This chef is making Bhutan's best (and only) croissant

This chef is making Bhutan's best (and only) croissant

© Madeline Drexler © Madeline Drexler

By Madeline Drexler

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is home to some of the tallest mountains in the world. But that forbidding terrain is not the only challenge here. In a simple industrial kitchen in the capital, Thimphu, an explorer named Parvender Singh Rawat scaled his own metaphorical peak, going where apparently where no other human ever ventured in this remote place: He conquered the butter croissant.

The proof? A supernal, 64-layer delicacy, with a classic flaking crust and honeycombed crumb—which French visitors have told him rivals the best that they’ve had back home.

Sandwiched between China and India, and governed by a visionary philosophy known as Gross National Happiness, Bhutan is no pastry hot spot. Here, the heat comes from scorching chilies, the country’s culinary trademark, which are featured in virtually every traditional dish. In non-tourist restaurants, post-prandial sweets are generally absent from the menu. When birthday cakes became popular here a few years ago, many older locals decried the country’s sugar-shocked sellout to Western indulgence.

Bhutan’s location and climate also thwart the recipe at every turn. Thimphu’s altitude (7,500 feet above sea level) overstimulates yeast rise. Dry and bone-cold winters retard rise and desiccate the pastries once out of the oven. Warm summer monsoons can blur the prized lamination of butter and dough.

Worst of all, uncertain shipments of necessary supplies (Bhutan is accessible only by a small jet that threads its way through narrow mountain passes) introduce an ad hoc element to a process that has no margin for error. Rawat prefers to use Elle and Vire 84%-fat extra dry butter, which is made in Normandy, to ensure crispness. But sometimes he must settle for salted butter—an apostasy in the hallowed domain of fine European baking. To redeem himself during these transportation glitches, he figured out a salted-butter croissant recipe that all but eliminates telltale tang.

Such obstacles only motivate Rawat. One of the thousands of unacknowledged Indian laborers in Bhutan, he has carved out an improbable career path.

Rawat honed his craft in central Thimphu’s Le Méridien hotel. Its vestibule’s ceiling is painted with black Tibetan script—like a flock of ravens passing overhead—of the Sanskrit mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum,” the recitation of which is believed to lead to Buddhism’s six perfections. In the hotel’s chilly basement, he toiled six to seven days a week, attired in a starched white pastry chef’s jacket with tiny black buttons.

A short, sturdily built man with a pleasant round face and unruly, slicked-back black hair, Rawat speaks in a verbal cannonade, conveying both passion and a touch of impatience. He grew up in the northern India city of Dehradun, in a family of army officers and software engineers. “They wanted me to be in the army,” he says. “But I didn’t want to follow that chain.” With a degree in hotel management, and formidable confectionary skills, his assignments have included stints in India, New York City, and the Turks and Caicos islands.


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