Lover of foreign desserts cooks up recipe for a career in kitchen
Many mainlanders wanting to learn the secrets of Western cooking are turning to Beijinger Li Jing, 35. A trip abroad opened her eyes to authentic Western food - proper pastry in particular. She tells how she gained a keen culinary following when she got home.
Why did you want to learn about pastry?
I went to New Zealand in 2001 to study for a degree related to business. I lived with a home-stay family at the beginning and was fascinated by the desserts they made. I liked sweet things a lot but didn't know Western desserts would taste and smell so great.
The house would be filled with the aroma of butter every time they baked. Their desserts tasted very different from the ones I could find in China back then. Before I left, one could only find cakes coated with cheap cream and those that mimicked the Western style.
Indeed, the food experience I had in New Zealand brought me pleasant cultural shocks. I didn't know chocolate, ice cream and dessert could taste so great. And I didn't know Western food could be so diversified and exquisite, because the only Western food I had had in China was fast food. Back then, there weren't many Western restaurants around. People mostly went to McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.
I then changed my mind and switched to a culinary school. Since I like dessert a lot, I then joined another programme specialising in pastry-making.
How did you start teaching pastry-making?
I started a blog in 2006, when I was still in New Zealand, to share my interest with people in China. My perception of China remained the same as before I left for New Zealand, and I had no idea how Western food culture had made its way into China. I thought not many people in China would be interested in pastry and Western cuisine. Much to my surprise, my first blog post - it was just about how to make a cake, a very simple kind that I don't even remember now - attracted 300 hits in just one day. Many people left comments and asked for tips. One week after the first post, a mainland magazine called Girlfriend asked me to write for it. I was thrilled, because I used to read Girlfriend when I was young, and it was like a dream to be asked to work for it. Soon after, many magazines came asking for me to contribute. Then a publisher came knocking on my door, and I published a book on pastry. Everything happened so fast!
That's why you decided to come back to China?
Not really. I came back to my hometown Beijing with my husband last year because we thought it would be better for both of our careers. Then I became a pastry instructor at a cooking school. I also teach cooking on television.
Why are there so many people interested in learning Western cuisine, when it's not cheap?
There are quite a lot of pastry fanatics in my classes. The school I work for is pretty high-end: each class is about 200 yuan (HK$220). It is quite expensive for general office workers or housewives. But they are not deterred.
Our school is not designed for vocational training, so most of the students join us out of personal interest.
Since pastry is still a new thing for many in China, the students often come with very little knowledge about the culture. Many don't even know the ingredients, like the different kinds of flour and butter.
In my first class, the cleaning lady put a pair of chopsticks on each table because she read on the recipe that there was a step involving whipping eggs. She didn't know people use a blender to whip eggs for pastry.
But the students are very diligent. Maybe it's part of China's culture that people are very competitive and diligent. Many students will ask me a lot of questions in every class.
So pastry and other Western cuisine is a big thing in China? Would you want to open your own school?
Pastry schools are doing better in Shanghai because it's more affordable there. People in Beijing are more sensitive to the price. Also, it's not easy to get all the ingredients and baking wares in Beijing. Some ingredients are imported and are thus pricey. So the market is still not very mature. I will focus on the cafe I just opened and wait a bit before opening my own school.
But I am confident that more and more people will be interested in learning how to make pastry.