Jobless yet hopeful, I landed in Sydney from the UK late-2009. Fresh from a stint at London’s Loft Project and with a patisserie course at Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu under my belt, I set about cracking the Australian workforce.
A quick scan of the blogosphere for stars of Sydney’s pastry scene turned up a bevy of foodies who seemed to cling to the every macaron of a certain patissier: Adriano Zumbo. I sent him an email and, before long, found myself sitting opposite the man himself, in his inner-Sydney Balmain patisserie.
For someone who has achieved the status and success he has at just 29, Zumbo is a pretty shy guy. He opened up when I asked him how he acquired his passion for pastry, to which he surprised me by citing his parents’ supermarket in Coonamble, central NSW. He would literally raid the aisles in search of food additive-ridden lollipops and Cherry Ripe bars.
Not long after our initial meeting, I am peeling myself out of bed at 5.55am to drive to Zumbo’s Balmain kitchen for a trial shift. Terry Street is dark and still, save for a single strip light shining through a doorway, beckoning me into the hive of blazing ovens.
The one-day trial
I enter, but am invisible. Bakers are abuzz with intuitive coordination around the already sweltering kitchen. Afraid to interrupt their rituals, I loiter meekly on the outskirts like a geeky child in a boisterous playground, eager for Zumbo’s arrival so he can slot me into the strict hierarchy of the kitchen setup.
My awkwardness arouses some pity in the slight and pale French guy with an accommodating smile. He seems jumpy like me, not yet fully integrated into the system, and, with sympathy, offers assistance. 'You can change upstairs," he says, pointing to a narrow stairwell.
Above the kitchen, it’s a haven of calm and refrigeration. Here, chocolates are crafted in peace and cool, while Zumbo brainstorms new creations in his diminutive office before testing them on the pastry floor with his team. It is also home to the kitchen’s only toilet – clearly marked with a male icon. In vain, I crane my neck in search of a ladies’. I wonder briefly if it’s a sign I’m not cut out for this.
Armed with my apron, but lacking the chef’s whites that would help me blend in with the others, I head down to the floor. By now, the kitchen is filled with staff, and bread bakers fight against the territorial pastry makers for space in the tiny kitchen.
Before the shiny, new, air-conditioned premises were created next door, the kitchen was not much more than a glorified cupboard. There were two stocked-to-bursting-point storerooms: one for dry goods, and the other refrigerated with endless racks of pastries at different stages in their creation – baked, but not filled; completed, but not garnished.
The action is played out around two square spaces, with ovens blazing to the side and pastry crafted on a central island. The organisation must be impeccable to ensure nothing is misplaced and all deliveries go to schedule.
The muscular bread bakers are merrily at work with handkerchiefs on their heads, heaving around heavy batches of dough, squeezing into doorway space to roll out kilos of puff pastry through a machine, and bantering among themselves.
The pastry section, crammed around a two-metre-squared central station, is made up of a handful of focused individuals who are busy noting figures in pencil on pieces of paper, counting trays of half-made tarts.
There’s nowhere quite like a kitchen to make you feel useless. You might be able to whip up a mean Charlotte aux Poires, but if you don’t know where the almond meal is kept, you might as well not know how to line a tart tin.
Trial shifts can feel like rummaging around in the dark. A broad brunette takes me under her wing and I start on those famous passionfruit tarts. It’s a relief to be given a task, which will see me through a few hours before I must demand more instructions and pester for the whereabouts of ingredients. It’s mechanical but satisfying, trimming the pastry to perfect 45-degree angles around their rings.
The French fellow kindly slips me a fresh-from-the-oven croissant, flaky and doughy, to which I am wholly grateful as there’s no stopping for lunch.
Next thing, I’m making the curd, measuring out kilos of butter and lugging massive saucepans I can barely lift onto the stove. A few hours later, I am dropping three perfectly-formed dried passionfruit seeds atop the tarts. I am shown how to delicately spray the iconic sunrise semi-circle on top with red food colouring.
Well-oiled pastry machines
It’s repetitive work that you can easily lose yourself in. I’m certain the macaron queen to my right would agree. She single-handedly creates hundreds upon hundreds of the dainty bites, proudly and painstakingly piping each by hand in a variety of bold colours, all the while barely looking up from her duties.
Without the rush of the dinner or lunch service, a pastry kitchen enjoys a slower, more reflective rhythm to that of a commercial restaurant. There’s time to step back, albeit very briefly, and admire the coming together of each element that has been handcrafted with the delicacy and precision of a surgeon.
I’ve had one eye on my French comrade’s creations throughout the course of the day. He’s been busy making ganache, layers of dacquoise and hollow half-moons of chocolate, all of which come together at the end like a sculpted work of sugar art.
A voice on the radio reminds me of the universe outside the world of this pastry kitchen, and, at 4pm, my shift comes to an end. I didn’t take the job – I don’t have the patience or discipline for the world of pastry. The wonderful world of Adriano Zumbo requires an amazing passion and precision that I’m excited to see exposed when the cameras roll on his kitchen this week.
Catch Zumbo, Thursdays 7:30pm on SBS ONE, from February 10.