|Judge Florian Bellanger|
|Florian with Martha Stewart|
Growing up in Paris, Florian knew from an early age that his career would take a culinary path. Not only did he indulge in decadent cakes and pastries as a child, he often spent his afternoons in the kitchen baking for his family. We recently caught up with each other for dinner in NYC and on this subject, he explained, 'When I was a kid, 10 or 11, I had a big sweet tooth. My father cooked most of the time, but never really baked. At home we rarely had sweets. You know,
|Florian at 6 yrs.old|
I chose pastry, because at home, as opposed to regular cooking, there was no room for me in the kitchen. My father has always been a great cook and he cooked all the time. The reality is, I started baking at home to satisfy my sweet tooth and then I really got passionate about it." During this time though, this "kid with a sweet tooth," developed a chocolate allergy which should have prevented him from enjoying sweets and desserts. I emphasize should have.
He expounded, "Well, I must admit Louis, that when I was eating chocolate, I was not just eating a piece of chocolate or a chocolate bar, I was eating large quantities of chocolate. I would get sick for two or three days afterward. My parents at that time, they would hide it, to prevent me from eating it. I would visit my grandparents, you know, on vacations, and they would try to hide it as well, but somehow, I always managed a way of finding it." He laughs, "I knew I would be sick, but you know, while I was eating it, I was enjoying it so much and well, I got sick" Ironically, he says chocolate is now his favorite ingredient and he admires its versatility, claiming it is "fun" and something "taken for granted." He continues on the subject of chocolate. "It amazes me that this product just comes from a bean. When you look at the cocoa bean, or the chocolate pod in South America, those are so sour and bitter. To think someone thought of roasting it, making a paste out of this, adding sugar and milk to make milk chocolate, it's just amazing to me."
Once he reached age 18, Florian joined the military as all young men in France had to do then. He talked about the experience. "At that time, at 18, every boy had to spend a year in the military. No company would hire you until you did that military year. They did not want to train you and then lose you for a year because the rule was they had to keep your job open, so I wanted to get that out of the way. When I turned 18, I volunteered rather than waiting for the letter. You see, if you wait for the letter, being from Paris you had a 75% chance of being stationed in Germany. I did not want to go to Germany. It's cold and I do not like the cold. So I applied. They asked me 'What do you want to do?' I said, 'I do not know what I want to do, but I know what I do not want to do. I do not want to go to Germany!' They looked at my file and when they found out I was a Pastry Chef, they told me they needed pastry chefs overseas. Now, overseas in France means the Caribbean or French territories in South America. I was lucky enough to be the 12th chef of 12 they needed to send overseas and I ended up as the pastry chef in the French Military Officer's Club in French Guyana.
|Florian the Scuba Chef|
At this point, continuing what now seems to be a serendipitous life, he tells me, while looking at the classifieds in the paper one day, he sees a number for a job as a chocolatier. No name, just a number. So he called. It was a famous chocolate house in Paris, Le Maison du Chocolat, where he then worked three years. He stated, "I learned so much. Honed my craft, developing recipes and such. I also realized that it was very important for me build my resume. To that point all my experience was the army and Club Med. I realized I needed to get hired by a big name. I knew that not only would it be important on my resume, but with a big name, I would get fantastic training." I interrupted, "...and this is when you went to work for Pierre?' He answered, "Exactly!"
Now here's where serendipity comes into play again. It also shows that luck, takes a lot of hard work, in order to be to be in the right place at the right time when opportunity knocks. I truly believe that Florian is the epitome of this. "While working at La Maison du Chocolat, there was this guy who was always coming in on his day off, one day a week to work with us. We became friends and I found out he was a pastry chef at Fauchon "At this time," he remembers, "I had been bitten by the travel bug. I wanted to work, but I knew that even though this was La Maison du Chocolat, I would not be able to travel, working for this chocolate company. I wanted to work overseas I wanted to leave Paris. Travel. I understood that in order to do this, I would have to get back to Pastry. I would have to spend a few years building my resume and working for a well known pastry company here in France. I knew if I did that, I would be able to then do what I wanted. I told him, 'I want to meet Pierre.'"
His friend set up a meeting and Bellanger went to see the Fauchon Chef. When Hermé found out that Florian was a chocolatier, he tagged Bellanger with the request; 'If I hire you quickly, you will have to do a small favor for me.' Florian said, 'Sure.' He explained to me, "I thought Louis, what did I have to lose?" Within two weeks, Hermé asked Florian to come aboard and soon thereafter, approached the now 23 year old with his favor. "He approached me one day and said, 'Ok, now I ask the favor. I want you to rework the entire line of Fauchon chocolates, taste them all and make the changes necessary.' Small favor? Florian did in fact rework all the chocolate recipes. He asked Bellanger to rework the recipe for 15 chocolates in order to sit down with the CEO of the Fauchon, and judging by his subsequent success, it is apparent the CEO loved the new recipes.
I interject a story here about what most would say was luck, but as Florian and I discussed over dinner, was lots of hard work in order to be in the right place at the right time; While working for Fauchon, a chef friend of Pierre had a restaurant in Monaco. A little 3 star Michelin place whose owner and chef you may have heard of. Alain Ducasse. Pierre explains to Florian that Alain has a chocolatier at the restaurant and while he likes him, he needs to rework the chocolate recipes at the restaurant. He asks Florian if he will go there for a few days and help Alain with the recipes. Florian said, 'Of course.' "After all,: he winks at me before continuing "it was Monaco you know. And, we in the industry knew of Alain, if not the public quite yet." Remember folks, this is 20 yrs ago.
Florian continued for three years under Hermé's tutelage and was offered a position at the Fauchon Qatar Flagship Store. He had gotten all that he had planned for; Executive Pastry Chef, travel overseas, warm weather. For Fauchon. Serendipity? Well yes. along with a boatload of talent plus hard work thrown in.
|Florian & Anna's Paris wedding|
"We spent another wonderful year there, but I started to get the bug again, realizing that if I stayed at Fauchon in Qatar, it was a dead end for me. I loved working for Fauchon, I met my wife there, but I knew I had to make a move. So I told Pierre, 'You know, I think I have to go.' He said something to me that I'll never forget and it made me feel okay with my decision. He said 'Florian, 'It's okay, I expected you to stay here just six months, not professionally, but because of the country and you have stayed for three years.' He asked what I wanted to do. I told him 'I wanted to travel, that I wanted to work overseas.' I quit Fauchon, but on very good terms."
Florian then decided to take a brief vacation, but less than a week later he got a call from Hermé, asking him to come to Paris to have lunch. Here comes the serendipity again. Florian went to have lunch with Pierre, who asked him, "So what do you want to do?" Bellanger told him, "Well I am back in France with Anna and I want to move to an English speaking country, you know, work overseas again. Pierre said, 'I know of a restaurant in New York, they need a pastry chef. It's called Le Bernardin. My good friend, Eric Ripert, he is the owner and chef and he needs a pastry chef right away. Tell him I asked you to call.' So I call Eric, who is now my good, good friend. Anyway, I call him and he tells me he is going on vacation for two weeks and he will be in Paris, so we can meet. When I told Pierre about the meeting, Pierre, he was always very protective, like a mom sometimes, you know, he says, 'When you are done with the meeting call me.'"
|Eric Ripert and Florian|
|Le Bernardin photo by Melissa Hom|
We began talking about his time at Le Bernardin. "I started over there in 1996," he explains with pride, "before I continue with my story, I must say, 'I am so proud of Eric (Ripert).' If I am not mistaken Louis, I believe that Le Bernardin is the only restaurant in New York that has never lost a NY Times star. He smiles, "I remember, it was a lot of pressure. Louis, it's an amazing restaurant. I love Eric. When I worked there it was wonderful, but today I think it's an even better restaurant." It was here that the Chef garnered his James Beard nominations.
|Fauchon New York|
|Florian & partner Ludovic Augendre|
He continues, "We were the first. I can be proud of that. Now there are many doing macarons, but we were the first. We're comfortable, the business is growing, even in this economy. I cannot complain and we are very happy with what we are doing. He added, "You know what I mean, back in 2007 no one was really doing food sites like they are now. There were a few but, you (GGM) were ahead of the curve. We were ahead of the curve, and now there are many. Another thing I am very proud of is that we did this ourselves from the ground up. It will happen again for you as well Louis, just keep doing what you are doing." My friends, you can order online now from the Mad Mac website and enjoy Florian's macarons at home, delivered to your door fresh and delicious.
I then asked him to talk a bit about how he came to Cupcake Wars and the foodnetwork. He said, "Like I first met you Louis, (when he says my name in French it always, comes out Louie, and I must say I like the way it sounds) it was from a message on facebook, believe it or not. I did many auditions and well, after like my fourth one, foodnetwork liked me. The producer called me and asked me, 'Are you ready to be a star?' He revealed though that at first, they told him 'You must be the Simon Cowell of cupcakes. Demanding, exacting, very much the critic, the food authority.' I had to learn that, he states." I can attest to that. Florian is wonderful. Quick with a smile, he is funny, gregarious, affable and approachable. Sometimes to see him as the stern faced judge on Cupcake Wars, makes me smile, knowing the man behind the persona. But obviously, as he has done with everything he sets his mind to, he has taken to it quite well. His statement, "this is just a stupid chocolate cupcake...I don't like it!" may go down in the annuls of TV history as one of the greatest lines ever uttered by a competition judge. The show continues to be a huge hit with fans and viewers in the US, Canada, UK, Belgium, Hong Kong and Singapore.
On a more serious note , my friends, while fame and good fortune have followed my friend Florian, it has not been without great loss. I must now broach a subject I was very fearful of. Many of you may not know that Chef Bellanger tragically lost his wife, Anna, who passed away suddenly at age 40 on Dec.1st, 2011. They were married for 16 years. She
|Florian & Anna Bellanger|
I thought long and hard about how to approach this subject, if at all. Here is my friend, trusting me to do the first real in-depth interview he had ever given. His thoughts. His hopes. His dreams. His successes. His pain. His tragedies. How in the world could I write this? How should I approach a subject so delicate, a pain so great, a loss so devastating and one inflicted so recently? Should I even talk with him about it? Again, showing the depth of character this man possesses, it was Florian who eased the tension in my mind.
|Florian & Anna|
You know, for most of us who know Florian, it's true what Jacques said to him. We do love him. You see, even with all his background, accolades, connections, successes and now TV fame, he could have done what many do. He could have gotten a big head. Many would not begrudge him if, after all his hard work and the long road it took to get where he is, he got to be a little full of himself. Many who find fame have. But that is not Florian Bellanger. The man I have come to know and respect is grounded. He has not forgotten where he came from. Yes, of course his culinary skill and acumen as a chef have propelled his success, but I believe it is more than that. It is the depth of his character that is the real reason for the success and friendships that now surround him. Through all that has come his way, he has remained true. To his principles, to his friends, to himself. I am a perfect example of this. He could have done this interview with any of the 'mainstream' publications, yet he chose to allow me to tell his story. For that trust and belief in me, I will always be grateful and words cannot express what his friendship means to me.
He told me, "When I started this TV project, Cupcake Wars, Anna was very supportive. When we were shooting the first season, I asked her to come visit me. We were shooting for three weeks straight, so I asked her to come visit for a few days. I was missing her and I wanted to share this with her. She saw all the shooting, you know, and I showed her the dressing room, my own TV, I said to her 'Isn't this nice. Look at this they treat me good and they have all this stuff for me.' I remember, she looked at me and she fixed my tie, looked into my eyes and said, 'I know it's very good, very nice, but just make sure you don't become an asshole.' And Louis, she was perfectly right. All things change you only if you decide it will change you. I agreed with him, saying, "Florian, the success does not change you, you change you." "Exactly. We have to share if we get to this stage." He replied, "We have to remain humble. I was lucky in my life to be associated with some very great people, who taught me a lot. So I have to return that in life. I have to share a little bit back. Now am I driven, of course, don't get me wrong. Like you, I always have the next project in mind. But it's not ego. You know me Louis, I'm not going to allow myself to get a big head. It's passion. Passion to be successful. To achieve.That's all"
As our dinner was coming to an end I asked my friend, "So mon ami, what is next for Chef Florian Bellanger?" He looked at me for a moment before answering and we toasted the last of our wine, clinking glasses. He told me about his wanting to grow Mad Mac, enlarging its presence online and then there is the personal side of his, trying to cope with the loss of Anna and move on for his boys. But with a twinkle in his eye, he said, "Louis, you know this TV thing. I like it. When you give a kid some candy and it tastes good, the kid wants more. I am that kid. I have some really great ideas and I definitely want my own show. I have some ideas for shows right now that are not on TV and I'm convinced they will work. Serious food TV. Subjects that are not being addressed, that I am convinced will be successful. You and I know about the details, of course, but we will keep that to ourselves," he winked, "I think there is room for some good shows coming from a different angle than what is on food TV now." He patted me on the back as we rose from the table and said, "Now let's get out of here before I get a ticket for overdue parking."
That my friends, is Florian. Always with his head looking up, reaching for the stars, but with his feet planted firmly on the ground.
As always, Bon Appetit!Lou
Sources: Florian Bellanger, Mad Mac Macarons, Melissa Hom , foodnetwork Fauchon
& most especially, The Bellanger Family.