Sadruddin Abdullah always stirs his cake batters in a figure-eight motion. To do it any other way brings back memories of the strong-willed Frenchman who would abruptly take command of the whisk whenever Abdullah's tired arm swirled a flawed number.
Abdullah, a professional chocolate and sugar expert living in Charlotte, learned from the world's experts how to create award-winning desserts. Their unrelenting demand for perfection might be mistaken for abrasiveness outside the culinary realm, but to him, it's just passion.
Abdullah laughs at how the European pastry experts talked to the inexperienced chefs they taught at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, where Abdullah earned a bachelor's degree in pastry and a master's in marketing. "They call you a shoemaker," he said.
A shoemaker no more, Abdullah, a two-time champion in the National Bread and Pastry Competition, has earned the respect of the world's finest pastry experts, including the French chef who once taught him the proper way to stir.
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It's surprising Abdullah has earned such accolades. He hasn't been in the pastry community for long compared to some.
In his 57 years, his hands have been dirtied on the railroads, the docks and construction sites, but - before he was in his 40s - never by flour and sugar. "I never baked a cookie in my life until I started pastry at the age of 43," said Abdullah, grinning.
In fact, if someone had told him he would become a two-time national champion for, of all things, bread and pastry, he wouldn't have bought it. In his youth, he had other plans.
"I wanted to be an artist," said Abdullah, who attended the High School of Art & Design in New York City. "I used to walk around with paper and pencil and just draw everything as a kid," he said. "But, you know, things change, and I ended up in Alaska."
Drafted during the Vietnam War, Abdullah was stationed in Alaska, far from 189th Street in the South Bronx, where he grew up.
A two-year stint in the Air Force turned into 25 years in Alaska, with more than a half-dozen career changes and seven children raised with his wife, Mahmuda.
Not until he met a sugar expert, who could turn the granules into a taffy consistency to create objects like flowers and swans, did Abdullah realize his passion.
"The sugar I've always liked, just because it's so artistic, so colorful," Abdullah said. "It's like glass-blowing but not as hot."
As he did during his art school days, he opens a sketchpad. Then he describes with a pencil how to blow a swan, first creating the neck, then the body. "That's what attracted me to pastry," he said. "It's art."
Two years ago, Abdullah and Mahmuda, who also holds a culinary degree, opened Dessert Specialists, a high-end dessert business they run from their home on Pickerel Lane in University City. They specialize in wine and chocolate pairings.
"We taste the wine, and based on the flavors of the wine we create chocolates that match the flavor profile of the wine," Abdullah said.
He hopes to continue the tradition their instructors instilled. "We've been around some of the finest pastry chefs in the world," he said. "We're committed not to be average."