Continental Patisserie: Jim Yao The Taste Architec...

Continental Patisserie: Jim Yao The Taste Architect

From kitchen hand to managing director, one-time architect and Team Pastry Australia mentor Jian Yao has built Continental Patisserie into a national success, servicing some of Australia’s best venues.

Whether cruising in business class 35,000ft high or staying the night at a prestigious Gold Coast hotel, thousands of customers enjoy Continental Patisserie’s delicate tarts, canapés and petit fours each day. Whole cakes, tarts and tartlets, pastries and slices and sweet canapés are artfully constructed at the company’s South Strathfield, New South Wales, factory. Servicing a large number of restaurants, hotels and events in every Australian state and territory, the company has established itself as the go-to business for those looking for original, delectable and creative product.

While busy building a successful wholesale patisserie dedicated to offering high-quality individual desserts, managing director and one-time architect Jian Yao has also been heavily involved with the Pastry World Cup in France and managing the Australian pastry team. Having recently built a food production operation in Shanghai, he is also looking to penetrate the Chinese market.

Enjoying creative and commercial success, the 49-year-old admitted to Australian Baking Business that working in the food industry hadn’t always been as smooth and obvious.

Arriving in Australia from Shanghai 21 years ago and unable to speak a word of English, there were few options available to Jian. Applying for work at Continental Patisserie as a packer, the language barrier and a lack of experience with basics such as butter and cheese meant he was unfit for the job. He instead became a kitchen hand where he worked for business owner and Austrian chef Ernest Foesle, and began to learn the trade.

“I had never cooked before. My mum even said, ‘You never cooked rice, how are you going to survive?’ So that’s I how started,” Jian laughs.

Completing his study in English in 1994 while working at Continental Patisserie, he then went through the newly launched Workplace Assessment program and became its first qualified pastry chef. It was during this time developing his skills that he became good friends with Ernest.

“He looked after me. When I arrived I had no friends. I had nobody and didn’t speak English, so it was very difficult. We became quite close,” Jian says.

Jian then returned to China to start work as an architect. Thinking his Australian experience was finished, Jian received a phone call from Ernest in 1995 that would change his life. The Continental Patisserie business owner had received a major contract from several airlines and expanded his staff to 50 pastry chefs, but his health and mental fitness had declined. Ernest needed Jian to come back and take over as production manager.

“He called me and said that he was in difficulty, and asked if I could come back and help him for even a short time,” Jian says.

“Ernest is a great chef, a great creator, but he is not a great manager. He’s not a business manager. So he called me back and he obviously thought I had a bit of brain. I more or less thought I would come back for a short term, but still wanted to go back to China. But the more I was involved, the more responsibility I was taking on,” he says.

Taking over production and a roster of pastry chefs from France, Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, it was in 1999 that Ernest first approached Jian about fully taking over the business. It took him nearly 12 months to convince him to do so.

“I kept saying ‘no’ to Ernest. But Ernest never had a family, never married. Continental Patisserie was like his baby, it was the only [family] he had. So he said, ‘I can see the only person to take it over and make it a success is you’,” Jian says.

Finally taking over in March 2000, in three months Jian had moved the factory from a little cottage to the current food-manufacturing premise in South Strathfield. It was there that the product range transformed from its traditional German, Austrian, Swiss and Viennese focus to incorporating modern French, Italian and Asian influences. Jian’s background in architecture even added to the products’ construction, emphasising three-dimensional presentation.

Since then the patisserie owner has established a niche designing product for high-class hotels and first-class airlines. Continental Patisserie has a large number of customers in Queensland at top international hotels on the Gold Coast and Brisbane, while they claim the majorty of Sydney’s top hotels as clients. Jian spends much of his time consulting with hotel chefs and helping them with their menus.

“Every (hotel) chef tells me, ‘I don’t want to have same product as the next hotel’. So that is a challenge. So we just try to make it a little bit different to each hotel and also maintain the quality of that 5-star, that’s another challenge,” he says.

Jian recently set up a factory in Shanghai with the aim of producing food to bring back to Australia, but he discovered the controls on imports made the idea unfeasible. The high costs of employing staff in Australia and Jian’s connections in China made him look at the idea of targeting the Chinese market, which he now sees as a lucrative prospect.

“The direction that China is heading, possibly has much more potential even than Australia because of the market. They do very simple products, such as tartlet shells and things like that, and it could be very successful,” Jian says.

When he’s not developing Continental Patisserie, Jian has built a strong relationship with competitive pastry teams. He has helped both the Australian and Chinese international pastry teams and has been involved with the Pastry World Cup in France since 1995. He was the first person to take a Chinese team to the competition, and between 1995 and 2003 has been a judge at the event.

It was while helping the Chinese team in 1999 that Jian first met Australian team member Dean Gibson. The two would later meet again in Australia and a strong partnership would form.

Jian worked with Dean in 2009 to bring Adriano Zumbo onboard and compete at the pastry cup in 2010. The team came fourth at the Asian qualifier, not high enough to proceed to Europe, but Jian is philosophical about the experience

“We didn’t really do well enough to qualify to France, but [we only had] three months training compared to everybody else having two years to organise,” he says.

Dean has now taken over the role of team manager while Jian acts as a mentor to their younger members. A recent shake-up of the team has brought Le Cordon Bleu head teacher Andre Sanderson onboard to do the sugar work alongside Justin Yu’s chocolate prowess. Their sights are now set on the 2012 Asian qualifier.

Looking back, Jian says hard work and dedication have brought him to where he is now, as well as the drive to self-educate and constantly learn.

“I went through a very difficult time when I started. You’re thinking a person doesn’t speak a word of English, doesn’t know any ingredients, a kitchen assistant to start with. It wasn’t just luck. You obviously need to keep yourself learning as well and never stop,” Jian says.

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