When Antoine Santos was growing up in the port of Marseille in southern France, he dreamed of becoming a pastry teacher by the age of 30. Little did he imagine his dream would come true — in Japan.
For Santos, 41, chef and owner of pastry shop and school Ecole Criollo (School of Criollo, with criollo referring to a top-quality cacao) in Tokyo, pastry-making has always been his passion.
He learned some of his first skills in baking from his mother.
“Every time I baked a cake (at home), my cake ended up being smaller than my mother’s, and because I wanted to beat my mother, I tried baking another one, again and again,” recalls Santos at his baking school, shop and office in Toshima Ward. “As it turned out, the volume of ingredients she had given me was smaller,” he laughs.
At 16, Santos began a two-year course at a pastry school in Marseille, where he studied the theory and practice of pastry-making intensively. He practiced at home after school, and experimented with various elaborate cake decorations.
Upon graduation, he moved to Switzerland and spent 1 1/2 years training at a shop there.
When he was in his early 20s, Santos began entering pastry-making competitions, and even won the Charles Proust contest, one of the most prestigious French events.
It was through such contests that he came to know — and became impressed by — chefs from Japan, whom he said worked hard and showed delicate sensibilities in pastry-making. He also became interested in Japanese-style flower arrangement, which inspired the decorations he used on his cakes.
Santos subsequently spent a year in England, where he trained at a cake shop and studied at an English-language school after work because he heard that, to live in Japan, he would either have to speak Japanese or English.
After acquiring English, he arrived in Kyoto at the age of 24 as a technical trainer at a major confectionary chain. But living in Kyoto was not easy for Santos, who, back then, had difficulty understanding not only the Japanese language but also the hidden nuances in Kyoto people’s speech.
“They say, ‘Let’s go out together sometime!’ So I would call them up and ask when we can go out, and they were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Santos said, noting they used the expression out of courtesy, not really meaning what they were saying. Neither did he realize that, when you are invited to a friend’s place and offered a refill of tea to drink, it’s time for you to leave. “I had so many experiences like that.”
He has also learned the hard way that Japanese people’s taste for cakes and pastries differs from the French.
Santo was shocked that even though he was here as a teacher, his cakes initially did not sell well at the store. When he first arrived, he stuck to the strictly French style of pastry-making, which often uses nuts and dried crepes to create a crunchy sensation. Japanese cakes, on the other hand, often feature supersoft sponges and creams.
After his stint with the confectionary maker in Kyoto, he landed a job with Valrhona Japan, the Japanese subsidiary of the top-end chocolate company in France. He worked as a “chocolate adviser,” traveling from city to city and giving seminars to pastry chefs in each area on how to use the company’s chocolates.
But the job, which he worked at for four years, proved stressful because it involved lots of travel and also because the attendees gave him little feedback on whether they liked his presentations.
“I couldn’t understand what they felt, and it was difficult to communicate with them in words when I didn’t speak Japanese very well,” said Santos, now fluent in Japanese. “I came to dislike Japan.”
A turning point came about 10 years ago — and through a rather dramatic turn of events.
Santos, who by then had met his wife, Ai, decided to leave Japan. The couple planned to travel around the world and take a break from life in this country.
On the day they were going to buy their air tickets, the two, riding on a motorcycle, were involved in a crash with a taxi and were severely injured. They ended up spending several months in the hospital, with no home or job to return to because they had already vacated their rented apartment.
It was during this period of physical, mental and financial challenges that Santos’s outlook on Japan changed, he says.
Upon hearing the news of his accident, more than 100 people, whom he had gotten to know through his work as a chocolate adviser, became worried and came to visit the couple at the hospital.
“I realized at that point that I didn’t hate Japan. I realized that I had just been exhausted because the work got too busy.”
When he resumed work, he began working again as a technical consultant, but because traveling to different places to teach was too hard on his back, which was damaged in the accident, he decided to open his own school.
“It happened to be when I was 30 years old,” he said. “So I guess I fulfilled my childhood dream that way.”
As the number of students grew to about 300, he opened his first cake shop in Senkawa, Toshima Ward, in 2004, and opened a second store in the more posh Nakameguro district in Meguro Ward last year.
Santos now has 50 employees, including 18 chefs.
Over the years, through hard work and willingness to listen to advice from others, including his wife, Santos has come up with new types of cake that incorporate both Japanese and French flavors.
One of his original cakes is a “maccha” (green tea) roll cake, in which he has matched the gummy textures of “warabimochi” (bracken-root starch cake) with the soft green-tea sponge.
“I don’t intend to expand my business so much,” Santos said, noting he plans to stay in Japan forever. “I just want to create good cakes. But I must create products that sell, too. The challenge is how to strike a balance between the two.”