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La Vie Sucre: Beijing's Top Pastry Chef
by Valerie Sartor
2008-07-14 08:39:27
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Phillipe Ancelet sat down in a booth at his East Lake shop and grumbled good-naturedly: “I’m past my prime”. He raised his huge shoulders and gave an abashed shrug. Clearly he wasn’t the coy type – yet at 52 this robust man exudes boyish charm and goodwill. He has none of the stiff formality normally associated with French entrepreneurs and bureaucrats. Au contraire, he’s as magnetic as his chocolates and pastries, which are, by the way, the very best treats in all of Beijing.

Women should be warned that M. Ancelet’s married, with three kids and a doting Filipino wife, or surely they’d be bombarding him with all kinds of sweet proposals. This busy man has no time for love letters in his mail - it’s packed already with endless orders for lunch boxes, party pastries and product invoices. Certainly he has great appeal, not just to women and gourmands, for Phillipe Ancelet has a winner’s style. His charm combines the charisma of a handsome man with surprising modesty that rarely appears in 5 star chefs (famed for being prima donnas) having over 38 years of international work experience. Chefs respect him too: he’s like expensive, cave-aged Roquefort that attracts and allures using presence alone. Even more significantly, M. Ancelet’s generous nature, like a high quality aromatic cheese, wafts through the air and heartens all who are near him.

“I’ve spent 28 years overseas, starting at age 26. Before that I spent ten years working in Paris. When I came to China I worked at the Kempenski Hotel for 2 ½ years. While working there I met my current business partner, a young businessman, Benjamin Devos,” he said. “In 2005 we opened our first shop and started building our factory; it’s been open a little over two years now. Now we have three shops, with a fourth opening next month near the Lido in Chao Yang.” He sipped his cappuccino with relish and added, “We are a 100% French partnership, and of course there are restrictions but I feel more secure this way.”

With his sensual accent and graceful Gallic hand gestures it’s obvious that this chef is thoroughly French. But perhaps because his second home is on the Gold Coast in Australia, where his family now lives, this cosmopolitan Frenchman has a very easy-going character that merges with his passionate nature.

Philippe Ancelet was raised in a quintessentially Gallic ambiance, with a grandmother serving as personal chef to the famed Rochelle family. “She did not cook for them on Sundays; that was our day. At home on the weekends my entire extended family would come to eat Sunday lunch at our house,” he said, smiling hugely. “Lunch lasted a long, long time, from 12 to 3, because this was the time you could spend talking with your family.” He went on to explain that, as a teenager, he would watch the deft cooking movements of his grandmother and help her out in the kitchen. “She was so fast and everything she did was so natural, so smooth…she danced through the kitchen. For these meals she’d always do a special sweet for dessert. I got my love for food from her and I learned from her. Later I went on to become an apprentice in Paris. Now, many years later, I am here making French food in Beijing.”

A great deal of time has passed since those days but M. Ancelet still derives great pleasure from his profession. “You must do what you are good at: I am French and I make traditional French chocolates, pastries, breads and ice creams. Of course, because I am in China I do try to incorporate small touches that will accent the Chinese flavors; for example, my green tea macaroons or a chocolate with Sichuan pepper. But I’m not into fusion foods at all. I do create some foods that are not French: they are meant to satisfy the desires of my clientele. For the Americans I make a very delicious New York cheesecake; for the Germans I make a Sacher torte. During Christmas and other holidays I’ll make special things: hot cross buns for those who celebrate, or mince pies for the British people, or a gingerbread house for the ex-pat children. But my efforts toward attracting Chinese customers by doing Chinese pastries have not been successful. I did try to make moon cakes but they did not come to my shops. Most of my customers are foreigners. They are seeking out the tastes from their home countries or yearning for superior French flavors.”

The master baker explained that his business varied according to season and location. “About 40-50% of my business is wholesale, and that includes catering to an airline. Another 40-50% comes from my three shops, and 12-20% comes from catering events around town. But it’s never the same; it varies from location to location. The East Lake store has a 95% foreign clientele, with many French people and only 5% Chinese. The China Central Place caters to Asian ex-pats and Anglophones. My Shunyi store is built for families because the area has large family style villas all around. That store has 80 seats and customers are mostly Anglophones.”

M. Ancelet’s factory also supplies dozens of five star hotels in China, providing chocolates, ice creams, pastries and breads. “The economy is growing fast, so our business is booming,” he said, “but I miss the time only a few years ago when more bicycles covered the roads than cars. There are too many cars on the road - the stress level is now higher. Drivers seem more aggressive, that is sad. Traffic is bad - but I am lucky because I drive my Harley everywhere.”

He also gets his supplies from everywhere as well. Flour comes from Germany and France via a Hong Kong supplier. Meats: ham, salami, turkey, comes from a German supplier. A French company in Beijing produces frozen fruit for ice cream and purees; some is bought in country, some is imported from abroad. His juices, although bottled here in China, come from France. The French company “President” supplies him with dairy products. And he tries as much as possible to buy fresh, local produce.

M. Ancelet’s staff is also multi-national. “For my shops I like to hire managers who are young people. They’re French, with backgrounds in business and they speak good Chinese. Many speak several languages, such as English or German or Italian as well. These young people have opportunities to advance upwards. In my factory I hire young Chinese people and train them; it takes about two and a half years for someone to learn to do something well among the four categories: glacier (ice cream), chocolatier (chocolate maker), boulanger (breads) and patissier (cakes and pastries).” The chef shrugged and pursed his lips. “I’ve never had to sack anyone. If people work for me, they must love this job. If they don’t love it they eventually leave on their own. One must be an artist to work at this level with food; the inclination is either there or it is not; voila.” 

M. Ancelet currently has a French assistant because he became quite ill last year. “I had cancer, you know, cancer of the intestine. It almost killed me,” he remarked and patted his stomach. “I am glad to be back to my old self, up at five, at my factory at 5:30 and checking on my shops, meeting with people and other chefs. This is my passion so I do not consider it work. I did add a series of juices to help others who may go through a similar health trial.” 

With his thick head of rust colored hair and high energy he doesn’t look like a cancer survivor. And only someone with high energy reserves could do this job, as his responsibilities are diverse: in the factory he must constantly be organizing food, testing recipes, calculating the cost of goods, overseeing inventory, monitoring the promotional materials and meeting with other executive chefs. “I am also a coach to my helpers at the factory,” he said, waving his hands like an orchestra conductor. “I know that everyone is good at something, so it is my task to help them discover the gift and then develop it.” In addition, as the owner of three high- end cafes he must travel around town to inspect and monitor these places too.

Clearly, M. Ancelet relishes acting as an independent businessman. “I feel satisfied when I see my shops full of clients. I know them all and I know what they like. This woman who has just entered: she craves my cheesecakes. And that woman, her little blonde son loves my chocolate mousse.” Moreover, he has no fear of doing business in China. “Of course, you always have to be more sensitive, you must act more delicately here – to save face, and to do business with the Chinese. I see nothing wrong in that,” he said, adding: “Being flexible is good.”

This chef has no fear of competitors. “If you serve the very best quality and use the highest quality ingredients, and if you have my 38 years of experience – what should I be afraid of?” When queried about the Chinese proclivity toward copycatting, he answered: “High standards are hard to imitate: those who do copy want to cut costs and make profits. Please understand: good butter cannot be replaced by a mixture of margarine and cheap butter. My French dairy products: the fresh cream I use – it is not shaving cream!”

With rising inflation his prices have also gone up. “I raise prices usually during the summer holidays. People go home and when they come back to China they see I have raised my prices, yet prices in China are lower than in their home countries, so most do not complain. Everything is going up this year. Commodities have increased 30%; butter and pork have doubled. Although I must raise prices I am not a greedy man. In the big five stars you hear this term ‘bottom line, bottom line’ all the time. I prefer to concentrate on the very best quality and let the pricing be fair to all.”

In the future, M. Ancelet said that he hopes to work in China another 8-10 years before retiring. “I am enjoying myself here at work and on the road. I am a member of the Harley riding club. They meet at my café every weekend and we all go out riding together. There is still so much I want to see and do. But now it is noon; let’s eat and enjoy our meal.”

China Central Place
#102 Building 15 Jiang guo Road Chao Yang District

East Lake Villas
35 Wai Dongzhimun Da Jie

ShunYi Europlaza
Room L111 99 Yu Xian Road
Tianzhu Town, Shunyi District

In August 2008: A new store will be next to the Lidu Hotel in Chao Yang will open
Home Delivery and catering available (8610) 64378994

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Linda Lane2008-07-16 08:44:28
Nice article Valerie! Thank you.

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