Pastry chef Albert Kumin is proof in the pudding that sweets can be good for you. The Swiss pastry chef’s long illustrious career was recently celebrated at an event in New York.
Although he won’t turn 90 until January, the former White House pastry chef was given a birthday party at the city’s Lincoln Center last month.
“I have had a very good life,” Kumin said at the event in his honour, exuding calm and serenity, and a look of contentment.
During his career spanning decades, the Swiss native sweetened the lives of many Americans, including the rich and famous like Marilyn Monroe, and powerful like Jimmy Carter.
He didn’t make a name for himself only as a pastry chef in renowned locations but also as a teacher. Many well-known chefs in the United States learned the tricks of the trade under his guidance.
Many associates and former students were among the more than 100 guests at the birthday celebration.
One of the organisers, Nick Malgieri, said that Kumin was like a second father to him – a sentiment expressed by many in attendance who were also full of praise.
Kumin was born in the town of Wil in eastern Switzerland on January 13, 1922. He started his apprenticeship as a pastry cook in his hometown at the age of 16, before working in different places across the country. His interest in seeing the wider world was sparked by stories told him by Egyptian, Brazilian and American co-workers – the latter from New York.
Ritz Carlton to Four Seasons
The moment to go abroad came in 1948 when he landed a job at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Montreal, Canada. It was the start of a career in which he would become one of the best known pastry chefs on the continent. It was also in Canada that he met his wife, Eva, whom he is still married to.
He moved south to New York in 1958 to work for legendary restaurateur Joe Baum, and became the first pastry chef when Baum opened the classy Four Seasons restaurant. “They only wanted the best. It was a tremendous challenge and required self-confidence. I knew I could do it,” Kumin remembers.
Kumin began his teaching career in 1972 at the Culinary Institute of America. But Baum came calling again four years later after he had won the contract for food services at the newly built World Trade Center. Kumin joined as executive pastry chef, developing all of the desserts and baked items for dozens of outlets including Windows on the World, the prestigious restaurant at the very top.
Quantity was important at the Twin Towers as well. “It wasn’t long before we were making 2,700 desserts in 24 hours.” Thinking about that today, it’s hard for him to imagine how they managed it.
Those close to him say it was his people skills as much as his talents as a chef that helped. He knew how to remain calm and not lose sight of what was important. He demanded a lot from his teams but also gave a lot in return.
When asked about special moments in his career, Kumin remembers his time as White House pastry chef under Jimmy Carter. “That was an interesting time,” he said, recalling a visit by the Pope or Middle East peace talks at Camp David.
And he’ll never forget a meeting with Marilyn Monroe. “She came into the kitchen of the Four Seasons and greeted everyone personally. She was very nice and very beautiful,” he said with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
In 1984, he became executive pastry chef for the Country Epicure wholesale baking company and then established his own school, the International Pastry Arts Center, where he taught hundreds of pastry chefs and other industry professionals.
In particular, Kumin was known for his masterful use of chocolate to decorate desserts. Thomas Harris, a former student, recalled a statement once made by Baum: “Kumin is the only pastry chef who can work with chocolate like Michelangelo while baking thousands of bread rolls at the same time.”
In the late 1980s, Kumin retired to Vermont where he has continued his other passion: gardening. He also opened the company, Green Mountain Chocolates, with his daughter which specialises in Swiss and Belgian style truffles. The family sold the company a few years ago.
Switzerland’s Consul General in New York, François Barras, honoured Kumin at the event for his life’s work. Barras said it was his craftsmanship with chocolate and pastries – the core of traditional Swiss cuisine – that was an honour for his homeland.
The crowning moment of the event was a “parade of birthday cakes”. Made by former students, friends and admirers, each cake was created around a theme representing a decade of Kumin’s life.
Albert Kumin is only one of many Swiss expatriates who made a name for themselves in the United States over the past century.
Oscar Tschirky (“Oscar of the Waldorf”) may be the most famous Swiss in New York’s hospitality business. He was known as the creator of the Waldorf salad, for aiding in the popularisation of Thousand Island dressing and even taking part in the creation of Eggs Benedict.
Louis Chevrolet emigrated to North America in his early 20s. The mechanic and race car driver eventually co-founded the car company that bears his name.
Physicist Felix Bloch, born in Zurich to Jewish parents, spent his early academic years in Europe, mostly studying and lecturing at institutions in Switzerland and Germany. He fled Germany for the United States after Hitler came to power. The first theoretical physics professor at Stanford University, Bloch was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952.
Jean Piccard was the twin brother of Auguste. Their names are closely linked to high altitude balloon flights. In the 1930s Jean was credited with important inventions that aided progress in the development of ballooning.
Photographer Robert Frank emigrated to New York in 1947 in his early 20s. In 1958 he published the ground-breaking book “The Americans”.
Film director Marc Forster grew up in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos. He has directed both Hollywood blockbusters like the Bond film Quantum of Solace and critically acclaimed works including Finding Neverland and Monster’s Ball.end of infobox
(Adapted from German by Dale Bechtel), swissinfo.ch