In our 'Patissiers of Shanghai' series, Dominic Ngai and Betty Richardson speak to some of Shanghai’s makers and bakers, digging deep into different aspects of their work. Up next are Sam Xue and Ben Gu, Class of 2016 of Shanghai Young Bakers.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon, on the third floor of a factory building in Putuo district, the smell of fresh baked goods produced by 30 enthusiastic young bakery students fills a large room that resembles a culinary school kitchen.
They are the Class of 2016 of Shanghai Young Bakers (SYB), a charity program that provides training in French and Chinese bakery and pastry to disadvantaged Chinese youth, allowing them to find qualified jobs in the bakery-pastry making sector and lead an independent life after graduation.
The students, all between 17 and 23 years of age, are underprivileged youths from across China – hailing from rural provinces like Gansu, Henan and Shaanxi. They all arrived in Shanghai last summer to start their one-year program at SYB, due to graduate this July.
Of the class, Inner Mongolia natives Ben Gu (20) and Sam Xue (19) probably traveled the longest distance to get to Shanghai. Having met each other five years ago at a child welfare service center in their hometown, the duo decided to apply for the SYB program together. Being so far away from home for the first time was challenging in the beginning, but both were eager to explore opportunities in big cities.
“My grandma always said to me, ‘You should go out and see the world while you’re still young.’ Even back in high school she’d always encourage me to go out more and meet more people,” Xue tells us.
While Xue had received some training in Chinese cooking back in Inner Mongolia, Gu has no prior culinary experience before coming to SYB. “I really enjoy the atmosphere here, it feels like a big family. We didn’t know anyone else when we first arrived, but since our classmates are all around our age, we hit it off quickly and the dynamic became so much fun. I really enjoy spending time with the group,” Gu says.
But it’s not all fun and games. SYB’s yearlong intense vocational training program is based on the French professional diploma Certificat d'aptitude professionnelle (CAP) developed by the Ecole Française de Boulangerie et Patisserie d’Aurillac. It involves both theory (studying ingredients, the science of baking and hygiene) and practice classes (learning and trying recipes) on French bakery, in addition to segments on Chinese pastry making, English language training, life skills and internships at hotel kitchens. While both students enjoy the hands-on experience of practice classes, Gu adds: “I think the life skills class is very important too. I’ve become a lot more independent as a result of it.”
With just a little over a month until graduation, the best friends are hoping to stay in Shanghai afterwards. “I feel like there’s so much more to learn in terms of mastering the art of baking and pastry making,” Gu says. “And I think there are more opportunities for me in cities like Shanghai.”
Xue thinks he’ll continue down the road of pastry making for a few more years before returning to his roots. “I’d definitely want to get more in-depth training in Chinese cuisine at some point. I’m Chinese; the most traditional food is the best.”
Gu, on the other hand, doesn’t want to spread himself too thin. “I want to focus on pastry and be really good at it – especially in making desserts and cakes. One day, if I do return [to Inner Mongolia], I think it will be useful. There’s a market for sweets.” He also adds, “I think I’ll be baking and making pastries for a very long time; I really enjoy doing it.”
Read more profiles of Shanghai Patissiers here.