There’s a Pacific Pastry Academy. And that’s where we are.
It’s a state-of-the-art office park type of complex, fronted by an immaculate lawn and hybrid SUV, sided by the type of crumbling factories Ba Ria is better known for. The academy is one of the teaching arms of Dobla, a Dutch multinational that sells six million tonnes of chocolate annually, spreading the gospel of pastry along with their export. Everywhere fantastic-looking moulded chocolate pastry ornaments line white shelves and tables which — together with the wheels of restaurant carts, stainless steel chair legs and black nonslip soles — are the only things touching the polished concrete floor.
The Pacific Pastry Academy is the setting for the 4th edition of the Vietnam Classic Pastry Cup, a competition held once every two years to decide Vietnam’s entrant to the World Cup of Pastry — the Mondial Des Arts Sucres in Paris. This year’s competition pits six man-woman teams of Vietnamese nationality from the country’s top hotels against each other over two June days, competing in four categories: chocolate bonbons, petit fours, small cakes and one massive sculpted sugar centerpiece that leaves me feeling like I’m at a very decadent Bar Mitzvah. The teams are a who’s who of Vietnamese five-star hotels: Sheraton Hanoi, Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, Hyatt Regency Danang, Sheraton Nha Trang, Intercontinental Asiana Saigon and The Caravelle. It’s Jun. 13, the second and final day of the competition, game on.
In prep mode, Truong Ngoc Lam of Hyatt Danang cribs a ladle handle with the crook of his shoulder, furiously spinning a drying ball of molten green sugar, surgically inflating it with furious hand-pumped bursts. 20 onlookers crowd the table, flashing cameras and cell phones.
Elsewhere, judges are weighing out one of Sheraton Hanoi’s bonbons, a perfect 10g. I hear one of the judges say, “Mmmm.”
At the back table, the day’s other two combatants have already plated their bonbons. The Intercon’s offerings are especially delicate, marrying soft trickles of chocolate with a thin but firm shell overtop lusciously soft truffle fill. “Perfect,” mutters Jasper of Classic Fine Foods under his breath.
Jasper should know. He’s one of three emissaries of Classic Fine Foods present today, an organisation that has built the backbone of this event over the previous seven years — and supported a nascent domestic pastry culture in many other, less glamorous ways. As he later tells me, “With San Pellegrino you can go into a place and sell. Not with pastry. So we train and bring the level up, little by little.”
Victor Hasting, the new executive pastry chef of Saigon Times Square’s soon-to-be-opened Reverie Hotel, explains to me that he’s grading on a curve. “I look back at the best of yesterday,” he says, “and make sure I’m grading fairly.”
He shows me his grading sheet from the day before, with a 158 petit fours high score for the Sofitel Metropole — comparing it with the 163 he’s just awarded Sheraton Hanoi. “But no,” he says, reassured, “this one is better.”
Victor gives a running, sotto voce commentary — “good taste, nice, crispy, low sugar — tastes good!” as he scribbles down notes; “nice, very nice, the crunch is there,” after a spoonful of ginger-lemon cream, glace, dark chocolate, crisp on the bottom. He stops midway through a creampuff wrapped in a thin lemongrass bow. “Can’t eat, can’t eat,” he mutters. He seems disappointed.
It’s the last round and things are getting testy.
“Are you giving points on praline?” Marcus Lem, formerly of L’Amour Bakery, asks across the table about Hyatt Danang’s small cake plate.
“No,” Victor answers. “I give zero points on praline. It doesn’t fit.” The plate still finishes quite high, despite the zero.
My teeth have started to sting from the sugar. I fork a very little corner off Sheraton Hanoi’s red currant-topped, pistachio-raspberry dome, and miss the filling. Victor urges me to dig further and I’m pleasantly surprised. “A nice blend of acidity and sweetness,” he proclaims.
Victor and the judge to his left debate relative merits — they’re not so much judges as a jury, a room of chefs working through flavours together, five hungry men. As Jasper says, they want to help these chefs get even better. Across the room we watch Khiem Ngo of Sheraton Hanoi solder a white beakless bird onto the top branch of a whorled candy tree taller than his chef’s hat. “He’s getting better,” Victor says.
After some final touches, Ngo lifts his pedestalled sculpture. With onlookers in tow he carries it across the room and lays down the sugar sequoia — entirely made of sugar and water, and probably weighing over 15kg. The room breathes, then claps.
The judges soon make official what everyone’s suspected, and Sheraton Hanoi wins the right to represent Vietnam at the 2014 Mondial Des Arts Sucres. Ngo and his partner Nguyen Hong Ly smile for the camera. And the delicious entries on the table begin to harden and collapse in on themselves ever so slightly, ready to be reborn again and again.
Winners and Prices
Sheraton Hanoi, 838/1050 points
A week plus in Paris and an invitation to the 2014 Mondial Des Arts Sucres
Intercontinental Asiana Saigon, 723/1050 points
A three-day pastry training course in Malaysia, and the knowledge that their Gangnam-era Psy sugar centerpiece would have been the coolest Bar Mitzvah decoration of 2012
Caravelle, 703/1050 points
A three-day domestic pastry training course