy getting work papers anywhere, and especially not in France, with its stubbornly high unemployment rate. So Johnson bit the bullet and hired a lawyer. Guidoni placed a classified ad for the position, as per bureaucratic protocol; he could only hire Johnson if he could prove no homegrown candidate was qualified for the job. Unbelievably, during the two months the ad ran, not a single French pastry chef responded to it.
Johnson returned to the States as they waited for the long visa process. “We were thinking, let’s hope she still wants to come, and she was thinking, ‘I hope they’re keeping my place,’” recalls Guidoni. As the months passed, his memory of her grew less certain. “By October, I had moments of doubt. You know, America isn’t exactly known for pastries. Am I hiring someone who’s going to make sickly sweet cheesecakes?” Finally, in December, the visa arrived, and so did Johnson, to the ultimate delight of Guidoni and his clients — who, he says, “love her.”
In her new Paris job, Johnson does prep, service, and cleanup at lunch and dinner, 13 hours a day, five days a week, for half the salary she made in Manhattan. She doesn’t easily come up with an answer to what she’s learned in French kitchens — in fact, she finds the Gauls still relatively unwilling to experiment outside their own culinary traditions. While she adores France’s salt and dairy products, she also misses the exotic foods she used to find at Union Square Greenmarket. And in New York, she was always part of a pastry team. “If you couldn’t put away your ice cream because you had something in the oven, somebody had your back. Working by yourself, nobody’s got your back. It makes it that much more challenging.” A little lonely at times as well.
But she has a language tutor, a boyfriend from Burgundy, and a cute little apartment in the Marais. She even appeared on a cable TV food program last May, speaking in French about her chocolate sablé breton with sautéed banana and caramel mousse. (“One of the most petrifying days of my life,” she laughs.) For the foreseeable future, Johnson will be here, surprising Jean’s clients with tie-dye marshmallows and her version of pineapple upside-down cake. She’s fallen under the charms of Paris, and the French have returned the favor. • 25 November 2008
Amy Serafin is an American journalist who has lived in Paris for the past 15 years, writing for publications such as The New York Times, Art + Auction, Surface, and Wallpaper. She also covers humanitarian issues for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Image by 水泳男 via Flickr (Creative Commons).