canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Denise Roig

Butter Cream: A Year in a Montreal Pastry School (Signature Editions, 2008) is, as it sounds, a chronicle of a year spent churning out pies, cookies and bread but also fabulously complex cakes, tiny perfect pastries and endless amounts of icing. 

Denise has been a creative writing and journalism teacher and is the author of a couple of collections of short stories, A Quiet Night and a Perfect End and Any Day Now, both published by Signature Editions. 

She is working on another collection of short stories. Denise has an intense but thoughtful relationship with cooking and food and believed that this year-long bootcamp in pastry would open up new topics for her own writing.

Denise Roig now lives in Abu Dhabi.

Interview by Kris Rothstein, 2009. 


How was Butter Cream received by your fellow students and teachers? This is quite a cozy memoir, but it’s unflinching in its honesty. Was anyone offended and did you make any creative decisions based on possible emotional impact?

You’ve asked the toughest question first! For me this has been the most fraught issue surrounding the publishing of the book. Yet while I was writing – and this was over a period of four years – I thought about the reactions of my classmates and teachers in only the vaguest way. In hindsight, maybe this was healthy, in that it kept me from constantly censoring myself. Writing is the only activity in my life that I do without worrying about the opinions of others. But it wasn’t until I showed the first chapters to my writing group that I really grasped the sensitivities here. "Maybe you should change the names," a couple of members advised, suggesting also that I compress some incidents, create composite characters and embellish some of the stories. I was kind of shocked - why would I want or need to do that? Plus it simply felt dishonest to doctor the story this way.

Of course, it got more complicated the closer it got to the book coming out. Maybe I should change the names. As I was doing the final edits (last chance!) I spoke to Ardis Root, the director of the pastry program, about the names and the delicate nature of disclosure. "Everyone knows who everyone is," she said. "And besides, the administration thinks there’s no such thing as bad publicity." And double besides, she said: Everyone loves chef stories, the meaner, the wilder, the better. I also consulted my friends from school, the ones I’d stayed in touch with all this time later. Trina, Jen, Tamara, Tara all basically said, "Go for it, Denise."

Within a month of the book coming out, though, I started getting messages from my pastry friends, telling me the teachers were freaking out over the book. I joked with people that I was glad I was so far away – we’d moved to Abu Dhabi for my husband’s work in September, a month and a half before the book came out – that I was too far away for a law suit. But the truth is this news sent me into a crisis of self-doubt. I began wondering why on earth I couldn’t have just left some details out. (Especially Claudette’s confessions to me in the last pages.) Was I so intent on the story and the dramas that I’d lost sight of the people I was writing about? I love these people – all of them, even those I didn’t especially like. My hope, my intention had always been that this love would come shining through, that this is what readers would carry away. In the case of Claudette specifically, those revelations at the end, I felt, build sympathy for a woman who’s come across as a bit tough and unyielding. A week into this kerfuffle I received an email from Ardis telling me that while reading Butter Cream was the "single weirdest experience" of her life, she also thought I’d written "an amazingly honest book." That settled my heart a lot, helped, too, by emails from pastry school friends who felt I’d told the story of our year, as Trina put it, "pretty much the way it happened."

A few months later I can’t say I’m completely resolved. I left out – believe it or not – a number of scenes and incidents that were unnecessarily contentious and if someone told me NOT to tell something, it isn’t in the book. All that said, the doubts linger. I’ve been telling myself and anyone who listens: "I’m never going to write a book of non-fiction again!" It’s been humbling at the age of 61 to question my motives and judgment. But it’s probably also been good for me, forcing me to think more deeply about the lines between fiction and non-fiction, about the lines between disclosure and compassion.

What are you doing now? Did you get into more food writing? Any more recipe testing?

The Christmas after I graduated, I pitched a series of holiday baking stories to the Montreal Gazette. I did one story a week for seven weeks, that year and the next. For each story, I found a local pastry chef who came from a different ethnic tradition (Polish, French, Greek, Swiss, Italian, Mohawk, Moroccan/Jewish). I wrote about the chef and their tradition, and included a recipe. The writing was easy, the recipes weren’t. (Have you ever gotten a recipe from a chef? "Oh, roughly a kilo of flour …") Some of those recipes I tested five times. Some of those stories I lost money on. It was a treacherously steep learning curve – writing a clear recipe for sour dough bread is about as easy as making it. The food editor – a respected person in her field, but who never went to culinary school – made me cry on the phone that first year, telling me I had no idea what readers wanted. "Baking is all about chemistry," she informed me. No kidding. But what I brought out of that experience was a deep respect for the craft of writing recipes and the realization that what really interests me is the intersection of food and culture. I don’t want to write stories about the dreaded mokas.

Since moving to Abu Dhabi I’ve had more opportunities to write food stories than I ever did at home in Montreal. First, the newspaper I’m freelancing for, The National, is always hungry for copy. And in terms of culture and food, this is the place! Abu Dhabi is a wild, wonderful collision of Lebanese, Egyptian, Indian, Filipino, Pakistani, Thai, Iranian, European, American and British traditions. I’ve written about yogurt, falafels, and – again – holiday baking. When the emirate held its first gourmet festival, I interviewed a local pastry chef and tied it into my own training in pastry school.

You started pastry school with the hope of producing a memoir of your year. How much work did you get done during the time you were baking and were there times you weren’t sure you’d be able to pull this material together?

I wondered about that all the time. I don’t know where I ever got the idea that I could do this program and write about it simultaneously. I really believed I could come home after a day of school and go to the computer and describe the day in full detail. Dreamer! I came home at the end of those nine-hour days pretty much finished. Almost all the time there was homework to do with my then eight-year-old daughter. Always there was laundry! (All those chocolate-covered aprons and dish towels.) Even a year after graduating I would find myself almost shuddering as I drove past the school (my house in Montreal is only a few blocks away). Not from traumatic memories – I so loved being there – just from the memory of the relentless physical and mental exertion.

But what was surprising was how much did get written down in the middle of cooking sugar and whipping meringues. Some of the notes got written onto recipes in our huge text. Some made it into the five journals I filled during the year. Others got scribbled on class notes. It took me a year to organize and fill in those notes, but there were times I was shocked at how intact a day was, nearly fully realized in words.

How do you think these comprehensive pastry programs prepare students for the possibilities of baking for a living? It seems like the program was aimed at those who might work in a large operation, repeating a lot of steps and churning things out.

The year after we graduated – in fact, even during our school year – there was the beginning of a discussion among the teachers about the applicability of our education. My friend, Trina, who always knew she wanted to work in restaurants, wished we’d spent more time on plate presentation, and on making the kind of desserts one would create in a restaurant. Still, what we learned that year was method. (That word freaked me out in the beginning as someone who always thought recipes were the critical thing.) Learning method, discovering the properties of ingredients, mastering technique. I really believe this gave us the foundation to make anything and to work anywhere.

One of the most interesting underlying plots in Butter Cream is the division between the Chinese students and the rest of the class, a division you always tried to bridge. What part did language, culture and prejudice play?

This was probably the most uncomfortable part of school for me, at least socially. Many of my non-Chinese classmates were right out of high school; many were from a working-class background. They were young and unexposed. Perhaps they’d already been influenced by parents who were themselves not particularly educated. What made the situation really absurd was that the Chinese students, to a one, were all extremely well educated. One of the women, Feng, was working on a master’s in environmental engineering at Concordia while doing the course. Yes, part of the problem was language. I still can’t figure out how some of my Chinese classmates passed any of the written tests. They persevered, that’s the only explanation. I think what also happened was that in the beginning there were misunderstandings about cleaning and disinfecting and the Chinese students got nailed for not complying, which was really more like not understanding. By the end of the year, though, some of the distrust had been replaced with respect.

For you, the whole experience seems like it was a labour of love and a way to explore your personal relationship with food. How did your feelings about this change?

If you’re asking whether I’m making triple chocolate mousse cakes every night … no! I’ve gone back to making the old family faves: brownies, cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies. Even here in Abu Dhabi where there are all kinds of interesting British products like ready-made fondant, I’m happiest making the desserts of my childhood. Probably my "method" has changed, though. Also when I see a milles feuilles in a pastry case – Abu Dhabi surprisingly abounds in pâtisseries – I have such respect, awe even, for what went into it. I wondered at some of the grimiest, grimmest, most unfun moments in pastry school whether I’d still love to bake at the end of it. And I do. I still love to gather in my ingredients, cream the butter, sift in the flour. It’s still heaven.

When I began this project I thought that what I really would be looking at is the process of learning to master something. French pastry, after all, is about perfection. In the first year of writing Butter Cream, I was primarily focused on the class itself, the learning, the fights, the flubs. But when four other women writers (my writing group), plus my husband, kept pushing me to make it more personal, make Denise more of a character in the story, I had to dig deeper, had to go back and look at my sometimes very lopsided relationship with sugar and spice and some things that weren’t quite so nice, such as my eating disorder. I fought this advice for a while, believing it wasn’t as interesting as the story of the year. In the end I tried to do a combination of both. But yes, the whole thing ended up being a labour of love. I can’t think of my classmates, even five years later, without misting up. We shared something big and deep.

Kris Rothstein writes about books for Geist, Broken Pencil, Matrix, Herizons and bookslut.




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