Friday, November 03, 2017

Up Close & Personal with Chef Florian Bellanger©

Florian Bellanger
I have known Florian now for some 16 years. In these those years, I can honestly say that the pleasure of our friendship is definitely more mine that his. Over the years, I have come to understand and appreciate that he is one of the most genuine people I have ever met. The man does not lie, never forgets his friends and has amassed a resume that reads like a who's who list. I also firmly believe that, while his skills and acumen as an acclaimed Pastry Chef and Chocolatier working alongside some of the worlds best, most well known chefs has been a large part of his success, it is because of his character that he has achieved what he has. His skill and passion are beyond reproach, but his humility is palpable. His smile is inviting and captivating and his enthusiasm for life is evident in everything he says or does. To millions of foodies and foodnetwork fans around the world, he's become a household name with his hit show, Cupcake Wars. TV will do that.

Judge Florian Bellanger
However, his list of accolades, along with the amount of respect and admiration he garners from the food industry and those same world class chefs, has been something he has enjoyed long before being discovered by the foodie public. In 2000 and 2001, the James Beard Foundation acclaimed his accomplishments with a nomination for "Outstanding Pastry Chef" while working with Eric Ripert as Executive Pastry Chef of the world renowned, three stars Michelin restaurant Le Bernardin, from 1996 to 2001. His desserts there were described as "light and dreamy" by Ruth Reichl of The New York Times, who awarded the restaurant the newspaper's highest rating, four Stars. In 2003 and 2004, Florian was named one of the 10 Best Pastry Chefs in America by Pastry Art & Design magazine while the Executive Pastry Chef of Fauchon in NYC. His industry 'cred' long proceeded his becoming one of the public's favorite food personalities as the judge on Cupcake Wars. He now has fans in the US, Canada, UK, Belgium, Hong Kong and Singapore, where the show is aired.

Florian with Martha Stewart
Florian has also served as the President of the Jury for the U.S. Pastry Competition since 2007. He and his collection of innovative cakes and pastries have been featured on several networks and TV shows, including the Food Network, Epicurious TV, CNN, NBC and Martha Stewart Living. He's also been featured in countless publications, including House Beautiful, Martha Stewart Weddings, Forbes, Brides, Modern Bride, People magazine, The New York Times, InStyle magazine, Pastry Art & Design, Food Arts, Chocolatier Magazine, Delta Sky and New York Magazine. Now he can add Kitchen Rap to that prestigious list as well. While many of you know the TV persona, I'd like you to meet the man we his friends know and love.

Growing up in Paris, Florian knew from an early age that his career would take a culinary path. Not only did he indulge in decadent cakes and pastries as a child, he often spent his afternoons in the kitchen baking for his family. We recently caught up with each other for dinner in NYC and on this subject, he explained, 'When I was a kid, 10 or 11, I had a big sweet tooth. My father cooked most of the time, but never really baked. At home we rarely had sweets. You know,
Florian at 6 yrs.old
we would have birthday cake at birthdays but that was it.

I chose pastry, because at home, as opposed to regular cooking, there was no room for me in the kitchen. My father has always been a great cook and he cooked all the time. The reality is, I started baking at home to satisfy my sweet tooth and then I really got passionate about it." During this time though, this "kid with a sweet tooth," developed a chocolate allergy which should have prevented him from enjoying sweets and desserts. I emphasize should have.

He expounded, "Well, I must admit Louis, that when I was eating chocolate, I was not just eating a piece of chocolate or a chocolate bar, I was eating large quantities of chocolate. I would get sick for two or three days afterward. My parents at that time, they would hide it, to prevent me from eating it. I would visit my grandparents, you know, on vacations, and they would try to hide it as well, but somehow, I always managed a way of finding it." He laughs, "I knew I would be sick, but you know, while I was eating it, I was enjoying it so much and well, I got sick" Ironically, he says chocolate is now his favorite ingredient and he admires its versatility, claiming it is "fun" and something "taken for granted." He continues on the subject of chocolate. "It amazes me that this product just comes from a bean. When you look at the cocoa bean, or the chocolate pod in South America, those are so sour and bitter. To think someone thought of roasting it, making a paste out of this, adding sugar and milk to make milk chocolate, it's just amazing to me."

At age 15, Bellanger applied to one of Paris's prestigious pastry schools, the École de Paris des Métiers de la Table ("Paris school of table skills"). When I asked him about it, he explained, "Actually, I was only 14 1/2. I told them I was 15, but I was rejected for being too young. So, I had to wait a year and a half. At 16, I enrolled and got my pastry certification, graduating in 1985. Now when you go to school in France, you do two weeks in the classes, then you work two weeks in a pastry shop, or bakery." He laughs, "I think my first check was like $300.00 for the month." He continued, "I was fortunate enough that my school was offering a new program in chocolate and ice cream. It was the first accredited program in France for chocolate, so I enrolled and spent another year in school. That meant I had to find a new bakery or pastry shop that was also doing chocolate." He smiles, "The good surprise was that I finished third on the exam, in the entire school. "I asked him him if his chocolate training changed the way he looked at pastry. He answered, "Absolutely, it made me be more exacting, more specific."

Once he reached age 18, Florian joined the military as all young men in France had to do then. He talked about the experience. "At that time, at 18, every boy had to spend a year in the military. No company would hire you until you did that military year. They did not want to train you and then lose you for a year because the rule was they had to keep your job open, so I wanted to get that out of the way. When I turned 18, I volunteered rather than waiting for the letter. You see, if you wait for the letter, being from Paris you had a 75% chance of being stationed in Germany. I did not want to go to Germany. It's cold and I do not like the cold. So I applied. They asked me 'What do you want to do?' I said, 'I do not know what I want to do, but I know what I do not want to do. I do not want to go to Germany!' They looked at my file and when they found out I was a Pastry Chef, they told me they needed pastry chefs overseas. Now, overseas in France means the Caribbean or French territories in South America. I was lucky enough to be the 12th chef of 12 they needed to send overseas and I ended up as the pastry chef in the French Military Officer's Club in French Guyana.

Florian the Scuba Chef
After his year overseas, Florian returned to France. He admits to being bitten by the travel bug from his time in French Guyana, so he applied and was hired by Club Med. He revealed he was a little depressed. "It was October when I returned to France. It was cold," he laughs, "and I was just hanging around the house. My mom said to me, "Florian, what are you doing just hanging around? Go get a job.' I woke up one morning and decided right then, 'I have to get out of Paris.' I had heard Club Med was sending chefs overseas so I decided to apply. "After only three days of the five day evaluation, they pulled me aside. You know, I thought I was in trouble or something, but they said I did not need to finish and they sent me back to Paris, telling me I was hired." Florian took a flight out within the week and spent 8 months working at their northern Israel resort. He then reported back to the Paris office for his next assignment. "When I got back to Paris, they asked where I wanted to go, I said 'Some place warm, anyplace but somewhere cold.' So, where do think they assign me? Switzerland! I told him, 'I am sorry, but no,' and that was the end of my Club Med experience. I asked him, "Florian, you were all of what, 19? Were you really that confident in your abilities, to turn down a job, without another lined up?" He smiled answering, "Well yes. That and the fact that I was not going to spend 8 months in the mountains."

At this point, continuing what now seems to be a serendipitous life, he tells me, while looking at the classifieds in the paper one day, he sees a number for a job as a chocolatier. No name, just a number. So he called. It was a famous chocolate house in Paris, Le Maison du Chocolat, where he then worked three years. He stated, "I learned so much. Honed my craft, developing recipes and such. I also realized that it was very important for me build my resume. To that point all my experience was the army and Club Med. I realized I needed to get hired by a big name. I knew that not only would it be important on my resume, but with a big name, I would get fantastic training." I interrupted, "...and this is when you went to work for Pierre?' He answered, "Exactly!"

Pierre Hermé
Ok friends, we are talking about Famous Executive Pastry Chef, Pierre Hermé, most famous for his macarons, often with unusual flavor combinations. French Vogue magazine dubbed him "The Picasso of Pastry." At this time he was at the helm of  Fauchon, Paris' legendary market. Florian served Fauchon in Paris under the command of Hermé from 1991 to 1994, then he was named Executive Pastry Chef for Fauchon Flagship in Qatar from 1994 to 1996. Florian credits much of his career path and success to the mentor-ship of Hermé.

As we started to talk about his Fauchon days, I could hear a bit of fondness and nostalgia creep into his voice. "My father had always told me, when you work for a company, you should always work more than two years, but no more than five. He always repeated this to me." I asked him what his father's reasoning for the statement was. He explained, "He told me, 'especially when you are young if you work less than two years, it shows you as not a stable person, you cannot be relied upon. If you work more than five years, it shows you have no ambition. When you are older you can work longer.'

Now here's where serendipity comes into play again. It also shows that luck, takes a lot of hard work, in order to be to be in the right place at the right time when opportunity knocks. I truly believe that Florian is the epitome of this. "While working at La Maison du Chocolat, there was this guy who was always coming in on his day off, one day a week to work with us. We became friends and I found out he was a pastry chef at Fauchon  "At this time," he remembers, "I had been bitten by the travel bug. I wanted to work, but I knew that even though this was La Maison du Chocolat, I would not be able to travel, working for this chocolate company. I wanted to work overseas I wanted to leave Paris. Travel. I understood that in order to do this, I would have to get back to Pastry. I would have to spend a few years building my resume and working for a well known pastry company here in France. I knew if I did that, I would be able to then do what I wanted. I told him, 'I want to meet Pierre.'"

His friend set up a meeting and Bellanger went to see the Fauchon Chef. When Hermé found out that Florian was a chocolatier, he tagged Bellanger with the request; 'If I hire you quickly, you will have to do a small favor for me.' Florian said, 'Sure.' He explained to me, "I thought Louis, what did I have to lose?" Within two weeks, Hermé asked Florian to come aboard and soon thereafter, approached the now 23 year old with his favor. "He approached me one day and said, 'Ok, now I ask the favor. I want you to rework the entire line of Fauchon chocolates, taste them all and make the changes necessary.' Small favor? Florian did in fact rework all the chocolate recipes. He asked Bellanger to rework the recipe for 15 chocolates in order to sit down with the CEO of the Fauchon, and judging by his subsequent success, it is apparent the CEO loved the new recipes.

I interject a story here about what most would say was luck, but as Florian and I discussed over dinner, was lots of hard work in order to be in the right place at the right time; While working for Fauchon, a chef friend of Pierre had a restaurant in Monaco. A little 3 star Michelin place whose owner and chef you may have heard of. Alain Ducasse. Pierre explains to Florian that Alain has a chocolatier at the restaurant and while he likes him, he needs to rework the chocolate recipes at the restaurant. He asks Florian if he will go there for a few days and help Alain with the recipes. Florian said, 'Of course.' "After all,: he winks at me before continuing "it was Monaco you know. And, we in the industry knew of Alain, if not the public quite yet." Remember folks, this is 20 yrs ago.

Alain Ducasse
Pierre gets on the phone and calls Alain. Alain tells Florian, 'Pierre talked to me about you. My chocolate recipes are old. Can you come over for a few days and work on the recipes?' "Now you know Alain," says Florian to me, "he is working very fast, the way he always does." He continues, "Alain asks me 'When can you come?' I looked at Pierre, after all, he is my Chef and he says 'Anytime, anytime.' so I tell Alain, 'Anytime.' He replies 'Ok this week.' He tells Florian that although he cannot pay him, he will take care of him. He instructs him to fly to Nice, then much to Florian's delight, Alain helicopter's Bellanger to Monaco. For five days Florian stayed at the hotel, reworked the chocolate, enjoyed Monaco, ate dinner at the best restaurants with Alain and they developed a relationship. Nice work if you can get it. Friends, remember: Serendipity and this story as you read on.

Florian continued for three years under Hermé's tutelage and was offered a position at the Fauchon Qatar Flagship Store. He had gotten all that he had planned for; Executive Pastry Chef, travel overseas, warm weather. For Fauchon. Serendipity? Well yes. along with a boatload of talent plus hard work thrown in.
Florian & Anna's Paris wedding 
The chef then helmed the Qatar operation from 1994 to 1996. It was here that Florian met his wife Anna. She was a young Filipino nurse, who had come to Qatar with her father, a fellow employee of Bellanger's at Fauchon. "We met and well, let's say I was getting along well with her,"  he laughs. "We fell in love and we decided to get married. We came back to Paris in September '95. We were still working at Fauchon in Qatar and we knew that we loved each other but we could not live together or really interact together if we were not married, as it was against the laws of the country, and we did not want anything to happen to either of us. We decided to get married."

"We spent another wonderful year there, but I started to get the bug again, realizing that if I stayed at Fauchon in Qatar, it was a dead end for me. I loved working for Fauchon, I met my wife there, but I knew I had to make a move. So I told Pierre, 'You know, I think I have to go.' He said something to me that I'll never forget and it made me feel okay with my decision. He said 'Florian, 'It's okay, I expected you to stay here just six months, not professionally, but because of the country and you have stayed for three years.' He asked what I wanted to do. I told him 'I wanted to travel, that I wanted to work overseas.' I quit Fauchon, but on very good terms."

Florian then decided to take a brief vacation, but less than a week later he got a call  from Hermé, asking him to come to Paris to have lunch. Here comes the serendipity again. Florian went to have lunch with Pierre, who asked him, "So what do you want to do?" Bellanger told him, "Well I am back in France with Anna and I want to move to an English speaking country, you know, work overseas again. Pierre said, 'I know of a restaurant in New York, they need a pastry chef. It's called Le Bernardin. My good friend, Eric Ripert, he is the owner and chef and he needs a pastry chef right away. Tell him I asked you to call.' So I call Eric, who is now my good, good friend. Anyway, I call him and he tells me he is going on vacation for two weeks and he will be in Paris, so we can meet. When I told Pierre about the meeting, Pierre, he was always very protective, like a mom sometimes, you know, he says, 'When you are done with the meeting call me.'"

Eric Ripert and Florian
He continues, "So Eric comes to Paris, we sit, and he was very straight forward. He says, 'I am meeting you, but I am also meeting with other pastry chefs as well.' During the meeting, Eric told me he had to run soon because he was having lunch with Alain Ducasse (there it is folks, serendipity). I told Eric I did some consulting for him (Alain), changed his chocolates at his restaurant. He looked at me with surprise and he asked me, 'You know Alain?' I said yes, mention my name.'" Florian  relates to me with some pride, "I later found out that at lunch, Alain told Eric, 'Don't even think about meeting with the other guys. This is the guy that you need to hire.' So I call Pierre, tell about the meeting, he told me, 'If Eric is smart, he will hire you.'" He smiles, "Two days later, Eric calls and says 'You got the job, but we have to work on your visa.' Florian explains, "Since I was applying for a permanent visa, we needed to prove to immigration that he really needed me and that I had a good background." Ripert told Florian to call Alain Ducasse and get a letter from him. Now talk about a reference letter friends. You could do worse as a chef than to have Alain Ducasse write you a letter of reference.

Le Bernardin photo by Melissa Hom
Florian picks up the story, "I call Alain and I ask him 'Do you remember me?' He says, 'Of course I remember you.' I asked him if he could make a letter for me saying he knew me, and that I was a good guy, for Immigration. He told me it would be no problem, saying, 'Of course I will.' Florian remembers, "Two days later I get the letter in the mail from Alain. He wrote some very nice things about me and I was so grateful. In fact I still have that letter. I saved it."

We began talking about his time at Le Bernardin. "I started over there in 1996," he explains with pride, "before I continue with my story, I must say, 'I am so proud of Eric (Ripert).' If I am not mistaken Louis, I believe that Le Bernardin is the only restaurant in New York that has never lost a NY Times star.  He smiles, "I remember, it was a lot of pressure. Louis, it's an amazing restaurant. I love Eric. When I worked there it was wonderful, but today I think it's an even better restaurant." It was here that the Chef garnered his James Beard nominations.

Fauchon New York
After his five year stint (echoes of his father's advice?) at Le Bernardin, Florian then came back full circle to helm Fauchon's New York City's Tea Salon emporium in 2001. At Fauchon NYC, he headed a team of 24 pastry chefs. His innovations were evident in such tradition-shattering creations as éclairs flavored with orange zest, passion fruit or coconut, raspberry marshmallow cake, Toulouse violet ice cream and raspberry-chili pepper sorbet, lavish 3-D holiday cakes and wedding cakes for which he continuously created new molds and recipes.

Florian & partner Ludovic Augendre
In 2006, Fauchon closed due to corporate restructuring and Bellager opened Mad Mac Macarons, an acclaimed French cookie and pastry company with his partner and friend, Ludovic Augendre. This is the point where our paths crossed and I first met him. GGM (Gourmet Girl Magazine) did a piece on his macarons, which developed from a connection on facebook. Cupcake Wars was not even a twinkle in the foodnetwork's eye at this time. He expounds, "When we first opened the business, it was tough. We started wholesale only, because we could not afford a retail store. Macarons at that time were little known. There were some hotels that were using them, baking some for their desserts, but the general public pretty much was unaware. Cupcakes were the thing, they were exploding," he explains, "like macarons had done in France years before. It's a product that is part of the future. Even McDonald's in France has macarons on the menu now." He laughs, "When we first started, I was delivering to our customers in my car. It was very hard to open the market. American chefs were like, 'These are very funny looking cookies.' We knew it was a challenge, but once we found the right packaging, we knew we had something special."

He continues, "We were the first. I can be proud of that. Now there are many doing macarons, but we were the first. We're comfortable, the business is growing, even in this economy. I cannot complain and we are very happy with what we are doing. He added, "You know what I mean, back in 2007 no one was really doing food sites like they are now. There were a few but, you (GGM) were ahead of the curve. We were ahead of the curve, and now there are many. Another thing I am very proud of is that we did this ourselves from the ground up. It will happen again for you as well Louis, just keep doing what you are doing." My friends, you can order online now from the Mad Mac website and enjoy Florian's macarons at home, delivered to your door fresh and delicious.

I then asked him to talk a bit about how he came to Cupcake Wars and the foodnetwork. He said, "Like I first met you Louis, (when he says my name in French it always, comes out Louie, and I must say I like the way it sounds) it was from a message on facebook, believe it or not. I did many auditions and well, after like my fourth one, foodnetwork liked me. The producer called me and asked me, 'Are you ready to be a star?' He revealed though that at first, they told him 'You must be the Simon Cowell of cupcakes. Demanding, exacting, very much the critic, the food authority.' I had to learn that, he states." I can attest to that. Florian is wonderful. Quick with a smile, he is funny, gregarious, affable and approachable. Sometimes to see him as the stern faced judge on Cupcake Wars, makes me smile, knowing the man behind the persona. But obviously, as he has done with everything he sets his mind to, he has taken to it quite well. His statement, "this is just a stupid chocolate cupcake...I don't like it!" may go down in the annuls of TV history as one of the greatest lines ever uttered by a competition judge. The show continues to be a huge hit with fans and viewers in the US, Canada, UK, Belgium, Hong Kong and Singapore.

On a more serious note , my friends, while fame and good fortune have followed my friend Florian, it has not been without great loss. I must now broach a subject I was very fearful of. Many of you may not know that Chef Bellanger tragically lost his wife, Anna, who passed away suddenly at age 40 on Dec.1st, 2011. They were married for 16 years. She
Florian & Anna Bellanger
was the love of his life. His inspiration. His partner in life. His support for all he has done and accomplished. Anna is survived by Florian and their three young sons. To say this was a shock is to understate.

I thought long and hard about how to approach this subject, if at all. Here is my friend, trusting me to do the first real in-depth interview he had ever given. His thoughts. His hopes. His dreams. His successes. His pain. His tragedies. How in the world could I write this? How should I approach a subject so delicate, a pain so great, a loss so devastating and one inflicted so recently? Should I even talk with him about it? Again, showing the depth of character this man possesses, it was Florian who eased the tension in my mind.

Anna Bellanger
"First of all Louis, do not hesitate, I think I can talk about it now. She passed away only a short time ago, so it is fresh but, I am prepared right now to talk about it and I have no problem to talk about it with you. You know,"  he says, "I have to move on  for my kids. It's a terrible thing that happened, the way it did, within 48 hours." He pauses for a moment, then continues, "You know, what I want to say in regards to my wife; I had no idea, no idea at all, the support I would get from the industry. When my wife passed away, I was with her in the hospital 24 hours a day. I had no chance to communicate. My partner Ludovic, he told me, 'Florian, shut off your phone, give it to me. Take care of your family, take care of the arrangements. I will take care of the communication,' and he took care of sending out emails and contacting everyone for me.

Florian & Anna
I was amazed, because at the wake, there we 450 people. At the church, it was packed packed, Louis  packed. I could not believe it. Everyone was there. Eric (Ripert), Daniel (Boulud,) Jacques (Torres),  Johnny (Iuzzini), Candace, Justin. I got such support from the industry, everyone was there. Jacques talked to me about it a lot, because he is a good friend and I know him a long time. I told him you know, 'Thanks so much for being here.' I mean my God, his wife flew in just to be there. He said to me, and I will remember this all my life, he said, 'Florian, Florian, what are you talking about, don't you understand? Everybody loves you man. You have no idea, in the industry, everybody loves you.' "Louis," he stated, "it's been the most difficult time of my life. I got so much support, but not just my friends. The Industry. Chefs, hotels, restaurants, everybody. Even my mom and dad, who had flown in immediately and stayed with me you know, to help with the kids, even they could not believe the amount of love and support."

You know, for most of us who know Florian, it's true what Jacques said to him. We do love him. You see, even with all his background, accolades, connections, successes and now TV fame, he could have done what many do. He could have gotten a big head. Many would not begrudge him if, after all his hard work and the long road it took to get where he is, he got to be a little full of himself. Many who find fame have. But that is not Florian Bellanger. The man I have come to know and respect is grounded. He has not forgotten where he came from. Yes, of course his culinary skill and acumen as a chef have propelled his success, but I believe it is more than that. It is the depth of his character that is the real reason for the success and friendships that now surround him. Through all that has come his way, he has remained true. To his principles, to his friends, to himself. I am a perfect example of this. He could have done this interview with any of the 'mainstream' publications, yet he chose to allow me to tell his story. For that trust and belief in me, I will always be grateful and words cannot express what his friendship means to me.

He told me, "When I started this TV project, Cupcake Wars, Anna was very supportive. When we were shooting the first season, I asked her to come visit me. We were shooting for three weeks straight, so I asked her to come visit for a few days. I was missing her and I wanted to share this with her. She saw all the shooting, you know, and I showed her the dressing room, my own TV, I said to her 'Isn't this nice. Look at this they treat me good and they have all this stuff for me.' I remember, she looked at me and she fixed my tie, looked into my eyes and said, 'I know it's very good, very nice, but just make sure you don't become an asshole.' And Louis, she was perfectly right. All things change you only if you decide it will change you. I agreed with him, saying, "Florian, the success does not change you, you change you." "Exactly. We have to share if we get to this stage." He replied, "We have to remain humble. I was lucky in my life to be associated with some very great people, who taught me a lot. So I have to return that in life. I have to share a little bit back. Now am I driven, of course, don't get me wrong. Like you, I always have the next project in mind. But it's not ego. You know me Louis, I'm not going to allow myself to get a big head. It's passion. Passion to be successful. To achieve.That's all"

As our dinner was coming to an end I asked my friend, "So mon ami, what is next for Chef Florian Bellanger?" He looked at me for a moment before answering and we toasted the last of our wine, clinking glasses. He told me about his wanting to grow Mad Mac, enlarging its presence online and then there is the personal side of his, trying to cope with the loss of Anna and move on for his boys. But with a twinkle in his eye, he said, "Louis, you know this TV thing. I like it. When you give a kid some candy and it tastes good, the kid wants more. I am that kid. I have some really great ideas and I definitely want my own show. I have some ideas for shows right now that are not on TV and I'm convinced they will work. Serious food TV. Subjects that are not being addressed, that I am convinced will be successful. You and I know about the details, of course, but we will keep that to ourselves," he winked, "I think there is room for some good shows coming from a different angle than what is on food TV now." He patted me on the back as we rose from the table and said, "Now let's get out of here before I get a ticket for overdue parking."

That my friends, is Florian. Always with his head looking up, reaching for the stars, but with his feet planted firmly on the ground. He has a new show coming on Foodnetwork Cup Cake Wars Kids so make sure you check it out!

As always, Bon Appetit!

Sources: Florian Bellanger, Mad Mac Macarons, Melissa Hom , foodnetwork Fauchon  
& most especially, The Bellanger Family.