Maybe you’re just starting out at a culinary school. Or you’ve graduated and you’re wondering where your training will take you. Or you’re thinking that it’s time to change professions altogether and you’re exploring all the options.
You love to bake, and you’re detail-oriented, meticulous, precise in everything you do. You like order in your day…but you’re also creative and a little indulgent…is baking and pastry arts the career for you?
Perhaps, but what is it like to be a pastry chef?
Science Meets Art
Cooking and baking share many common skill sets…but they diverge when it comes to chemistry.
Everyone working in a kitchen – whether it’s in a restaurant, a cruise ship or a catering company – has to understand the basics of how ingredients interact. But working as a pastry chef isn’t as spontaneous as cooking.
If you’re sautéing chicken breasts, an extra sprinkle of salt and a little more heat under the pan won’t necessarily spoil the dish. The same can’t be said for baking. The combination of ingredients and conditions, for example, that make bread rise – yeast, sugar, water, temperature – are very precise. It’s essential that you understand the chemical interactions involved at each stage when you’re making bread and pastries.
Every good chef understands the science behind the art, but a pastry chef has to obey the science first and the art second.
If you’re thinking back to your high school days and wondering if you can muster up the skills you tried to master in chemistry class, don’t worry. A good culinary school could give you a solid grounding in all the concepts you need to become a successful pastry chef.
A Place for Everything, and Everything in its Place
Many chefs organize their workspace so that dishes can be created quickly and efficiently. But when something is out of reach they have the option to pause the process and seek the missing ingredient – or send one of the line cooks searching for it.
This can’t be said when you’re baking. Timing is everything when you’re a pastry chef – not because there’s a diner waiting for your creation – but because the minutes count when you’re trying to create a quality product.
Pastry chefs are planners, and their workspace shows it. Everything they need is organized in front of them, probably in the exact order it has to be added to the recipe. Nothing is left to chance.
You Lift and Lift and Lift
Kriss Harvey, formerly of The Bazaar and now making brilliant sweets at andSons, had a great observation about what it’s like to be a pastry chef.
“Every day for a year, I was making tart shells a little larger than the size of a nickel over and over again,” Harvey said. “The best pastry chefs know this is how you get good at something. It’s like being a bodybuilder. You lift and lift and lift.”
Like any chef creating new recipes, you’ll have to practice, practice, practice. And occasionally your job will require doing very repetitive tasks over and over. This is how you’ll refine your craft. It won’t always feel mundane, though. When you’re creating new recipes, experimenting with flavor combinations, the practice runs – and failures – will be inspiring.
“Other schools don’t offer students the ability to try different flavor profiles, work on the presentation aspect and bringing your own personality into it. Because I had the opportunity to try anything in school, I was more confident in bringing different flavor profiles to my cakes and pastries in the shop.”
You don’t have room for trial and error in your workday, so practice your recipes before they go to the bakery shop display case or are handed over to a diner at the end of a great meal. You’re the last impression a diner will have of a restaurant’s cuisine…you want to get it right.
Hit the Ground Running Early and Keep Running
Are you one of the early birds who catches the worm? Working in a bakery or patisserie as a pastry chef might be the perfect career choice for you. Preparing fresh pastries for early morning guests means hitting the kitchen around 3:00am…often when some people are just getting home from a night on the town.
There’s an advantage to these hours, though, if you love the kitchen but not the chaos. Most pastry chefs who work for a restaurant or catering company are in the kitchen hours before everyone else. You get to work in relative peace.
As famous pastry chef Zak Miller said to Thrillist, his day is 70% preparation and 30% service. This is the complete opposite for his chef peers preparing the savory menu items during meal service. The dessert was created hours ago…the remainder of the preparation and delivery happens as the dessert is about to be served to a guest. And that’s where the artistry really gets to shine.
Take Lots of Steps in Someone Else’s Shoes
A solid education in baking and pastry arts is a must, but make sure you work alongside other pastry chefs before diving in headfirst. Take the time to work in the industry…for a catering company that produces hundreds of the same dessert in a day, or in a busy bakery. Take in the pace and atmosphere, and be sure it’s a fit for your personality.
Baking is a wonderful blend of science and art. People who pursue a career as a pastry chef have a mind for detail and a heart for creativity. They understand that the foundation of certain recipes – like making consistently good bread – are based in chemistry. And they’re willing to explore the possibilities that artistry can add to chemistry.
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This article was originally published on January 22, 2016, and has been updated.