On a heated stovetop, inside two large stainless steel pots, sugar melts and bubbles up into a gooey consistency. Within minutes the bubbles form a sweet reduction syrup, the molecular origin of a creation that will emerge steadily over the next two and a half hours. The creator, chef Bill Foltz, a man many pastry chefs consider to be one of the world’s greatest sugar sculptors, has begun a piece for his Acadiana Profile interview in the middle of a busy week. He moves quickly around his kitchen, wearing a pair of blue nitrile gloves and a cool look of concentration that makes one think he could do this kind of work in his sleep. Indeed, after more than 20 years of award-winning work that has brought him worldwide recognition, it’s a safe bet to say that he can.
Foltz checks the internal temperature of the syrup in one of the pots with a sugar thermometer and reduces the heat. He wraps a towel around the pot’s handle and pours the white-colored liquid carefully into a silicone mold of cut-out shapes. The syrup oozes evenly around the corners, filling out each shape with a glassy shine. He then turns to the second pot of syrup, which has now reached its proper temperature. Using an eyedropper, Foltz pinches several specks of green into the syrup, mixes it into a beautiful emerald color, and pours some of it into the remaining cut-out shapes in the mold. When he’s done, Foltz then pours some of the syrup into silicone spherical molds that will form small dome-shaped pieces. He dumps the rest of the green syrup onto a small heat-resistant mat where it will begin to cool. Across from him on the table sits a portable heating element that keeps an amber-colored glob of sugar warm beneath its glow.
At this point it’s impossible to discern what Foltz plans to create. But the sugar that rests on the table before him is in good hands – literally. They are the hands of a West Point, N.Y., native, a self-described “Air Force brat,” whose commitment to excellence in pastry has won him numerous medals and praise of critics on both sides of the Atlantic.
“There are certain prerequisites I like to incorporate into my sugar,” says Foltz, who is executive pastry chef at Ember Grille & Wine Bar, a high-end restaurant located at L’Auberge Casino Resort in Lake Charles. “But first, the color has to be right and you have to have complimenting colors. I like to incorporate different clarities in my sugar, both translucent and opaque. I also like having different textures infused into my sugar. But in the end, everything has to be in harmony.”
Foltz’s harmonious approach to sugar sculptures has proven to be a recipe for success. His sculptures won him Best of Show awards at the U.S. Pastry Competition four times between 2000 and 2006, while also earning him the event’s Chef of the Year honors in 2006. His work has also won gold medals from the French Consulate in Paris for Best Pastillage and from the Annual Salon of Culinary Arts.
But it was in Lyon, France, last year where Foltz’s career reached its apex at the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie. Often compared to the Olympics, the Coupe du Monde is a biannual, two-day, worldwide pastry competition in which 24 teams from around the world are given eight hours to produce a sugar sculpture, a chocolate sculpture, an ice sculpture, an entremet (a chocolate cake about an inch and a half high that is infused with many intense flavors), and an entremet glacé, the dessert’s frozen equivalent, all of which must be based on the event’s theme for the year. Each country represented sends a team of three chefs and an alternate.
“It’s an intense competition,” Foltz says. “You don’t eat, and you pace your drinking habits so you don’t have to go to the bathroom. I take a sip of water every now and then and break a Powerbar into pieces and pop one in my mouth every now and then. You run on adrenaline, and after the eight hours have passed you’re a new person.”
The Coupe du Monde’s judges are renowned pastry chefs in their own right, chosen among those who have been named a Master of France (MOF) by the French government. Judges individually score each team’s work based on flavor, artistry, technique, and teamwork. As to be expected in a culinary competition, flavor carries the most weight in each score given.
RETURN TO THEIR KITCHEN
After each team successfully brings their work out to be displayed for the judges, they must then return to their kitchen and clean it for the next team that will arrive on the following day. Judges award 40 points for a perfectly clean kitchen. When last year’s competition came to a close, Foltz was awarded “Best Sugar Sculpture,” and Team USA placed sixth overall.
“The people who have gone and competed are highly recognized now in our industry,” Foltz says. “If you look at the people and where they were when they first competed and where they are now, you know that it really made their career. In France and in a lot of their other European countries, it’s a highly regarded competition. For you to get on the podium to represent your country in this competition really makes you a superstar.”
As the white- and green-colored syrup continues to solidify, Foltz begins stretching the amber-colored glob of sugar, pulling it and twisting it and even braiding it until its skin develops a shiny and satin-like sheen. By now, the green puddle of syrup has cooled on the mat. Foltz rolls it into a tube and stretches it until he is satisfied with its shine.
The green-colored domes have now solidified. Foltz removes one of them and studies it carefully. Despite its beautiful shape and translucent appearance, it is not as smooth as the chef would like it; air bubbles have also formed around the piece. Foltz places the dome on the table, lights a chef’s torch, and burns away its rough edges and bubbles. The result is a piece of hard candy that looks more like a smooth emerald stone.
Foltz then pinches a piece of amber-colored sugar from the glob beneath the heating element and places it at the end of a small pump. He slowly and steadily pumps air into the sugar, creating a small ball he places on top of the emerald dome.
“Using a pump is a very old-school method of blowing sugar,” Foltz says. “The pump incorporates the air and stretches the sugar while you’re manipulating and cooling the piece. It’s a one-way pump so when you pump air in it doesn’t release it. You don’t want to blow the air in too quickly or the whole piece will pop. You need to work with it slowly. It’s a lot like blowing glass.”
He pinches away another piece of amber sugar and presses it gently against the palm of his other hand, working the piece with his thumb until the proper curvature has been achieved. He then gently pulls the tip out, creating a petal he adds against the ball he has placed on the dome. One by one he adds petals to the bud until a beautiful sugar flower blooms.
After 15 minutes have passed, the syrup in the silicone mold hardens. Foltz carefully removes the shapes and lays them onto a large piece of laminate to finish cooling. He ignites a chef’s torch and fuses two of the O-shaped green pieces together vertically and then onto a winged-shaped piece he has attached to a square glass base. Another wing-shape piece is fused to the top of the O-shaped pieces, creating a sandwich effect.
With his first pieces on his base assembled, Foltz turns his attention to a white piece of sugar, an S-shaped figure with a flared base. After burning away its jagged edges, he fuses the white piece against the green base to secure it. As the foundation sets, the chef returns to the heating element and rolls a glob of green sugar into a long stem. He places the stem on the silicone mat and carefully picks up another S-shaped white piece, this one taller and somewhat slimmer, and attaches it to the top green piece. Once the top S-shaped piece hardens into place, two white flared pieces are added to its bottom. The scene then begins to unfold: The two S-shaped figures are herons.
Foltz’s sculpture now stands about two and a half feet tall, which is considerably smaller than some of the pieces he has shown publically. At the 2006 U.S. Pastry Competition in New York City, he won Best of Show with an eight-foot tall sculpture, a time machine made with sugar and cake, complete with gears and a sun for a clock. The elaborate piece was nearly finished when Foltz needed a little help from his wife, Patty, to get the sun in its proper place.
“I pulled a chair up to me, set a milk crate on the chair, and I climbed up onto it,” Foltz recalls. “The next thing I know I turn around and the president of the jury is holding my legs. Even my wife said to me, ‘Here put your hand on my head.’ I had this eight-inch chocolate sun, a large orb that was totally hollow, with sugar clock hands that were going up the sculpture to a little cup. I set the ball right on top of this little cup. Once I placed the sun on the cup and it stood, I realized the Jacob Javits Center floor was silent. I looked around and I saw about 200 people staring at me. And then the crowd went wild. That was the best moment of my life, regarding pastry, when I set that orb down.”
To date, Foltz has never built a sugar sculpture that has crashed to the floor during a competition.
Now that the green stem has completely cooled, Foltz rips another piece of amber sugar from the glob beneath the heating element and pumps it into a cylindrical shape. When he’s done, the chef pinches its top, creating a sharp point. He then lights a can of Sterno and fuses the amber cylinder into the green stem, creating a cattail. He creates four more cattails and fuses them around the two herons. Foltz then stretches a few pieces of green sugar into wavy-looking leaves, adding them around the cattails. Finally, his flower, the sculpture’s pièce de résistance, is carefully placed and fused on top of a green wing-shaped piece above the base. Soon enough a marshland scene, a natural symbol for Southwest Louisiana, emerges on the table.
With the sculpture’s pieces now firmly in place, Foltz carefully paints the herons’ slender bodies a gold color and adds orange to their beaks. He then adds orange to the bottom of each petal on his flower, giving it a two-toned look. For Foltz, color is always an important consideration; he believes it determines whether the brain will like the finished product.
“When I mix colors, I usually go with the opposites attract rule,” Foltz says. “If I’m using a green I’ll typically go with a red. That’s why roses are so beautiful; they’re a great color combination, a red rose surrounded by green leaves. Every sugar artist has his own signature styles when it comes to their colors. If you show me several show pieces, I can tell you who the chef trained with and the sugar artists he likes to follow.”
Foltz’s sugar sculpture is complete: two herons dressed in a golden hue amid a marshland.
At this point in his career Foltz is taking a break from future competitions. His two sons, William and Matthew, aged 12 and 11, respectively, are growing up quickly and their father is looking to spend more time at home.
“My career has brought them to Italy and France,” Foltz says. “They watch me work and they see the respect I get. They know I’ve earned it by working hard. They see the side of my career that I can’t teach them. To me, it’s very rewarding that they’re seeing me be the role model that I want to be.”