From banking to baking: A culinary career change

By Laura Morgan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-05 10:11
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From banking to baking: A culinary career change
Lin Zhong (second from left) teaches her students the finer points of
 making pastries. Photos provided to China Daily

From banking to baking: A culinary career change
Chef Lin Zhong is a master of pastries.

Pastry chef Lin Zhong is empowered by the art of Le Cordon Bleu cooking

It's not every day a person leaves behind their lifestyle as a New York investment banker to embark on a culinary quest aimed at bringing Parisian pastry culture to Beijing.

Born in Shanghai, raised in New York, Lin Zhong is doing exactly that. Lin is the founder and CEO of Fig Tree, a dreamy pastry school in Beijing offering hands-on baking and pastry making classes.

Lin came to Beijing from New York, via a brief spell in London with her daughter Lilah in 2007. Originally sent to Beijing by her boutique investment banking company to help procure new business and set up an office in China, Lin saw moving to China as a great opportunity.

"China was, and still is, the hottest thing; I thought it would be a good chance and an exciting time in my life."

From banking to baking: A culinary career change
A class learns essential skills on how to bake well.

However, spurred on by a glimpse of the upcoming economic downturn in 2008, Lin decided it was time to move away from the finance industry and turned to her hobby: baking.

"I never imagined myself doing this kind of thing. But at that point in my life, after my company's plans were derailed by the economic crisis, I was ready for a complete change. I wanted to do something I was passionate about."

During her time in London, Lin lived in Kensington - an area dotted with French pastry cafes - and spent her afternoons nibbling on fresh almond croissants and cakes. Here was where she further developed her affection for baking and also where she inadvertently stumbled across the fine French culinary art of Le Corden Bleu. After researching online, she discovered London offered one of the finest Le Cordon Bleu culinary programs available.

"It was very interesting for me. I decided if I ever wanted to do something else, it would be Le Cordon Bleu pastry making."

Therefore, when approaching the crossroads in her life created by the fiscal crisis, Lin had the chance to follow her heart and left China, returning to London and enrolling in the city's branch of Le Cordon Bleu. The training was vigorous, as was the testing, and the atmosphere was certainly tense with students from around the world having saved for years in order to complete the course.

Despite the competitive environment and desperately missing her daughter back in Beijing, Lin passed the course with flying colors and was able to return to Beijing with an advanced diploma in Le Cordon Bleu patisserie and baking and a newfound sense of clout.

"It was a really strange sense of feeling when I came back. I felt so powerful! I suddenly understood so much about baking. I was so full of energy, so full of enthusiasm."

From banking to baking: A culinary career change

Yet, Lin was still uncertain as to where this path of gastronomy would lead. However, things became clearer when she began practicing her recipes at home, throwing pastry parties for her friends who became very excited - and not simply because of the free food. Lin's pastry parties morphed into casual pastry lessons and Lin soon found herself becoming passionate, teaching the secrets of making sweet treats.

"I just looked around and thought, 'Wow this is awesome!'" she said, her wide eyes lighting up. "Everyone looked so happy and I loved teaching. I knew I'd found my calling."

While the Paris of the Orient, Shanghai, with its French concession and already well-established patisseries, seems a more likely place to set up a French baking school, Lin decided to choose Beijing.

"I definitely believe that baking culture can weave its way into Beijing. There are so many people out there blogging about baking; it's like a grassroots baking movement," She paused for a moment before adding with a smile, "and I want to be a part of it."