ICC’s Director of Pastry Arts Jansen Chan engineers a marshmallow ski lift, hangs 4,000 cream puffs upside down and makes cookies strut down a fashion runway. He loves a good challenge.
Originally from Northern California, Jansen Chan began his career as an architect, but quickly found himself unfulfilled by the slow pace with which construction projects took shape. Heeding a lifelong love of baking, he moved to Paris and earned a pâtisserie diploma, then mastered the craft of baking and pastry, progressively getting jobs in more and more prestigious San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York City restaurants. His desserts have been featured in high-profile media including Food Network, Food & Wine and Art Culinaire. He joined The International Culinary Center as Director of Pastry Arts in 2012.
Find out where the ambitious and passionate pastry architect finds his inspiration and channels his creativity:
Was there anything that you thought you wanted to do before you found yourself in pastry?
JC: Architecture will always be my first love. It was apparent that I had a drive for both pastry and design in my youth. In my free time as a kid, I grew up playing LEGO, while watching Saturday morning cooking shows on PBS. The two concepts probably fused because I really have found myself doing the same thing as an adult.
I chose architecture as my first profession mostly because it was a feasible career path, and I really enjoyed the creativity in design. Being an architect taught me discipline in processes and critical thinking for artistic challenges. But luckily, my passion for baking and pastry only grew deeper and I found myself dedicating all my energy to it. Going to culinary school and working in diverse kitchens cemented my life in pastry.
How do you come up with ideas?
JC: Ideas are a mix of inspiration and natural conditions. Inspiration comes from all walks of life: a museum piece, a design on a fabric, or even a mention of a word – and creates a chain-reaction of possibilities in my head. This is tempered by the parameters of reality, which isn’t necessarily bad. By understanding the medium (chocolate, sugar, etc.) and the physical conditions and limitations, I can create a dialogue with the idea to develop something unique. Generally, I find ideas that challenge me most attractive because a little bit of fear is a good thing.
What is your most memorable project?
JC: Every big project creates memories. The season finale of Food Network’s Halloween Wars, Season One, had the added pressure of being on TV and the marathon effort of filming two weeks of challenges; those were outside conditions and not actually part of the project.
A more recent memorable project was probably the Upside-down Croquembouche for the L’Occitane store. The concept was to do a modern spin on a French classic. The Croquembouche, which is a pyramid of cream puffs held together by caramel, is a classic French celebration cake. I wanted to create a life-size (six feet!) version, that hung upside down and lit up from within.
The project required precise engineering (a light foam core infrastructure that held lights), 4,000 cream puffs, hot caramel, hundreds of sugar paste leaves and a pastillage base (er, rather crown) – all to be held by two high-strength clear wires. The scariest part was that the entire showpiece was put together in a traditional conical form, only to be flipped upside-down onsite and latched on to a ceiling hook. Surprisingly, the flip was quick and painless – due much to good planning and helpful chef and student assistants.
How have your desserts evolved over the years, and who or what had the most influence on you?
JC: When I first started cooking and learning about baking and pastries, I was obsessed with the individual components of the plate. I wanted to learn each technique and each recipe, whether it be a decoration or a baked product.
Turns out, the harder part was the composition of the plate. I took time for me to understand that creating a dynamic and visually interesting dessert is where the true challenge lies. Mastering techniques is a requirement, no doubt, but the most irresistable dishes are the ones that go beyond that and take a diner for an experience.
All of my chefs that I have worked for have taught me something that has aided to being the chef I am today. The last pastry chef that I worked for, Sandro Micheli, gave me the discipline and confidence to be my own pastry chef.
Do you think creativity is a natural talent, or is it something anyone can learn?
JC: I think creativity is not learned, but rather cultivated from within. Everybody has some creative talent. It may come in different forms – some are less visual and more conceptual. Most adults don’t develop their creative side enough because they have less opportunities to exercise that part of them. People assume creativity is one thing, when in reality, it can be anything that you produce, construct, generate, foster, or imagine, and then share. One of our big goals for the ICC Pastry Arts program is to help students tap into their own creativity.
What are you currently working on?
JC: My latest scheme is to create a beautiful pastillage showpiece that also functions as a marble run. Rather than merely suggest movement in this artistic piece, an actual marble will run from top to bottom within the showpiece. This will make for an engaging and interactive showpiece that clearly demonstrates how engineering and sugar can come together.
Right now, my inspiration is to connect with the audience. I found it challenging in this time of technology to hold the attention of an average person. A simple way to do this is to have an approachable and relatable aspect that connects with the audience. Another project I’m fascinated by is deep-fried wedding cake… more to come!
[Update: see Jansen’s Sugar Marble Run on YouTube]