The prestigious MOF award is conferred on a select few of the finest chefs in France every four years, at the conclusion of a taxing, multi-day competition. Stéphane Tréand should know- he spent nearly ten years preparing, and fell short of the prize twice, before finally achieving it in 2004. Now, he resides in Southern California, where he runs a pastry school and shop with his wife Chihiro Tréand. When not at home in Orange County, he teaches and consults around the world. He spoke with Matfer Bourgeat USA about his quest for the MOF, his teaching philosophy, and his signature airbrush work.
Tell us a little about yourself and the Pastry School.
My name is Stephane Treand, I’m an MOF pastry chef, and me and my wife Chihiro have a pastry school and shop here in Tustin, California. I’m in charge of the school, where I teach classes every week, and Chihiro is in charge of the production for the shop, which we open twice a week. People always come to me, because I’m the MOF pastry chef, I’ve got the experience, but she is an incredible pastry chef too. Having this school, teaching, having this shop…I never could have imagined doing it without her.
It’s been a long road from your upbringing in Normandie to Orange County, California; You got your first job as an apprentice in a local boulangerie at age sixteen.
I knew I wanted to do something in the kitchen, and my dad had a friend who just opened a bakery, who needed an apprentice. I said, “yeah, why not? Sounds fun.” At sixteen, you are a kid—you think school was pretty difficult sometimes, but you realize when you start working that school was nothing. Standing on your feet, working six days a week… but that’s apprenticeship. And at the beginning you learn a little bit of everything. It’s a school of life, at the beginning. And apprenticeship is still like that in France. So that by the time you’re 18 or 20, you already know a few things in pastry, so you can get a good job as a pastry cook or sous chef, and then by the time you’re 25 or before 30 you can maybe open your own business, because you start so young.
Which you did, you opened your first shop at 29?
I opened my first pastry shop when I was 29 in the south of France, in Brignole, not too far from Aix-en-Provence. Which, for a Parisian guy, was great. It’s beautiful, the weather is nice, it’s kind of like California. So I was very happy to open my first business there.
You ran that shop for about ten years, and then decided to move on. How did you make that decision?
You know, after ten or eleven years of having my own shop, I thought I might like to do something else. While I had my shop, I also started teaching. I took apprentices, and became part of professional associations, and at the same time I started to do competitions. In 2001, I thought it was a good time to sell my shop, and I decided to take my skills and travel and teach. And I don’t regret anything, because that was the beginning of a new life for me.
You received the distinct honor of MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) in 2004. The competition is only held every four years and very few Pastry Chefs ever achieve it. You’re one of only four MOFs in pastry practicing here in the United States. When did you decide you wanted to achieve the MOF and how long did you prepare for it?
The MOF competition was a big part of my life. I started really thinking about it in 1993. My first semifinal was in 1996, and I felt pretty good, I felt ready, but I was not. I only practiced a few weeks. And I realized, when I failed in the final, I needed to be ready to practice for months at a time. Then, in 2000, I failed again. I knew I wasn’t too far off, I felt close. And very few people got the MOF that year. But after you fail two times, you have to be very motivated. It’s easy to say, “it’s too hard, I’m too busy, it’s not for me.” But after a few months passed, I felt that I wanted to try again.
Tell us about the day you finally achieved the MOF.
Before you reach the final, you have to go through the semifinal, which is a very hard competition. To go to the final is a great achievement, and you’re very proud, but you’re not quite there yet. In the final, it’s three days of work. There were fifteen of us, but really you’re not competing against each other, you’re competing against yourself. This time, I was ready. And I could feel it. I just did the job I’d done before so many times. When I got it, it might have been the happiest day of my life. But it’s a weird feeling… you feel so happy to have achieved it, but there are guys next to you who did not, and they feel like your brothers, so you feel sad for them. Even talking about it right now, I’ve got goosebumps. And I think everyone that goes through the MOF feels the same way.
It seems like teaching has been a big part of your career. One of your apprentices at your shop in Brignole won the prestigious MAF (Best Apprentice in France) award.
I remember when his parents came, he was about fifteen years old, they said “we don’t know what to do with him, he’s not very good in school…” and he was pretty quiet, didn’t speak too much. But I could see the potential. I think I gave him a little bit of the taste for pastry, some of the passion. And he was pretty good! He had talent. I was really into coaching this guy, and he got the MAF in 1999. It’s an award they give out once a year. And I was proud of this. It was great for him, but it was good for me to, to know I could coach an apprentice to achieve the MAF.
What are your students like here in California, and how does their experience differ from your education in France?
Here in the US, I realized that people are very curious. In France you start your career at a young age, and you keep your path. Here, what I like is that you can keep a job for 20 years, and then you can do something different. I have students who are in their 40s and 50s who are willing to learn things the right way, even though it’s not that easy, especially when you’re not so young anymore! I admire my students making career changes who are willing to work hard, and fight for it, and learn everything they can. I never would have guessed I’d be teaching pastry in California.
Tell us a bit about your work in Sugar- you’re famous for your pastillage sugar showpieces and airbrush technique.
The first time I used airbrush actually was to create a design on a snowboard for one of my friends. Later, I started applying it to pastry. For the sugar showpiece, first, I roll out my pastillage dough on a very clean marble table. For this I use the Matfer Adjustable Rolling Pin, at 2mm thick. I use stencils and a very sharp knife to create shape, then I allow it to dry overnight. Then, the best part is the airbrush. I use food color, stencils, and some tricks involved, to create a perfect sugar showpiece.
What are your other favorite areas of Pastry to work in?
I’ve been in pastry for a few decades, so I’ve had the opportunity to work with many different kinds of pastry. I like to work with decoration; I’m not a production guy who enjoys doing one thing 1000 times in a day, I’d rather take my time on an artisan job. I like the simple things. You know, sometimes when pastry chefs are making a very sophisticated, complicated layered cake, sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes it feels like pastry chefs are making pastry for other pastry chefs. When you do something in a simple way, using simple ingredients, and you do it very well, I think there’s nothing better than that. You can do a lot of things in your career, but at the end of the day, you come back to the simple things.