A Day in the Life of a Pastry Chef
From the outside looking in, being a pastry chef seems like a pretty sweet job. From developing and testing new and inventive dessert recipes to sampling some of the world’s finest ingredients, confections, and sweets, there is, admittedly, much to love about a gig like this.
But it’s not all fondant, crepes, and crème brulée -- make no mistake about it, this is a tough, challenging, and demanding role that only those who are truly dedicated to the craft can survive and thrive in. According to Shuna Lydon, a pastry chef and culinary instructor in San Francisco, “The restaurant kitchen is a place that tests every milligram of your essence. A perfectly balanced recipe of humility, hubris, and actual skill is needed.”
If you think you might be interested in pursuing a career as a pastry chef, it’s important to learn as much as you can about the position beforehand to determine whether you think this path would be suitable for you. We’ll take a look at the education, training, and experience you need to become a pastry chef, as well as the typical duties pastry chefs perform.
Education and Training
Among the world’s top pastry chefs, you’ll find some self-taught practitioners who learned their skill through on-the-job experience and apprenticeships, as well as classically trained chefs who gained their skills through a traditional culinary institute education.
However, the preparation of pastries and desserts is as much of a science as it is an art, requiring more precision, technical skill, and scientific knowledge than virtually any other type of cooking. As a result, many of those who are already established in the field recommend a traditional education to ensure that aspiring pastry chefs are well-versed in the fundamental practices and concepts of creating pastries.
If you opt for formal training, most culinary schools offer specialized pastry and baking programs. Alternately, one could choose a general culinary certificate program with an emphasis or minor in pastry or baking.
Many pastry chefs receive the bulk of their training in an on-the-job situation through formal or informal apprenticeships. In some cases, a cook or chef may find that she has a special aptitude for pastry-making and begin gradually to concentrate on that area, while in other situations, a particular candidate may be hired with the specific intention of installing him in a pastry-making apprenticeship. Regardless of which scenario best fits your situation, you’ll significantly increase your chances of landing an apprenticeship if you have already accumulated some general kitchen or bakery experience.
According to David Lebovitz, an American pastry chef now living and working in Paris, “There are some very good culinary schools, but in general, I think it's worth getting some experience either in a restaurant kitchen or bakery before you decide to invest a lot of money in education.”
Traditionally, most pastry chefs were employed in restaurants. Today, however, increasing numbers of pastry chefs are striking out on their own with upscale pastry shops or dessert-only eateries.
In the course of a typical day on the job, a pastry chef may be called upon to perform many tasks, some of which are purely administrative and logistical and don’t involve actual food preparation. Common responsibilities include:
- Working with other members of the kitchen staff to devise dessert menus that complement the rest of the menu offerings
- Developing and testing new pastries and desserts
- Preparing menus and budgets for the pastry department
- Procuring ingredients and maintaining the pastry department’s inventory of supplies
- Overseeing the training and work of apprentices and assistants
Pros and Cons
Just like every job, there are both disadvantages and advantages to being a pastry chef. Even if you’ve spent your whole life dreaming about whipping up desserts in a five-star restaurant, upscale bistro, or corner patisserie, consider both sides of this career path before you make a final decision.
On the positive side, pastry chefs usually get to carry out their work with a level of creative expression that can be rare among kitchen positions. The work is not as fast-paced or rushed as many other food preparation roles, as many components of the desserts and pastries are made in advance.
Some pastry chefs have trouble adjusting to the long hours that are involved in this line of work. In bakeries, this usually entails arriving at the pre-dawn hours to begin the preparation of the morning’s offerings. In restaurants, pastry chefs often work demanding 12-hour shifts that can stretch late into the night.
According to Lebowitz, “The downside of professional cooking is that the work can be extremely difficult, the hours are long, and it exhausts you down to the bone. A typical work day is often well over 8 hours and you rarely get a break. I once mentioned that at a fancy dinner party which completely stopped forks in mid-air. People had no concept of jobs without breaks. And if you’re sick or injured, you’re still expected to work.”
Is It Right For You?
Once you’ve been bitten by the pastry-making bug, it’s a difficult dream to shake. Before plunging into a long-term and costly training program, try devoting six months to a year to an apprenticeship or internship with a local baker or restaurant so you can find out whether your passion will outlive the long hours and attention-demanding recipes. That way, you’ll accumulate some resume-boosting experience while determining whether pastry-making is your niche. Good luck!