On the sweet course
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
If you think pastry chefs spend all their time in windowless, climate-controlled rooms, fussing with spun sugar and chocolate coverture, you're not far from wrong.
But listen to the stories of Hans Weiler, the 71-year-old pastry chef and founder of Hans Weiler Foods, and one of three culinary professionals being inducted into the Leeward Community College Culinary Hall of Fame at the Taste of the Stars benefit May 6.
There was the time in Africa at a banquet for the king of Morocco when he planned a dessert of Baked Alaska flambe. The waiters were lined up, each with a tray ready to be flamed as they entered the darkened dining room. But when the first waiter lifted his tray to his shoulder, it tipped and the flaming sauce ran down his back, igniting his shirt. Pandemonium ensued. Weiler escaped out the back door.
There was the stint in Manila during the Marcos era, where finding specialized ingredients was a nightmare. Once, he ran out of chocolate and was delighted to be told of some cocoa available from a nearby military base. He bought it by the case, then found, when he opened the cans, that only the first inch was cocoa; clever thieves had filled the rest with cornstarch.
While he was working at the Jamaica Hilton in 1964, he found himself "daylighting" as a movie extra. Universal Studios was rushing to complete Cary Grant's "Father Goose," set during World War II in New Guinea. The action called for 150 Caucasians to play Australian soldiers, but there were few whites among the local population. So the hotel drafted the 20 whites on its staff. For three weeks, Weiler had to bake all through the night in order to be on the set at 5 a.m. Plus, the cast involved a large number of children who soon figured out that the big German guy was the sweet source. "It was fun, but the sad thing for me was I still had to do my work," he recalled.
Weiler began his work in Cologne, Germany, where, it is said, he carried a spoon in his pocket as a child so he'd never miss a chance to steal a spoonful of sugar. When it came time to choose a career, he said, "it was right after the war, and in Germany at that time, food was a thing you dreamed about." The idea of working in a kitchen where meals were provided and you handled food all day had a lot of appeal. Weiler landed one of three internships offered each year at the Café de Longueville in Cologne.
To be a pastry chef in Europe is a prestigious job. "You have bakers, and then you have the pastry chef. The pastry chef is the top," said Weiler, whose speech retains a German flavor. Pastries play a central role in the social life of the cities, where coffee and a pastry is an almost daily occurrence, and even the sales people who staff the front of the pastry shop serve apprenticeships.
Still, the three years at Café de Longueville were grueling. For about $1 a week and his midday meal, Weiler might spend an entire morning stoning and chopping bushel after bushel of fresh cherries, then move on to rolling pastry with more senior chefs ordering him about 12 hours a day. The training included every aspect of the pastry and confectionary arts, from crafting sugar flowers to making ice-cream bombes.
But once it was done, he was able to land a job in Bonn, then the West German capital, where he served as patissier at the Hotel Petersberg, which hosted state visitors and diplomats. Here, listening to the stories of other chefs and guests, he was bitten by the travel bug. Then began a long journey, from Canada to the Caribbean, from Asia to Africa, and finally to Hawai'i from his last stop at the Intercontinental Hotel Lee Gardens in Hong Kong.
In 1974, he joined the Ilikai Hotel, then a Westin property. There the fortysomething bachelor met his wife, Donna, who worked in sales. The two hopped over to the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, then also a Westin, shortly thereafter. But Donna found the pace on the Big Island too slow and landed a job at the Halekulani, so back to O'ahu they came. Without a pastry-chef job that appealed to him, Weiler spent some years as the local representative of a Swiss food company, and then, in January 1989, founded Hans Weiler Foods to help his chef friends find the high-quality European products they needed.
"In the 1970s, food in Hawai'i (hotels) was prime rib, a piece of fish, a baked potato, maybe an apple pie," he said. After Hong Kong, where supplies of all kinds were easily available, he was astonished to learn that he could only buy one brand of chocolate coverture (a candymaker's term for high-quality chocolate), and not of the highest quality. "You couldn't even get a good cup of coffee," he recalled, shaking his head.
But things were looking up. Younger chefs were pushing for more emphasis on restaurants as a draw for the hotels, and budgets were much more expansive than they are today, he said. Weiler threw himself into efforts to build a base of chefs strong in the pastry arts here, teaching classes for Local 5 members in his kitchen at the Ilikai, and also teaching summer courses at Kapi'olani Community College.
This was a time when, if a pastry chef wanted a chocolate label with the hotel's logo on it, he had to fabricate it. If sugar flowers were needed for a wedding cake, someone had to pipe them out. When you served a mousse in a chocolate cup, you made the cup by blowing up a small balloon, dipping it in chocolate, then chilling it until you could collapse the ballon, leaving a chocolate form behind.
Now, Weiler presides over a climate-controlled warehouse of the most amazing things: pre-formed chocolate cups nestled in cushioned packing cases, ready-to-bake pastry boats and tart shells, jugs of fruit puree, sacks of hazelnut meal, mousse mixes (just add whipping cream), perfectly formed profiteroles and eclairs that lack only their custard filling, compartmented cases full of delicate sugar blossoms.
To a man who spent many a late night handwriting "Ilikai Hotel" in icing on candy medallions, this is all still something of a wonderment.
As are the lines of silicon baking pans that the French brought to the market about 20 years ago and which have banished concerns about confections that won't unmold or cakes that stick to the bakeware. The flexible silicon equipment goes from freezer to oven and has all but replaced metal pans in professional kitchens.
"The industry has come a long, long way," Weiler said. But he's quick to note that progress has its good and bad sides. While a pastry chef has many more tools for creating something beautiful, he or she can't forget that in the end, it's got to taste as good as it looks. He feels a little sorry for young pastry chefs who have never had to learn everything from scratch before enjoying the luxury of silicon baking sheets and bottled glaze.
Still, he said, the primary purpose of all these products is to reduce labor costs in kitchens that must turn out hundreds of confections or pastries. The art of the pastry chef still lives on in individual creations and in smaller settings, such as free-standing restaurants. He said that the trend toward outsourcing baking is being reversed because hotels are finding that they couldn't always get the creativity, the quality or the quick delivery they needed.
In 2002, Weiler sold his company to Y. Hata but continues to serve as president. Y. Hata president and CEO Laurence Vogel said their goal was to become a full-service food distribution firm, and Weiler's reputation for quality and integrity made his company the most desirable option. "He is the pre-eminent man in all of that industry here. It is a really specialized part of the food- service industry, a different world, and he understands it and is renowned in it. He's the man," said Vogel.
Hans Weiler Foods maintains a small retail operation in its Kalihi facility, where home bakers and candymakers can find many of the tools they see on the Food Network (which Weiler considers one of the most influential developments in the modern culinary scene).
While he's happy to sell candy flowers and spray-on frosting color to the general public, Weiler remains an old-fashioned professional at heart. "You have to have good recipes, and you have to follow them. It is a very high skill. You have to understand the procedures and know what to do. You get that from experience," he said. "I can give you the recipe, but it doesn't do you any good if you don't know how to follow it."
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.