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Sébastien Canonne: Chef Instructor, The French Pastry School of Robert Morris University Illinois, Chicago, IL

(This article appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Q & A: Sébastien Canonne, M.O.F.

The list of awards and accolades collected over the years by Chef Sébastien Canonne, M.O.F. is as long as it is prestigious. Highlights include the greatly coveted title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman of France) – an achievement that has a special resonance to those in the highest circles of the pastry world – and the designation ‘Knight’ by the French Government in the prestigious National Order of the Legion of Honor (Chevalier dans l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur). Canonne was also prominently featured in the documentary The Kings of Pastry, directed by internationally acclaimed filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus in 2009.

Born and raised in Normany, France, Canonne did his pastry apprenticeship under the guidance of Chef Gaston Lenôtre in Paris. It was, he says, a life-changing experience. He went on to hone his skills at prominent establishments such as The Côte Saint Jacques hotel in Joigny, Burgundy, France; the Beau Rivage Palace in Geneva, Switzerland; the Hotel Euler in Basel, Switzerland and the Palais de L’Elysée for French President François Mitterrand in Paris, France. In 1991, he moved to the United Stated to work for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago.

In 1995, he co-founded, along with his friend Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, The French Pastry School in Chicago, which has become one of the highest-ranking pastry schools in the world. And this year, Chefs Canonne and Pfeiffer launched The Butter Book, an online educational community for baking, pastry and cake decorating enthusiasts and professionals of all levels. Their goal is to make The Butter Book the largest and most trusted pastry educational community available online worldwide. Chef Canonne took time out of his busy schedule to talk about his past, present and future, and the future of the pastry industry.

You did your pastry apprenticeship in Paris under the famous pastry chef and entrepreneur, Gaston Lenôtre. How did that opportunity come your way?

I started in a hotel management school program in Normandy, and worked my way through the two-year program. I ended up being one of the lucky ones to get an internship to work for Mr. Lenôtre in the early 1980s. It was a three-month internship, and I was planning to go back to Normandy to do a pastry program when Mr. Lenôtre asked me if I wanted to be one of his apprentices. And, of course, I accepted immediately. And that’s how it all started.

What was the most important lesson you learned from this legend of pastry?

There were many layers between me and Mr. Lenôtre – at that time it was already a well-established institution with around five- or six-hundred employees. But he was very smart to hire experts in their respective fields – there were many master chefs and M.O.F.’s. I kind of fell into this without realizing until many years later how extremely lucky I was to have this amazing opportunity. At that time Mr. Lenôtre was still very involved in the day-to-day operation. He was always very close to all his employees – he pretty much knew everyone by name and he knew if you were a good seed or not. He had the entrepreneurial touch, with an emphasis on quality and the research of excellence. I think what I took away was his vision and entrepreneurial spirit and his ability to simply get the best out of people.

You were a very successful pastry chef, working at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, when you decided to open The French Pastry School with your friend and colleague, Jacquy Pfeiffer. What inspired you to open a school devoted to pastry?

Simply put, we could not find enough good professionally trained pastry employees, bakers or cake decorators. So, we saw this need, and we also saw an appetite for quality education. First, we started to teach continuing education classes focusing on pastry topics and elective classes, and we couldn’t keep up with the demand. And we were doing this at the same time we were working in hotels. It wasn’t long before Jacquy and I made the decision to teach full-time, and a few years later we grew in partnership with the then-mayor of Chicago, Mayor Daley, and began offering a full-time certificate pastry program.

How would you characterize your teaching philosophy and how do you put it into practice?

Well, chefs are not educators – chefs are chefs. When you teach, you have to become self-educated about making sure you understand how to explain things to be sure that every single student understands what you’re teaching. As a teacher, you have to train yourself on how to get the best out of everyone, to make sure you get the workforce development with the best trained student possible. To do that, we simply followed the old European apprenticeship model and training of people in a particular area of expertise. What we were finding at the time was that schools were trying to make students the jack-of-all-trades. So, we made sure that as we grew, we added specialized programs in pastry, bread and cake decorating. And this pretty much took 10 years to do, just building those three programs alone.

And today we continue to make sure that we listen to our students and find out what their focus is – whether they are looking for a career in the industry or they are an enthusiast trying to improve their skills. And that’s why we launched a brand-new online platform called The Butter Book, which is something that both food enthusiasts and professionals are looking for today. I would say to sum it all up, we’re just always very careful to listen to what both the industry and the students are looking for today, rather than building programs to simply make money or grow the bottom line.

Tell us more about The Butter Book, and how it differs from other online culinary schools.

The Butter Book is the result of three-plus years of hard work and a lifetime of industry experience and 25 years of educating. It’s something that we built to last and that we wanted our members and the pastry community to trust and tell everyone about. I think that The Butter Book is the tool that a lot of people are looking for today. It’s the next step in our quest to give our students what they need. It’s for food enthusiasts of all levels, and it’s a comprehensive online learning platform that is very much a reflection of what the French Pastry School is, and it shares what the French Pastry School experience is to a larger audience. We started the platform with a library of over 150 videos and over 30 courses, and we are adding new releases weekly. The site also has expert chef articles and hundreds of chef tips, and a glossary of over 4,000 terms and definitions. Members also have access to well-known international pastry chefs, and can benefit from their lifetime culinary educational expertise. It delivers a strong technical foundation and the knowledge that you need and can acquire in the comfort of your home or at work, and at the time and pace that you want to do it. And I think that’s very much what people are looking for today. Most importantly, The Butter Book is not just a platform with recipes, which is a big thing today. A lot of people are looking for free stuff, but people are also looking for trusted methods and making sure they understand the methodology of pastry and baking. On the site, you are able to track your progress, and that was one of the tools that we strongly wanted. It really gives our members the opportunity to make sure that they keep track and have a constant overview of their progress.

Why did you call it The Butter Book?

The name is the perfect blend of what we consider to be two important elements in pastry and baking: ingredient quality – the butter, for example – and the book, which symbolizes education. And, of course, it’s a reference to the block of butter wrapped in dough used to make laminated pastries such as the puff pastry dough or yeasted laminated dough, such as croissant dough. Once you dive into the lessons and the steps and the fundamentals and recipes, you’ll actually find it to be the perfect name in that sense.

How do you see the industry changing in light of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Well, tomorrow we might have another virus, financial bubble or strike – the economy is not getting any better, but in the end, people still need to eat, and they’re still going to be looking for one of the simplest ways to satisfy themselves. So, we just need to rethink ways of how to deliver that. It’s obvious that many brick-and-mortar businesses as we know them today are not going to be the same. For example, many restaurants need to do a lot more take-out and catering, cooking at people’s houses. They need to market themselves with products that are grab-and-go in supermarkets – there are still a lot of opportunities there. And I see restaurants that are already reinventing themselves with some of those things. And those crazy landlords charging so much money for rent will have to chill-out, and we will have to rethink state and local taxes for the food industry. The people who come up with the smartest ideas and act on them come out on top, and unfortunately a lot of small operations that didn’t put forth enough of an effort or didn’t have the resources to survive during this time will close.

Over the course of your career you have collected numerous accolades and awards, including the Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2004. You even co-starred in a documentary – The Kings of Pastry – by two world renowned film makers. What are you most proud of?

Competitions and awards are important. They force you to get out of your comfort zone and make you realize what everyone around you has done for you to get there. They taught me that the only limitations you have are the ones you set for yourself. I am very fortunate to have become an educator in time. It taught me the understanding of heritage and the importance of sharing the knowledge.

For more information or to register to become a member of The Butter Book, visit www.thebutterbook.com. For information on The French Pastry School, visit www.frenchpastryschool.com or follow them on Instagram @frenchpastryschool.

*Photos courtesy of The French Pastry School & The Butter Book

Tish Boyle
Tish Boyle
Tish Boyle is managing editor of Pastry Arts Magazine and an experienced food writer, cookbook author, pastry chef, and recipe developer. Her previous books include Chocolate Passion, Diner Desserts, The Good Cookie, and The Cake Book