Jean-Francois Lehuede—Jeff to his friends—has been pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel since 2001, after stints in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia. Renowned for his chocolate sculptures, Lehuede, who grew up in France, claims he's wanted to be a pastry chef since he was 10.
Yes. When they asked in school what do you want to be when you get older, everyone said "Fireman." I said, "Pastry chef." When we would cook with my mother, my brother would be eating the dough; I was making things with it. By the time I was 12 or 13, I really knew this was what I wanted to do, so I didn't work that hard in school. In France you can leave school at 15, so I left school at 15 and three days later started my apprenticeship.
You liked making things; did you consider becoming a regular chef?
At the time, I didn't want to be the one cleaning the chicken and the fish, so maybe that was part of it. Plus, in France, there are lots of cake shops. Every town has at least one cake shop, and you'll always see some amazing creation in the window. I think this to me was much more fascinating.
Dessert, by its nature, is comfort food. Is it hard to get people to try new things?
People will always want the classics, but you can still surprise them. You can take a cheesecake or a crème brûlée and do a twist on it. You can't be so creative that you scare guests away, of course, or at least you just don't mention what you've done. If you've added a bunch of ingredients to something, that can be overwhelming. Maybe you'll just say you added saffron and leave it at that.
Are there things that distinguish the American dessert palate?
I'm always surprised by the quantity of desserts we sell, because if we serve 60 dinners, we'll sell 60 desserts. When I worked in Southeast Asia we would sell about 20. I would say in France there is better knowledge about the desserts so they would be more likely to try new things—although Americans are getting more knowledgeable. I think food TV shows here educate people and introduce new things and flavors.
Speaking of food and TV, theFood Network loves to run these shows about desserts that are architectural or engineering wonders. Has this caused people to expect desserts to be visually arresting?
Well, presentation is everything. If you're going to create an appetite, you're not going to do it with the traditional wedge of cake. You should amaze people. I know that we have seen a big change when it comes to wedding cakes. They're more elaborate, with more surprises and more color. It used to be that 90 percent of our wedding cakes were white; now it's maybe 40 percent. People want crazy ideas, they want to surprise their guests. So do I. I want to wow them, I want to create a showpiece.
Is it every pastry chef's fantasy that people start with dessert instead of filling up on everything else first?
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Well, in the hotel, I see the job of the pastry chef as getting people started on their day with our breakfast muffins and croissants. At dinner, we make the bread that they'll start their meal with. As far as dessert, I like to think that your last memory will be of your last dish.
My mom worked in an ice cream parlor as a kid, and she says after that she didn't want ice cream for years. Do you still like sweets?
Oh, I like to have my cookie. You know, as a pastry chef, you have the luxury that you can have sweets at any time, so you don't have to rush for it. It's like if you live at the ocean, you don't have to rush out to go in the ocean; you know it's always going to be there for you. But if you're from Minnesota and you're out here for two weeks, you're going to the ocean every day no matter what. Yeah, I like my cookies, but I just take little bites. I'm a skinny pastry chef. I think dessert should be about little bites, smaller portions, like tapas. When you have dessert you should finish so you want one more spoonful.
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point, (949) 240-2000; www.ritzcarlton.com.