The Making of a Pastry Chef: Recipes and Inspiration from America's Best Pastry Chefs

What it takes to become a pastry chef in today's exciting culinary arts world -- with inspiration and insight from the pros.

As pastry chefs trade supporting roles for star status on today's culinary stage, the pastry field has become a huge growth area. The Making of a Pastry Chef takes an inside look at this fascinating world, with a treasury of interviews, anecdotes, and classic recipes from many of the nation's leading pastry professionals. Richard Leach (Park Avenue Café, New York), Nancy S ilverton (La Brea Bakery, Los Angeles), Jacques Torres (Le Cirque 2000, New York), and Sebastien Canonne (French Pastry School, Chicago) are just a few of the figures who share their thoughts and experience on training, career development, personal style, menu creation, and much more.

Question & Answers with Andrew MacLauchlan

Q: I've been considering entering the cooking field; do you think applying to a big cooking school is the way to go?
A: It would depend on what your previous experience in the cooking field has been so far. It also depends on exactly what you want to do in the cooking field, whether you want to work in a hotel or whatever. Take a look around, and figure out where you think you want to end up, and then volunteer in the kitchen, and just try to help out. Get some type of experience before you lay out all the money for a cooking school. I'm not recommending *not* going to cooking school, but you should find out by volunteering whether or not it's something you really want to do. If you've got a copy of my book, Chapter 5 covers it fairly in-depth.

Q: What is the difference between culinary training in the U.S. and in Europe?
A: You have to look at the history of the field in these countries. In the United States, the cooking field has arisen from the domestic help, the domestic servants. In Europe, it's more from the crafts and guilds -- particularly pastry. It's considered a craft in the same way as metalsmithing or other trades. One difference because of that is that in Europe, you might start at a younger age. Also, I think that there's a bit less emphasis on schooling and more emphasis on actually working in the
business for many years. But actually, that aspect makes it similar, because the reality of the culinary world in the U.S. is that by the time you graduate from culinary school, you're at the *beginning*. You don't come out a chef, and so you must spend many years working your way up, as well, as you would in Europe.

Q: What kind of degree programs are available for would-be pastry chefs?
A: I think to elaborate on that in this format might be a little difficult. The best way to find that out would be to get "Shaw's Guide to Cooking Schools". It's a little book, published every year, and it lists every cooking school in the world. I can't really point someone to a particular program; I could say this school has this, and this school has that, but really, there are so many programs out there. Shaw's provides a good starting point, so look there and then find a school that's good in a field you like, or is located near where you live. Then go visit the school and see what it's like.

Q: I cook all the time at home, and have gotten pretty good at it. I feel, though, like I'd be lost around "real" chefs -- do you think formal training is necessary for me to become a chef?
A: Well, by having the interest in it, you already have the beginning of what it would take to be in a professional environment. It depends at what level you want to enter the field, if you see yourself working at a restaurant that strives for high levels of quality, or a more casual restaurant; that dictates how much experience you might need. It sounds like you have the perception that chefs are pretentious and difficult to work with. While that may be true, in some cases, there are many different levels to work at in the food business, and you can go wherever you'd feel most comfortable, and work where you think you would fit best. I think you need to take a look and see where, locally, you could see yourself working, and then go meet those people -- see what they're like, get to know them a bit, and offer to help out in the kitchen. Then ask yourself, 'is that so different from cooking at home?' You need to take that first step to find out.

Q: What do you think the emphasis is on these days at cooking schools, in terms of pastry -- simple stuff or fancy architectural stuff?
A: That's a good question. I believe, from my experience talking to instructors over the last couple of years, that there's not really a stylistic emphasis in the culinary schools. I think that the culinary schools reflect the most successful businesses and restaurants in the food business; cooking schools should be, and I think for the most part they are, referencing the most successful trends. And that may *be* architecture, but I think they expose the student to a wide variety of techniques and developments beyond that. Presentation is certainly one of those issues, but in my experience, culinary schools don't have a particular emphasis -- it's not ignored, by any means, but it's only part.
Also, culinary schools teach from the perspective of the instructors -- and you'll have many instructors while you're at school -- so the instructors will each have their particular style. And certainly, some chefs will have a more architectural approach, and some will not.

Q: My 16-year-old son (in 11th grade) wants to be a chef and hopefully own his own restaurant. I have cooked in a small restaurant, and he has worked in the restaurant washing dishes, bussing tables, and as a prep cook. He now works 12 hours weekly in a pizza shop as a short order cook, grill man, deep fryer, and does all the prep work. He wants, specifically, to be a pastry chef. I want him to enroll in a university that offers a hotel/restaurant management curriculum, and then upon completion, enroll in culinary school. However, he feels it best to go straight to culinary school. Which do you think is the better route to take? I think the university idea makes more sense because of the various aspects of the "college life" experience, as well as the availability of athletic scholarships (he's a jock). We would appreciate any advice or suggestions that you may have.
A: I think that, as young as your son is, he should keep it wide open. If he wants to a pastry chef, there's nothing stopping him from going to a restaurant/hotel school where he's going to be exposed to more "college life", and at the same working part-time in the pastry field. I think that he sounds very anxious and enthusiastic, and that's commendable, but he can still be enthusiastic and grow a little, and have the experience from working a part-time job. That seems like the best way to go, to me. But if it comes down to it, and he says "I don't want to do that," and insists, I think I'd try to support him as much as possible.

Q: How does one structure their day-to-day work routine?  How far in advance would they know about the fancier  projects and how early do they start in the morning to   complete their tasks?
A: This depends on the establishment, hours of operation, and the needs of that particular restaurant, hotel, or pastry shop. Most pastry chefs work through the middle of the workday, such as 10AM-10PM, or a mixture of days and nights. Some fancier projects, such as wedding cakes, might be known about weeks or months ahead, while other projects might be needed immediately in an emergency. Therefore, a pastry chef must be ready for anything.

Q: Is it more exciting to work at a large hotel or a small pastry shop? And which place would more allow you to show off your culinary expertise and creativity?
A: I think both can be exciting. As far as showing off your talents, it depends on the goals of the business and the desires of the clientele of that particular establishment. Sometimes satisfying the guest is more important than exhibiting your personal skills -- although situations where those two factors come together are *great*.

Q: Several of our pastry students aspire to eventually open small coffee shops. Most of them think that they will do the baking, accounting, *and* managing. Any general advice on what awaits them and how to best manage their time and energy? Which tasks or services are most easily outsourced?
A: I'd suggest that they might enter such a business with a trusted partner who has skills different from their own, such as accounting, marketing, and management. Accounting, in particular, could be easily outsourced.

Q: How important is it, do you think, to have your own personal "style" (i.e., signature recipes, etc.)? Is that something aspiring chefs should try to establish, right off the bat?
A: It's not important initially, no. Let that develop naturally, as it will be important later on

Q: The excerpt talks about a lot of different chefs' methods for creating new recipes, but what about you? How does the creative process generally work for you?
A: New items are generally related to and built upon things that I've already done. I try to stick to ideas and flavor combinations that I *know* will work and desserts that customers will buy.

Q: I know this may be kind of a silly question (I'm a non-chef), but do most chefs in the professional world work from recipes?
A: We work with recipes and ratios, for the most part -- the recipes will be in a different format (all in weights, for example). I work with both recipes and by taste and flavor intensity, myself.