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La Vie Sucre: Beijing's top pastry chef
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A great deal of time has passed since those days but M. Ancelet still derives great pleasure from his profession. "You have to do what you are good at: I am French and I make traditional French chocolates, pastries, breads and ice creams. Of course, because I am in China I do try to incorporate small touches that will accent the Chinese flavors; for example, my green tea macaroons or a chocolate with Sichuan pepper. But I'm not into fusion foods at all. I do create foods that are not French: they are meant to satisfy the desires of my clientele. For the Americans I make a very delicious New York cheesecake; for the Germans I make a Sacher torte. During Christmas and other holidays I'll make special things: hot cross buns, or mince pies for the British people or a gingerbread house for the ex-pat children. But my efforts toward attracting Chinese customers by doing Chinese pastries have not been successful. I did try to make moon cakes but they did not come to my shops. Most of my customers are foreigners. They are seeking out the tastes from their home countries or yearning for superior French flavors."

The master baker explained that his business varied according to season and location. "About 40-50 percent of my business is wholesale, and that includes catering to an airline. Another 40-50 percent comes from my three shops, and 12-20 percent comes from catering events around town. But it's never the same; it varies from location to location. The East Lake store has a 95 percent foreign clientele, with many French people and only 5 percent Chinese. The China Central Place caters to Asian ex-pats and Anglophones. My Shunyi store is built for families because the area has large family style villas all around. That store has 80 seats and customers are mostly Anglophones."

M. Ancelet's factory also supplies dozens of five star hotels in China, providing chocolates, ice creams, pastries and breads. "The economy is growing fast, so our business is booming," he said. "But I miss the time when more bicycles covered the roads than cars. There are too many cars on the road – the stress level is now higher. Drivers seem more aggressive, that is sad. Traffic is bad – but I am lucky because I drive my Harley everywhere."

He also gets his supplies from everywhere. Flour comes from Germany and France via a Hong Kong supplier. Meats: ham, salami, turkey, come from a German supplier. A French company in Beijing produces frozen fruit for ice cream and purees; some is bought in country, some is imported from abroad. His juices, although bottled here in China, come from France. The French company "President" supplies him with dairy products. And he tries as much as possible to buy fresh, local produce.

M. Ancelet's staff is also multi-national. "For my shops I like to hire managers who are young people. They're French, with backgrounds in business and they speak good Chinese. Many speak several languages, such as English or German or Italian as well. These young people have opportunities to advance upwards. In my factory I hire young Chinese people and train them; it takes about two and a half years for someone to learn to do something well among the four categories: glacier (ice cream), chocolatier (chocolate maker), boulanger (breads) and patissier (cakes and pastries)." The chef shrugged and pursed his lips. "I've never had to sack anyone. If people work for me, they must love this job. If they don't love it they eventually leave on their own. One must be an artist to work at this level with food; the inclination is either there or it is not; voila."

M. Ancelet currently has a French assistant because he became quite ill last year. "I had cancer, you know, cancer of the intestine. It almost killed me," he remarked and patted his stomach. "I am glad to be back to my old self, up at five, at my factory at 5:30 and checking on my shops, meeting with people and other chefs. This is my passion so I do not consider it work. I did add a series of juices to help others who may go through a similar health trial."

With his thick head of rust colored hair and high energy he doesn't look like a cancer survivor. And only someone with high energy reserves could do this job, as his responsibilities are diverse: in the factory he must constantly be organizing food, testing recipes, calculating the cost of goods, overseeing inventory, monitoring the promotional materials and meeting with other executive chefs. "I am a coach to my helpers at the factory," he said, waving his hands like an orchestra conductor. "I know that everyone is good at something, so it is my task to help them discover the gift and then develop it." In addition, as the owner of three high-end cafes he must travel around town to inspect and monitor these places too.

Clearly, M. Ancelet relishes acting as an independent businessman. "I feel satisfied when I see my shops full of clients. I know them all and I know what they like. This woman who has just entered: she craves my cheesecakes. And that woman, her little blonde son loves my chocolate mousse." Moreover, he has no fear of doing business in China. "Of course, you always have to be more sensitive, you must act more delicately here – to save face, and to do business with the Chinese. I see nothing wrong in that," he said, adding: "Being flexible is good."

This chef has no fear of competitors. "If you serve the very best quality and use the highest quality ingredients, and if you have my 38 years of experience – what should I be afraid of?" When queried about the Chinese proclivity toward copycatting, he answered: "High standards are hard to imitate: those who copy want to cut costs and make profits. Please understand: good butter cannot be replaced by a mixture of margarine and cheap butter. My French dairy products: the fresh cream I use – it is not shaving cream!"

With rising inflation his prices have also gone up. "I raise prices usually during the summer holidays. People go home and when they come back to China they see I have raised my prices, yet prices in China are lower than in their home countries, so most do not complain. Everything is going up this year. Commodities have increased 30 percent; butter and pork have doubled. Although I must raise prices I am not a greedy man. In the big five stars you hear this term ‘bottom line, bottom line' all the time. I prefer to concentrate on the very best quality and let the pricing be fair to all."

In the future, M. Ancelet said that he hopes to work in China another 8-10 years before retiring. "I am enjoying myself here at work and on the road. I am a member of the Harley riding club. They meet at my café every weekend and we all go out riding together. There is still so much I want to see and do."

(China.org.cn August 4, 2008)

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