“It’s like building a house,” Chef Franck Kestener, M.O.F. (master craftsman of France) says about being a chocolatier. “You can decorate and accessorize the house, but you can’t do that until you have the foundation. You can be lured by having the final product, but until you know the base and until you build that foundation, you can’t go anywhere.
“As a chocolatier, you have to have the curiosity to really want to learn,” Chef Kestener adds. “Everything that is around you is a learning tool.”
In addition to sharing his many years of experience in the pastry and chocolate industries with fellow chocolatiers at such places as the French Pastry School in Chicago, Chef Kestener now runs his own confectionery and pastry business in Sarreguemines, France. The shop features 25 single-origin tablets from different locations, each consisting of 70% cocoa content. He prides himself on keeping his chocolates as pure and natural as possible.
“Chocolate is supposed to be good forever,” he says. Thus, Chef Kestener doesn’t buy into the notion of increased chocolate consumption being a fad. But while some might suggest that infusing spices and herbs with chocolate is a short-lived phenomenon, Chef Kestener defends the pairings.
“Pairing chocolate up with some spices actually goes back to the Aztecs. They used to use chocolate and herbs to get their energy to last through the whole day. Those pairings still make sense because it has been in chocolate’s history forever,” he explains. Moreover, Chef Kestener stays true to what he believes a good chocolate should be: high quality and hand- made. But it’s taken many years to develop a sophisticated palate, particularly one like Chef Kestener’s.
While most 16-year-olds focus on learning to drive a car, Chef Kestener was accomplishing a much more daunting task. It was at this age that he began his Certificat d’Aptitude Professional (CAP) exam in France. Those that receive the highest markings on their exam are chosen to participate in the “Meilleur Apprenti de France” (M.O.F.) competition, which takes place the following year. The winner of the M.O.F. goes on to apprentice for the French president.
The intensive CAP exam includes two years of training for the M.O.F. competition, which is also two years.
“In France, there are 22 regions that are composed of 96 departments,” Chef Kestener explains. “The top of each department competes against others in the region where they are from. From there, the top of those region competitions competes in the semi finals. Then the top 10 compete in the finals.” At the end of the competition, the winner is named Meilleur Apprenti de France.
For example, Chef Kestener passed his CAP exam in June 1994, participated in the region selections in September 1994 (his region consisted of four departments) and then competed with 21 other apprentices in November 1994 and came in third. In April 1995, he entered the finals.
Although Chef Kestener wanted to work with cuisine or savory foods during the CAP, his father encouraged him to work on the pastry side, which requires more discipline.
“On the savory side you can add things here and there, so you might not have as much refinement in your craft,” Chef Kestener explains. “But with pastry, it’s very disciplined. Everything is weighed and measured - it’s very exact, so there’s that refinement that goes along with pastry education.”
So if Chef Kestener put his focus on pastry, how did he become the experienced chocolatier he is today? Well, even though he worked on the strict, pastry side, the CAP does allow some flexibility. Chef Kestener was able to work with chocolate and sugar in many different forms of pastries. Once he started playing with chocolate, he latched on to the segment.
Chef Kestener’s newfound skills paid off when he participated in the M.O.F. competition, in which participants must be a minimum of 23 years old to enter.
But after four years of training and competition, a funny thing happened - Chef Kestener took second place in the M.O.F., while a female won first. The chef that takes first place is supposed to go on to apprentice for the French president/military. Nevertheless, Chef Kestener was chosen to work as a pastry chef for the president. So why didn’t the female win the apprenticeship? In 1996, it was still mandatory for men to complete a military service. As for women, they were only allowed to act as volunteers in the military. These rules resulted in the French government choosing the next male winner - a stroke of luck for Chef Kestener.
Within the 10 months Chef Kestener worked at the Palais de I’Elysée for the French president, he learned various pastry and personal skills.
“Obviously there are a lot of techniques and methods that are taught, but the biggest thing I took from working for the president is the character you build,” Chef Kestener says. “You build a very thick skin.”
By entering the competition at age 25 and receiving his M.O.F. at 27, Chef Kestener has become one of the youngest chocolatiers to ever receive the M.O.F.
“One of the main things about getting an M.O.F. - it’s not just receiving it; the biggest motivation is to continue on, to teach others and continue learning,” Chef Kestener says. “Just because I’ve received this doesn’t mean that it is the end.”
And Chef Kestener couldn’t have been more right.
In addition to the character-building Chef Kestener experienced while working for the French president, it was his exceptional confectionery skill that prompted Stephane Glacier (SeeCandy Industry’s July 2008 issue) to choose him for the World Pastry Championship in 2005. Glacier, who was asked to coach the French team in the competition, specifically sought out Chef Kestener to join the team.
“Stephane Glacier put the French team together like a coach would for a soccer or football team asking, ‘Who are my best players in all of these different divisions?’” Chef Kestener says. The coach placed Chef Kestener at the top of the list for chocolatier.
Reminiscent of his past training and competitions, Chef Kestener found himself back in a familiar environment. The World Pastry Championship, located in Phoenix, involved one year of training and offered another learning experience for Chef Kestener. But unlike the M.O.F. competition, in the World Championship, Chef Kestener worked with a team of professionals. And in 2006, Chef Kestener proved he could not only work well individually, but also with a group - Glacier’s French team won the gold medal at the World Championship.
Participating in various competitions has done more than give Chef Kestener experience in his craft; it’s also taught him how to run his own business. While the M.O.F. and CAP competitions tested the individual, the World Championship tested a team.
“In your own business, you take a little bit of both,” Chef Kestener explains. “After the World Championship, you start to ask more of other people’s opinions because it’s important to get the outside opinions. But on the M.O.F. side, it’s still your decision at the end of the day.”
In addition to competitions, Chef Kestener drew on his parents’ experience regarding business sense. After Chef Kestener’s parents ran the family business for 10 years, they turned it over to him. For the past three years now, Chef Kestener has run his own business in Sarreguemines, France, called Franck Kestener Chocolatier. And although his parents are retired, they’re still very much involved, sharing their wisdom.
Unlike many other families that have worked together – and despite the role reversal – Chef Kestener keeps the lines of communication between himself and his parents very open, he says.
Within Chef Kestener’s chocolate shop, product offerings trend toward chocolate (70%), but with a healthy variety of pastries (30%). To keep the focus of the shop on chocolate, pastries are only made to order. His shop also features 25 single-origin chocolates, all of which have 70% cocoa content. There are also three limited edition origin chocolates with 73% cacao - one from Brazil, one from Island of Java and one from Vanuatu. By keeping all of the chocolates around 70%, his customers get a chance to actually taste the different origins, he explains.
Much like his drive to learn and teach others, Chef Kestener is determined to expand his business, not only within the town, but overseas. One of the ways he looks to grow involves the Web. The new Web site Chef Kestener plans to launch in the beginning of 2009, www.franck-kestener.com, will allow him to sell his products internationally (currently his products cannot be purchased overseas).
One glance at Chef Kestener’s chocolate creations reaffirms how large a role art plays in Chef Kestener’s products. Style, however, does not supercede substance as keeping the chocolate at its best quality and finest taste remains paramount for Chef Kestener. With experience and development of his palate, the master chocolatier has learned how to create innovative, yet traditional chocolate pieces by being artistic and authentic.
One of Chef Kestener’s mantras is that a classic, great tasting chocolate is better than an artistic, but poor tasting chocolate. Like building a house, curb appeal is important in drawing attraction, but the “foundation” is what sells it.
[Editor’s Note: Chef Kestener has taught numerous classes at the French Pastry School in Chicago, specifically on the topic of “Advanced Chocolate Candies and Candy Bars.” For more information about Chef Franck Kestener, M.O.F., visit www.franck-kestener.com or www.frenchpastryschool.com.]