Ah, the information curse of the friendly skies. Once you realize that some people are sipping beer at their gate, that crappy cappuccino in your open container-averse airport manages to taste even worse. Fortunately, though TSA's three ounce liquid rules have substantially changed our flying strategy over the years, our baking patterns have not been interrupted by x-ray scanners. We can still (and do) bring on board as many homemade cookies, granola bars and baguettes as we please. Because surely no one - except in truly dire hunger situations -- buys those dense, stale pastries lining LAX's airport concession counters? We're hoping Huckleberry makes an LAX concession bid, too.
In the meantime, if you happen to be in the recently revamped Tom Bradley International Terminal, you can actually score a really great, freshly made croissant at Eurotal coffee. Honest.
How could any airport-sponsored baked good be so buttery, flaky and preservative free? Because it isn't made by a corporate bakery but by a pedigreed French chef who is as obsessed about his croissants as he is about his chocolate. Yes, we are fairly certain Yvan Valentin never sleeps.
Though most of Valentin's croissants -- and chocolates -- are sold wholesale to high-end hotels and airlines (for their first-class cabins), a few more accessible vendors are quietly doling out his hand-made pastries. The croissants are delivered daily to Delaware North, the company that manages Wolfgang Puck's To-go entourage, the Daily Grill and The Encounter restaurant at LAX.
"Pastry is a lot of labor, you need much help," says the former L'Orangerie pastry chef in a thick French accent. He's not kidding. During the day, one employee, sometimes two, pound butter by hand, using two rolling pins, into large sheets of dough. "This is the problem, the tricky part of the croissant, the butter," he says over the banging of rolling pins on the baker's table. "The butter must be cold but flexible. If you leave it out on the counter too long, it is too soft, and you have no croissant. If it is too cold, it is too hard and you break a hole in the dough."
At night, Valentin's staff of more than a dozen bakers is managed by Rafael Rodriguez, the first employee Valentin hired eighteen years ago when he opened the Leimert Park wholesale bakery. "He is -- how to say? Very important to everything," says Valentin resolutely. Thousands of croissants come out of those Rodriguez-managed ovens each night, as do several other French breakfast pastries. American breakfast sweets (muffins) and desserts like pecan and lemon bars, pies and brownies were added to the nightly lineup a few years after he opened. "When I started [this business] I was trying to be too French with all my pastry," says Valentin. "Americans like these other things. Me, I do not like the muffin so much, but it is what the hotel customer wants, not just croissants. And a croissant must be small, or it does not work, does not rise -- it is no longer a croissant. Americans do not understand this." Indeed.
Valentin says he has managed to make those muffins and American pies -- most of them ("Pumpkin, I do not understand? Still, I make it.") -- by toning down the sweetness and swapping things like sugar for more full-flavored honey in things like those pecan bars. "I cannot ever produce something I cannot eat," he says.
Still, you can bet that most mornings, Valentin will be eating a croissant. "They must be flaky," he says, pulling one apart. "They must be full of butter so they rise, not just for the flavor -- you see?"
Yes, yes. We see. Getting up for that 7 a.m. flight now isn't going to be as hard as we used to think.