Despite her small stature, Jana Lai possesses a fierce competitive spirit and an insatiable appetite for success, characteristics that were born out by her recent win at the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie. A member of Team France, Lai has the distinction of being the first woman ever to be a part of a French team at the Coupe. Even more impressive was the fact that the team captured second place at the event, with Lai in charge of carving the ice sculpture, a skill that she had been introduced to only a few months before. As a pastry chef instructor at the esteemed École Bellouet Conseil in Paris, Lai continues to develop her craft as she shares her knowledge and skills with pastry students of assorted levels and nationalities. Here she talks about various topics, including her passion for pastry, how she came to compete at the Coupe, her favorite pastry shops in Paris, and teaching at one of the most prestigious pastry schools in the world.
Tell us about the school where you teach, Bellouet Conseil.
The school was founded in 1989 by Joël Bellouet and Jean Michel Perruchon. They first started by making commercial blown sugar pieces for weddings and events. It didn’t start off as a school, but over time it developed, and now we give over 30 courses to professionals. These courses range between two and three days and cover everything to do with pastry, chocolate, sugar and Viennoiserie. We also have a three-month course for people who are starting out in pastry, where we go through all the classics, from A to Z, and it’s an intense, fast-paced course. Some of the students have a little more experience, such as a man who’s currently enrolled who has several shops and just wants a refresher. People who are in love with French pastry and want the full experience have the chance to do a two-month internship in a pastry shop, hotel or restaurant of their choice, which we help them select.
So, if a pastry chef or bakery owner wants to get ideas for new products or garnishes, they might take a course or two here?
Exactly, everybody is welcome to this fantastic course which opens up the world to us. We get people from different nationalities and backgrounds, from Peru, Nepal, India and Australia. When an Australian attends, it makes me feel nostalgic to have someone with the same accent.
Paris is a long way from Australia – when did you first become enamored with pastry, and how did you make your way to the first city of pastry?
Pastry is in my blood – ever since I can remember, my mom was always baking, and my grandfather was also a baker. I did get a traditional education, because my parents were refugees who went through a lot of difficulty when they were younger in their country. They were poor and had no chances for education, so that was what they wanted for us. It was a strict upbringing, with the hope we would become a doctor, lawyer or dentist – not a baker! I started my professional career doing basic accounting office work, but I felt like a caged animal and needed to escape. I looked at countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, who all specialize in Viennoiserie, and thought it would be cool to know how to make croissants or puff pastry, which are flaky, buttery, crunchy and delicious. If something intrigues me or I like to eat it, I want to know how to make it. So I started taking classes at William Angliss [cooking institute] in Melbourne.
And how did you end up in Paris?
When I was midway through my training at William Angliss, the Australian government gave the school money to send some of their students on an educational travel experience, and I was one of those lucky students. They selected France, where we visited 20 patisseries in 10 days. We also did several short courses, one of which was at Bellouet Conseil with the world champion, Julien Alvarez. We visited beautiful pâtisseries and ate amazing pastries. Thank goodness we did a lot of walking, because we ate a lot. That experience gave me such a buzz that I wanted to go back. It actually became an obsession, so when I returned to Australia, my girlfriends and I decided to up our skills and learn new things. I was running a coffee shop in Australia, and had a strong urge to return to France, which I did. I came back to the school, because I had met someone there and had fallen in love. I wanted to stay, so I asked Jean Michel Perruchon, who is now my boss, if he knew any pastry shops who were looking for people. He told me he was looking for somebody at the school, so I had an interview, and the rest is history – I am still here!
So, it was true love that brought you back?
Yes. I initially came because I loved somebody, but I also loved pastry. Following your heart is always the best decision, and I’m not one who often listens to their head. If I feel like doing something, I do it, otherwise I don’t. I really wanted to be here in the center of it all.
What classes do you teach at Bellouet Conseil?
I currently teach everything except bread and chocolate sculptures. I don’t mind admitting that I am not a master at chocolate sculptures, which gives me more things to learn in the future. I will continue to learn until I am 80. I love working with sugar, Viennoiseries and chocolate, especially bonbons, ganache and praline. I also love making tarts and cakes. One of my weak points is that I want to do everything, all at once, and I have no patience. My boss calmed me down, because initially I was getting excited about doing everything. He told me to focus on one thing and master that. He asked if I preferred to be a master at one thing or average at everything? I agreed he had a good point, so I focused on artistic sugar work. I tried my best and put all my energy into it because I loved it. It was more fun than work, but it has been a while since I touched sugar and I’m itching to get back into it.
I started my professional career doing basic accounting office work, but I felt like a caged animal and needed to escape.
How did you become part of Team France at the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie this year?
France holds competitions to find participants. Teams are made up of three people – one deals with chocolate, another sugar work and the last one, ice. They had the competition for the chocolate and sugar work, because ice is very complicated. I finished second in the sugar competition, so I wasn’t technically qualified for the team. My teammates Jérémy [Massing] and Georges [Kousanas] finished first in sugar and chocolate. Such a competition has so much adrenaline and energy put into it, that you go on a downward spiral afterwards, where you don’t know what to do with yourself. I was actually on holiday in Greece when I got a call from the boys asking if I would be interested in joining the team as the third team member, doing ice sculpture and ice cream. This was in August, and I wanted to continue tanning on the beach before spending six months training without sun. I hadn’t ever touched ice, so I had to learn it. I knew know how to make ice cream, but it wasn’t my specialty.
So you had never worked with ice before and all of a sudden you’re in charge of the ice sculpture?
That was crazy, but ice sculpture is amazing. If you try to carve a block of ice straight out of the freezer, the cracks spread and damage your ice sculpture. When you leave it outside, the ice softens to a texture that when you carve it with the right sharp tools, it’s like meditation. It is as soft as carving into butter, and when you carve into that ice after a difficult day, you feel fantastic.
I initially came because I loved somebody, but I also loved pastry. Following your heart is always the best decision, and I’m not one who often listens to their head. If I feel like doing something, I do it, otherwise I don’t. I really wanted to be here in the center of it all.
How long did you prepare for the competition?
It took five months for our team to create the ice cream cake and lollipops, because it involved a lot of testing. I officially started my sculpture in September, because Sebastian Sanchez, who was my coach, was not available as he was working at a well-known event company in Paris. There was an issue after they changed the dimensions of the piece, meaning that my original plans were out the window, and I had to do a new piece. It wasn’t fair, but all the other teams were in the same boat.
Did your team do any full practice runs before the actual competition?
Yes, we did that four different times. Coordinating three people over 10 hours in three different areas was challenging. I will admit that for the first three times it was not the result we wanted, which is why we do the practice runs. That’s where you see all the little errors you’re making and what you can improve on in terms of your organization. Our industry friends sat at a long table in front of us, criticizing everything, which is exactly what we wanted. They documented and photographed each of the little messes we made, and gave us wonderful feedback on what we needed to improve. We were not perfect on the fourth attempt, but we felt much more confident. An hour before the event we were still communicating about our organization for the actual competition.
Were you the first woman ever to be on the French team for the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie?
Yes, it was the first time they had a woman on their team. Luck was on my side this year, because they never had an ice sculpture selection, and the team chose me. I thank the universe for sending me this gift of being on the team. It was a great experience being the first woman on the team. It will open the door for other females, because there are not enough. I have met women who are 10 times more talented than me, so I want them to get out there. Each time I see one who is doing well, it makes me feel so happy, because it’s representation. All the men I have met in these competitions have been nothing but kind and supportive. When they found out I was picked for the team, they told me how happy they were for me, which I found heartwarming. I hope we will see a lot more women in the future. I started a little later than others, so I have less patience in terms of my development, and always challenge myself to reach higher. Intense competition helps you grow in so many ways. I learned a lot about coordinating as a team and speaking without fear of hurting people by being direct and assertive. I was always fascinated by ice sculpture, but never had the time to learn how to do it, as I competed in sugar work. And then it landed in front of me. Competition gives you new skills and perspectives and takes you higher every time.
I was always fascinated by ice sculpture, but never had the time to learn how to do it, as I competed in sugar work. And then it landed in front of me. Competition gives you new skills and perspectives and takes you higher every time.
Which of the techniques that you teach are the most difficult for students to master?
It depends on the level of the students. Piping work is challenging for most people. Rosettes look simple, but you need the correct pressure and cream texture to get the right shape. I tell people to practice with instant mashed potatoes from the supermarket. Mix them with warm water until you get the right consistency, and use that instead of meringue or cream, which eventually splits, gets warm and runny, and is expensive. Just put that in your piping bag and pipe and repeat. When you are done you can refrigerate it and use it again. That is an inexpensive and fantastic way to practice your piping skills.
Are you currently teaching any vegan or gluten-free pastry at the school?
We are not offering a specific course on it, but we are adding it into our existing courses, because most of our students are bakers and pastry chefs around France. Their clients still want traditional products, but they are leaning slightly into gluten-free and vegan products. Two out of 10 of our course products contain vegan recipes. I would like to get back to basics and present people with healthier options containing pure ingredients.
What is your favorite place to get pastry in Paris, aside from the school?
Now that I have time, I regularly visit pastry shops such as Gilles Marchal near Montmartre. You could enter with your eyes shut and pick anything, because everything is fantastic. Another is Des Gâteaux et du Pain by Claire Damont, whose Viennoiseries are exceptional. She works really well and I love her stuff. A third place I recently discovered is called Brigat’, which is owned by two Italian brothers who have amazing Viennoiseries with interesting flavor combinations, such as licorice-lime tarts. They haven’t been around that long, but they are worth a trip – the shop is near Le Marais.
(This article appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)