Peter Yuen: World Traveler, Viennoiserie Expert and Pursuer of the Perfect Croissant

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(This article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Chicago-based Pastry Chef Peter Yuen is known for his expertise in Viennoiserie – laminated doughs, in particular. In fact, he teaches lamination techniques at classes in culinary schools all over the world. He’s been to 28 countries in the past four years, including Kazakhstan, Singapore, Mainland China, Taiwan, Germany, France, Australia and Sweden. Chef Yuen recently took time out of his busy schedule to speak with us, reflecting on his early days in pastry, how he came to be obsessed with the perfect croissant, and what the next big trends might be in the world of Viennoiserie.

The Q&A

When and how did you first get interested in pastry?

Well, my father opened a bakery in Chicago in 1982, and I worked there since I was 12. I was always interested in lamination and played around with it a lot. Then, in 1996, I decided I wanted to go out on my own, and I opened a wholesale bakery business.

Was that a success?

No. I made a lot of mistakes. I was young and a little bit cocky and I thought I knew it all. The biggest mistakes I made had to do with the shelf life of the end product. I had been used to doing retail bakery sales my whole life and now, all of a sudden I’m doing wholesale, and this was a big change. I literally did not know when the customer would be eating my product, so I would get a phone call from the company that I had supplied product to, and they would say, “Hey, we shipped your product down to Tampa, Florida.” And it would take two days to get down there, via truck, and I had no idea what the temperature of the truck was. So that was the big learning curve that hit me in the wholesale business. And I had to conquer it. Back then there were no computers to ‘Google’ things, and I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

So I ended up calling the American Institute of Baking in Kansas, and I told them that I had a couple of problems and I asked if they could help me. And they were very nice and put me in touch with one of their instructors. The instructor asked me what product I was having the problem with, and I told him that I was doing a package of soft dozen dinner rolls, similar to Hawaiian rolls. So then he asked me if I had a problem putting in preservatives. So, I asked him about that, and he gave me the names of some preservatives I could use and told me to do some research on them to decide what I wanted to use. He also suggested I look at the packaged rolls at the supermarket and see what they were using for preservatives. I saw the majority of them used calcium propionate, which is an anti-molding agent. And you have to be careful about using it – you can only use a certain percentage of it in your dough, because too much of it can be harmful for human consumption.

So then I asked him about my second problem. One of the biggest products I was selling was a chiffon cake, which we made into a filled roll with a buttercream filling.  And we had it in different flavors and we would package it and then ship it out. So the instructor asked me if I knew about pH levels. So of course I didn’t, so he said, well, why don’t you go out and buy yourself a pH meter? A pH meter is a tool that you dip into your batter in order to check the pH level. And if you’re in a certain range, then you’re okay. But of course he also recommended another form of preservative that would work well in cakes. And another thing he recommended was putting an oxygen absorber into the packaging which would ensure that everything would be okay with the product until it was opened and exposed to oxygen. So that’s what I learned from that whole experience — about the shelf life of products. And ever since then, everything I do is observed with a little bit more about how to use no preservatives at all, but still be able to maximize the shelf life of a product. Instead of chemicals, now I am committed to using natural ingredients and processes to help extend shelf life of baked goods. One of the tricks I learned along the way was to add a little bit of the old dough to the new dough. Not only does this add flavor, but I also knew that adding old dough to new dough also adds shelf life to the product. The old dough contains a lot of deactivated yeast – yeast that has already died out – and this provides an environment that is acidic and that is not as friendly for mold to grow that quickly. So that’s something that I learned, and when I make croissants, not only do I want to make them delicious, but I want them to stay delicious for a longer period of time.

So what did you do once the wholesale bakery failed?

Well, when I started my wholesale bread bakery business back in 1996, it was my intention actually to get out of the retail bakery business. I didn’t want to work for my dad, and I wanted to do my own thing in a way, so I took on a bank loan of $125,000 and I also discovered credit cards, and I ended up adding on another $50,000-plus to my debt.

So, technically, I was about $200,000 in debt, which was not good. The story is that in 1997 when my wholesale business failed, I was forced to go back to work at my father’s retail bakery for about a year and a half. And during that period of time, I was doing my own pastry, and trying to learn what I could. I would watch Jacques Torres on television and pick up some tips. I learned a lot from PBS cooking shows. There was one show called ‘Great Chefs’, where I saw Stanton Ho doing some amazing pastry, which inspired me. And one uneventful evening, I was browsing in the cooking section of a Barnes & Nobles bookstore, and came across a book called Grand Finales – your book!  That was a real revelation to me — I was shocked to see that pastry chefs would get so much recognition! That was the moment that turned me into a true pastry fan.

I also read Pastry Art & Design magazine, where I saw a feature on Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sebastien Cannone, who had just opened the French Pastry School in Chicago. So I called Jacquy and he answered the phone and told me the classes started the following week. So I decided to add on another $13,000 to my debt and go to the French Pastry School.

And where did you work after you graduated?

Well, Jacquy Pfeiffer introduced me to Keegan Gerhard, who had just gotten the job as Pastry Chef at the Four Seasons in Chicago, and I became his first hire. So I was the highest-ranking Pastry Cook possible there before you become an Assistant Pastry Chef. So I worked for about a year with Keegan that way, and then I realized that I wasn’t making enough money to cover my loan payments. So I had to get another job, which turned out to be a full-time job at the Sofitel Chicago Magnificent Mile — they were about to open, and they were hiring a baker. So for two years I was very much immersed in pastry making. I was the Head Baker at the Sofitel. At the Four Seasons, however, they had a full-time baker. Keegan would occasionally ask me to take over for the Four Seasons baker when he was off. Once the baker at the Four Seasons was on vacation and I took over as the overnight baker for about a week. One day the Executive Sous Chef came in to talk to me and he said, “Peter, you’re doing a great job, but we can’t have you doing it at this level.” I said, “Huh?” He said the problem was that their baker, who was coming back in a few days, wouldn’t be able to do what I was doing. “What you’re doing is at a much higher level than he is capable of.” So he basically asked me to dial it down a little bit.

Before I was hired, the French guys working there actually gave me a few little secret tests to see if I was up to the job. One day they said to me that the hotel was doing a promotion where they were giving away breakfast to taxi drivers in the city. So since I was applying for the position of Head Baker, they wanted me to handle the breakfasts. So I had three days to do this — somehow I was able to schedule myself so that I had a day off from the Four Seasons to work on this. I was able to pump out about 1,000 croissants, about 800 pain au chocolat and about 1,000 danishes for the taxi drivers that day, all by myself in three days. So I passed my test! And I got the job at the Sofitel as Head Baker, which actually paid more than the Four Seasons job did for a pastry cook.

In 2004, I took over my father’s bakery. It was not my idea to buy the bakery in the first place, but a lot of other family members at the time said to me, “Come on, you’re the only son, you should take charge of the bakery.” I had this fear then, because in the Chinese culture, when something is passed down to you, you better not screw it up, and that’s basically why I didn’t want it. But my dad gave me a really good deal on the place, so I said okay. I called it ‘La Patisserie P’. Everyone thinks the ‘P’ is for Peter, but actually it’s for ‘passion’, as in ‘a passion for pastry’.

How did you get so focused on laminated doughs?

Well, one reason had to do with Yves Thuries, the double M.O.F., who came to stay at the Sofitel while I was working there. I was off when he came, but evidently after he ate the breakfast pastry that morning, he came back to the kitchen to meet me, but I wasn’t there. He had eaten one of my croissants, and he was so impressed that he came wanted to congratulate the baker for doing such a good job on it. In fact, he told someone at the hotel that they were so lucky to have hired a French baker. And he said it was the best croissant that he had had outside of Paris, ever. This came to me straight from the general manager who had been hanging out with him that night. So that really motivated me. The other thing that motivated me was back around the time I graduated from the French Pastry School, Jacquy Pfeiffer gave me two pieces of advice: The first one was to be humble. (I guess I was a little bit too cocky.) He also told me to find my niche. He said, “Don’t try to be a jack-of-all-trades.” And of course I said, “But Chef, I’m good at everything, isn’t that a good thing?” And he said, “Yeah, but you’re going to be one of hundreds of thousands of chefs who want to be good at everything. And no one will remember you.” So when Yves Thuries complimented me on my croissants, I immediately remembered this advice and realized I had found my niche – laminated products, particularly croissants, were my specialty!

Do you have to be good at math to understand laminated doughs?

I think so! Back in college, I majored in electrical engineering and minored in architecture for the first two years. I find that by using mathematics I can explain almost everything. About five years ago, I finally developed my Universal Number System, which uses numbers to calculate and manage the lamination process during production. It gives the operator more accountability, especially when it comes to doing formulation and creating new products. But don’t worry too much – baking is not rocket science. Good math only makes good sense!

What are the most common problems that you see with croissants?

I recently rated the croissant as one of the three most difficult bread products to make. This is due to their complexity in three major areas: 30% on lamination to create layers; 30% in aesthetic presentation; and 40% in choice of ingredients/mixing/proofing/baking. The most common problem with making croissants is not having an environment that’s the right temperature. Almost all aspects within the process of making croissants are controlled by the environment. If your kitchen is too warm, then lamination, shaping and proofing the croissants will be impossible to complete correctly.

You teach lamination in classes at culinary schools all over the world. Do you also do consulting for private bakeries?

Yes, for the most part, I have been consulting new bakery owners in getting the right skills to start a business. There are many entrepreneur wannabees out there. But many lack the knowledge or experience to pull off their dream of becoming a bakery owner. So I help many of them by counseling them to make the right decisions. I train them one-on-one on the essential skills, and even help with menu planning. Other jobs involve training bakers for luxury hotel chains. There are some places that I have never thought I would have a chance to go to!

Exotic patterned croissants are extremely popular right now. What are some types you do?

Now I must say, I was not the first to come up with bi-colored croissant. So I tried to do the next best thing, by introducing designer patterns to the making of ordinary croissants. The first exotic pattern was the leopard skin. This was followed by the tiger stripe croissant. After that, I started doing wood grain patterns, and they became very popular. Eventually I went back to different layer presentations. I guess I am a bit of control freak! I like to control the direction of all layers on my laminated baked goods.

What other Viennoiserie are trendy?

That is the REAL million dollar question – everyone is trying to come up with the best answer for this! Let’s see – within the last six years, the marketplace has seen: the Cronut! The Croffin! And the Croclair! Also many multi-color croissants with imaginative fillings. The list goes on and on! I don’t think I need to invent the wheel too much right now, but you can see from the Cronut –  there were people who were doing things just like it – frying laminated dough – years and years before the Cronut debuted. But what Dominique Ansel did was, he added a filling, and dressed it up like a gourmet donut. And he did a great job of marketing it. And he’s in the middle of New York City, which is a gigantic market, so by word of mouth, everybody knew about the Cronut very quickly. And he was smart because he would sell out of them — he created a shortage, which made people more determined than ever to go back and get one. And it’s the same thing with this hot bakery called Lune in Melbourne, Australia, which has been named the #1 laminated Viennoiserie shop in the world. And everybody who comes through the door can only buy six items. And they’re not cheap either — one almond croissant is 11 Australian dollars. So that’s about eight U.S. dollars for a croissant. A pistachio croissant is 13 Australian dollars, which is about 10 U.S. dollars. It’s insane! And because you can only buy six pieces, everybody buys six pieces. And when you have over 200 people each day and everybody’s buying six pieces, they’re making a lot of money. So creating demand and smart marketing is definitely part of having a successful bakery business.

What are some of the future trends you see on the horizon in Viennoiserie and pastry in general?

I guess I must answer this question. I think in general, we will be seeing new and interesting baking molds for Viennoiserie products. Just like mousse cakes, both large entremets and petits gateau, with the use of some fancy designed silicone molds. With these products, everyone can create beautiful Viennoiserie products. Also, I think we will see some good new working tools to help bakers create interesting shapes in Viennoiserie. I am on top of both of these trends – it could be my second career after being a baker!

Photos Courtesy of Compote Pastry School & Taken
by Jerome Flayosc @g_rom.photo