Instagram-worthy desserts are sparking foodies around the world to stand in line for hours. Ever wonder who makes those desserts, and what it takes to achieve success as a pastry chef?
As a child growing up in the Ukraine, Elina Olefirenko spent a lot of time cooking and baking with her grandmother. She remembers well her first dessert: a delicate meringue made without a whisk, whipping egg whites with a fork. Little did she know that this tactile experience would help her, decades later, in the more formal setting of a Le Cordon Bleu teaching kitchen.
“But even at that time I didn’t think that I’d become a pastry chef one day,” says Olefirenko, noting that she was still focused on hospitality and tourism management, rather than the restaurant industry.
But a pastry chef she is. Currently working at Le Moulin de Provence, Olefirenko has also put her dessert-making skills to good use at Mantovani 1946. She has served as a judge at her alma mater and will begin teaching pastry-making at Algonquin College this fall. That’s quite an accomplishment for a 27-year-old who graduated just 2 years ago.
After completing her bachelor degree, Olefirenko moved to Canada to continue down the business management path. But her true calling remained focused on food.
“At home, I started baking, and I got a job at a restaurant in Vancouver. I was basically learning by myself.”
Then she discovered the Ottawa campus of Le Cordon Bleu.
“In Ukraine, people dream to go to this school,” says Olefirenko, who recalls watching professional chefs on MasterChef Ukraine discuss their Cordon Bleu lessons. But as a non-francophone, she thought the esteemed institution was out of reach. “I was always thinking of the Paris campus, but I don’t speak French. When I found out that there is a campus in Canada I was very, very excited. I was searching for many schools in Vancouver as well, but was drawn to the prestige of Le Cordon Bleu. The French approach is a bit different — it’s about discipline, organization, perfectionism, strictness of hygiene, and very high standards.”
Olefirenko’s first day at the school didn’t fail to impress. Inside the spectacular heritage building, which is situated amongst embassies, the University of Ottawa, and popular Strathcona Park, she found demonstration kitchens equipped with televisions that allow students to watch the detailed work of pastry preparations unfold. They received high-end tools — no more whisking with a fork! — and their Cordon Bleu uniform, with instructions that it must always be clean and ironed.
In the immaculate teaching kitchen, Olefirenko progressed through the nine-month program learning such things as the history of the pain au chocolat and how to properly melt sugar. For the first three months, the students use only hand-held tools — no automation allowed. This helped Olefirenko understand exactly what to look for — and smell, and taste — when it comes to the fine art of pastry making. During these months, her skills whipping meringue by hand was put to good use.
The predominant wall clock in the teaching kitchen was key to her instruction. The instructor would continually remind her how much time remained in the session, cautioning her to balance lofty goals with realistic time constraints.
“The hardest part was making new things while balancing the reality of time management into projects. Sometimes I was going too far with the desire to challenge myself in creating something unique and different. But the instructors encourage students to challenge themselves,” says Olefirenko.
With her Cordon Bleu training, Olefirenko feels ready to launch a creative, ambitious career in pastry. A big part of that is to become an instructor herself. “I want to teach and share my experiences. I like the idea of being a consultant where I can create menus for restaurants and pastry shops. I’d like to teach, train, and launch menus and products.”
For more information on Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa programs, please visit: cordonbleu.edu/ottawa/programmes/en