If you happen to be friends with one of the world’s most fearsome food critics, don’t cook for him. Adrian Gill stands over my tinfoil tray of plump, charred croissants and nods politely. ‘You’re baking again?’ he notes, with a touch of concern. ‘You know, only old women and depressives bake.’ He lifts one and takes a bite. He nods again. ‘Well, it has good flavour,’ he says – I don’t remind him he helped me pick out which flour and butter to use, leaving the water and yeast totally up to me – ‘but if you really want to learn how to make croissants you should do it seriously.’
I watch the croissant travel back to its tinfoil home. The ideal croissant, Adrian says, is chewy on the inside and flaky on the outside. I don’t quite want to know where I’ve failed. ‘Yes, I do, I want to learn,’ I say. Never mind that I don’t particularly eat the stuff or that I have other things to do. At that moment, it becomes terribly important to me to bake properly. ‘Well, then you should do it at the Wolseley.’
I grew up in a house with extraordinary cooks. My grandmother, my brother, everyone. But my mother, Ghinwa, cooks so beautifully there is music in how she conceives and handles food. In exile from her home country of Lebanon, first in Syria and then, when my family returned home to Karachi, in Pakistan, she has carried the weight of her memories in recipes. They are never written down, not that I notice anyway.
There is an alchemy to how she cooks – part of it travels down the telephone line, speaking with her mother in the seaside port of Tripoli; another part come from the memory of what she ate as a child growing up in Beirut. How the sweets tasted and what the streets smelled like after the evening prayers of Ramadan. She went vegan some years ago, and how to eat ethically, sustainably and without cruelty now informs her interest in food.
All this is to say, I never felt the need to cook growing up. It would have been embarrassing, unwarranted. But several years ago, in the limbo period between writing and editing, feeling lonely in Karachi, I discovered the kitchen. A dear friend gave me the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book and I pored through it over the course of one spring, tackling the book one recipe a day, like Julie and Julia, but without the voice-overs or blogging (till now).
I don’t know why people cook; anthropologists will say we cook to connect with cultures, because we are creative beings. They will say that for a captive, locked away from something or kept apart from their people, cooking is a way of connecting with freedom. I am still learning about why I cook. For all those reasons, yes. But it began when I stopped wanting to be alone. Writing is a lonely occupation. It requires solitude. I am very good at being alone, but I realized I needn’t be that good at it.
Making viennoiserie – pastries made from yeast-leavened dough such as croissants, brioche, beignets and so on – is not for escapists, tourists who take to cooking just to keep busy for an hour or two. It’s labour. It requires patience, calm and curiosity, and it requires someone who has seventy-two hours to spare for rolling, buttering, flouring and wrapping and refrigerating. As a writer, my life is built around a schedule like that. There is something soothing, something gratifying about baking and whiling away time thinking about a story and obsessing about a fictional character. But I had done bread and I had done choux. The time had finally come for croissants but first I would have to witness a real life tourier.
The Wolseley is a London institution. Built in the style of the old grand European cafe, it is one of the few places in London with its own tourier. A tourier, from the French ‘to turn’, is the specialized name for a chef who works with viennoiserie. Most other places where you might buy a morning croissant have flown the pastry in from France. Talk about lazy.
I have two weeks before I return to Karachi. Friends email Jeremy King, the iconic restaurateur who owns the Wolseley along with the Delaunay, Colbert and Brasserie Zédel, and ask if it would be possible for me to spend a few hours with the Wolseley’s head tourier. I promise to be as unobtrusive as possible. Jeremy, gracious as ever, CC’s his head tourier, Douglas Gregory, who says yes, I am welcome to come in to the kitchen and observe.
‘Would you like to do a night shift?’ Jeremy asks. ‘It would be fascinating and would give you a real feel for the process.’
Yes, I write back immediately. Never having done any actual manual labour of any kind I assume a tourier’s night shift is from 10 p.m. to midnight (mixing, rolling, wrapping, refrigerating) and then back early in the morning to bake the goods.
We fix a date.
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