Life is what you bake it
antana S. ’18 buttons her pristine chef’s white, trying not to disturb everyone else watching a movie on the couch. She drops black headphones over her ears. She carefully unrolls a canvas pouch of at least a dozen knives, combing through the options. Once she selects the one right for the job, she starts the evening of prep work for a weekend of feasts and decadent desserts. Her hands dance over the cutting board, mincing meat, dicing vegetables, and chopping herbs, the blade of the knife flashing with each precise movement. This dexterity was honed over her year studying at Le Cordon Bleu, one of the most recognized names among culinary schools.
Santana’s training, however, was originally “not well thought out”—her decision to move to Paris for her gap year to study at Le Cordon Bleu was born out of a passion for cooking and rooted in her love of languages.
Having spent seven years learning Chinese, her first instinct was to choose Le Cordon Bleu in Shanghai. But she was ready to take on a new challenge: what better way to learn about pastries and French than Paris itself? After a grueling process of obtaining her visas, she packed her bags and moved to France.
In Paris, Santana worked busier days than many adults. At Le Cordon Bleu—a reputable and well-respected international
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my gap year, but it definitely started as wanting to learn another language and that probably meant living in another country.
chain of culinary schools focused on French cuisine that trained many prominent professionals, like Julia Child and Giada De Laurentiis—her days were long and stressful, cooking from 8:00 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Before leaving for class, she would have to ensure her chef’s whites were in perfect condition—stains and wrinkles were not allowed. Once in class, it didn’t get any easier: while classes were translated into English, Santana needed to decipher recipes from French.
“It was really quite crazy,” Santana said. “When it came time to actually make everything, there was no translator on hand.”
In the year-long program, she worked toward her Superior Degree in pastry, the highest certificate achievable for pâtisserie, starting with basic pastries, such as cakes, cookies, and mousses, then
proceeding to specialize in sugar and chocolate sculptures and viennoiserie (breakfast pastries), among other treats of varying textures, flavors, and aesthetics. She was particularly skilled in sugar sculpting; peers nicknamed her “the florist” for her delicate and intricate work molding sugar roses.
Santana was able to demonstrate her new knowledge and skills in a series of assessments straight out of Master Chef. In one exam, Santana was tasked to construct a pâtisserie window display of 13 to 14 pastries and desserts in six hours, working with three other pastry chefs-in-training from all over the world.
“It’s not a slow-paced thing. The second you finish making one cookie, or that one mousse, you’ve got to start something else immediately. You’re always working,” Santana said.
I feel like it put things into perspective and I became ten times more mature. When you live by yourself, you have to figure it out. There’s not really space to be anxious and let things pass by.
“During the whole thing, I just remember worrying, ‘Did we have this element?’ You’re making certain elements and then putting them together 30 to 40 minutes later.”
Like many chefs, Santana started in the family kitchen, pulling from old boxes of Lebanese family recipes and cooking with her parents. She started to make special sweets for her family and friends for the holidays and on birthdays. Baking became one of her escapes—a “source of calm.”
Prior to Le Cordon Bleu, Santana developed her recipes primarily by googling all the ways a recipe could go wrong and looking for tips from experts. Now she’s gained “innate knowledge,” and knows the exact temperatures, ratios, and techniques necessary to achieve perfect pastries.
Her adventure in France outside of culinary school also afforded her with a series of unique life experiences. Renting an apartment in Paris gave her a taste of “adult life,” like managing her visa, paying electricity bills, meal prepping, and “juggling all [the] different pieces.” One morning, she was woken by a knock on the door and greeted by an electrician speaking “rapid-fire French.” Eventually, she figured out that he was informing tenants of a power shutdown.
After her gap year, Santana started as a freshman at Bryn Mawr, feeling better equipped to handle the transition. (One of the most difficult aspects has been readjusting to the food. After spending a year in Paris and as a culinary student, the dorm food can be “occasionally traumatizing.”)
I can see how far I came, and I take real pride in that, because I can now sit down and create a recipe.
Since moving away to college, she misses cooking on a regular basis. She still seeks out opportunities to create meals or treats for her new classmates, occasionally reserving the campus kitchen to stir together a batch of brown-butter cookies or macarons, as having cookies “always makes you friends.”
“It’s something I always do for family and friends. If someone has a birthday, or someone really likes lemon, then I’ll focus on making a really great lemon tart, because I know they’ll love it. Or someone has some sort of allergy, I’ll spend time to figure out a way to create a cake that they can eat,” Santana said. “It is something that hasn’t lost its initial value of being a friends-and-family thing; hav[ing] a pastry degree doesn’t change that for me. As much as I can make pretty sugar sculptures, that’s not what I do.”
Santana would love to continue to share her love of baking, and dreams of working in a café or starting a small pátisserie in the south of France. But for now, she is focused on college, with plans of studying diplomacy and possibly majoring in international studies, while minoring in Chinese and French.
Her gap year, she believes, played a huge role in helping her figure out what she wants to do in life, through gaining valuable life experience.
“Even if you take a gap year and work at the Safeway around the corner from your house, that space and that time to figure yourself out a little bit before you get to college prepares you in a way I can’t explain,” Santana said. “Just being able to figure out who you are before other people prod at it and test it is nice.”
Written by Amanda W.