Last year, Carmen Eksteen, an alumni student from The Private Hotel School, headed off to the Big Apple for a year-long apprenticeship with the acclaimed Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York City.
Ansel, who was named the World’s Best Pastry Chef by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in 2017, is recognised as the inventor of the Cronut, a croissant-donut hybrid that has taken the pastry world by storm.
Last month, 24-year-old Eksteen returned home to Stellenbosch to start an online business called Carmen Eksteen Patisseries where people can order cakes, cupcakes or patisseries for special occasions.
Still buzzing from her experience in New York, Eksteen answered some questions:
What course did you do at The Private Hotel School and when did you graduate?
I completed the two year Advanced Certificate in Hospitality Management , with specialization in Culinary Arts and graduated in 2016. This qualification is endorsed by the American Hospitality Academy.
How did your position with Dominique Ansell’s Bakery come about?
After I graduated I worked at The Tasting Room In Franschoek for a year, followed by a position as Senior Bakery Assistant at The Birdcage in Stellenbosch.I then went to work at La Creuzette in France and it was while I was there that I sent my CV to the Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York. Ansel has always been an icon of mine. A week before I was due to come back to SA, I got an email from Dominique’s Executive Pastry Chef asking if they could have a chat with me. Imagine my excitement and sense of disbelief when they phoned to find out more about me. A week after the call they offered me a 12-month contract to work for them as a pastry cook.
How was your first day in New York?
I must say I was kind of shocked when I arrived in New York. I was expecting it to be how you always see it in the movies but it was dirty and very busy. I also quickly realised how small the living situation is. My first day there I bought a Metro ticket, took my first train ride to the bakery in Soho and then just walked the streets to get myself acquainted with the area. I remember not wanting to do too much as I had to start work the next day.
Tell us about your first day at the bakery
My first day at the bakery was scary. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do. That changed very fast. Everyone at the bakery was extremely nice and became my family away from home.
And your daily routine?
It’s difficult to say as it all depended on when I wasn’t working. Generally, though I would work five days a week and have two days off. A typical work day would be going to work and after then spending some time with my colleges after-hours, eating at different restaurants or visiting different parts of Manhattan. On my days off I explored coffee shops, restaurants, bakeries, New York attractions, shopping and – my favourite of all – Central Park. If you’re a foodie like me New York is definitely the place to visit.
What was the toughest part about your time there?
Getting used to living and working in really small spaces; being all alone and not knowing anyone. New Yorkers are not very social if you are not a born and bred New Yorker. Also we worked under a lot of pressure – that was tough.
What did you learn at The Private Hotel School that really helped and stood you in good stead during your time working in NY?
Having learned all the basic elements of pastry and hospitality was really useful and helpful.
Your favourite meal in New York?
I had so many. But I loved the ramen, Korean BBQ and definitely the New York cookies.
What did you miss the most apart from friends and family?
I missed the friendliness South Africans are known for and of course being able to braai.
Are there any other chefs besides Dominique Ansel that you follow?
I would love to meet and learn from Australian pastry chef Adriano Zumbo
What have you been up to since your return home?
I have just started my own online business called Carmen Eksteen Patisseries where people can order any cakes, cupcakes or patisseries for a special occasion. They can follow me on my Instagram and Facebook page @carmeneksteenpatisseries. I am astonished by the amount of support I’ve received in the short time since I set up the business.