In the Pastry Lab with Chef Jean Marc Diop
Senegal-born pastry chef Jean Marc Diop came to France at age 17 to attend culinary school. On his last year of study, the school’s director invited him to stay and join a new restaurant dessert course that he had just added to the curriculum. It was a year-long, intensive program that cemented Diop’s desire to work as a pastry chef. That year laid the foundation of a long and successful career in a very competitive field. He is the 1998 French Champion of Dessert, and a finalist in several other pastry and dessert competitions.
Many thanks to the Chef for answering a few questions for this interview that was initially published on the Taste of France Magazine's website.
Photo © Jean Marc Diop
Did you have a mentor or a role model in the pastry world? Who inspires you?
When I was young my father often said to me, "He who does not have a taste for the absolute is content with a quiet mediocrity." That still resonates with me today. In my dorm room, I had placed on the wall above my bed the photos of all the great chefs who were the stars at the time. Every night when I went to sleep I dreamed of following in their footsteps and making a name for myself one day. You must always believe in your luck and know how to seize it when it comes to you. I had the chance to meet men of great value who modeled and guided me. My only way of saying thank you was to succeed, to show them that they were not mistaken about me in their efforts. It was not an easy journey because at the time there were very few people of color in the pastry world who managed to break the glass ceiling and become successful.
What is your preferred combination of flavors?
When I arrived in France for my studies I underwent a profound cultural metamorphosis. As a result I am like a chameleon, adapting and gathering inspiration from my surroundings. I have a solid knowledge of spices and exotic fruits thanks to my African heritage and I have acquired a solid knowledge of Western products, as well. This cultural cross-fertilization that I share even in my personal life with my Scottish-born wife gives me a huge freedom of creativity based on the idea that knowledge is freedom. I’m open to every taste combination to seduce all palates.
Do you have a favorite secret ingredient, a must-have?
My favorite ingredient is chocolate. It is a complex product in its origin, its production, and the possibilities it offers. It is mysterious, warm, captivating, fragile, powerful, and sensual. It conquered the entire world, appealing to all tastes and all social strata. To see what I mean, try taking a bite of chocolate, close your eyes, and let your senses awake and undergo this whirlwind of sensations. The complexity of this ingredient is simply magical and, to me, it has no equal.
How do you get inspired to create new recipes?
People around me and the environment in which I evolve - both of them inspire me. This job is noble and alive because it is fully related to the human relationship and the sharing that follows the culinary experience. This dimension of humanity is fundamental in my daily work. Everything surrounding me can be an inspiration. For example, if I'm in a waiting room with green plants, a pink sofa, and yellow tables, all these colors correspond to ingredients in my imagination. I will simultaneously develop associations of taste and a culinary composition will begin to emerge. Then I go to test the idea in the pastry lab, before sharing it with people in my entourage. This step is the most exciting part of the process because we go to people like us to share our creations and discuss the results. At this stage the loop is complete. It is this notion of sharing, of human relationships that gives this profession beauty and value.
Is there a baking tip you could share with our readers?
Whenever using dry spices such as cinnamon or cardamom, I advise you to soak them for a few minutes in cold water to rehydrate them a bit before use. Their aromas will be significantly enhanced.