Becoming A Pastry Chef
What Type of Pastry Chef do you Want to Be?
Pastry chefs are constantly in demand from places like cruise lines, weddings, business conferences, hotels, restaurants, and of course local "mom and pop" bakeries.
Having an idea of where you want to go with your career or business will better direct your efforts with regard to level of education you'll need, the kind of salary to expect, and what skills and personal characteristics you will need. This guide will give you a little taste of what to expect if you want to become a professional pastry chef.
What does a pastry chef do?
Being a pastry chef requires long days and un-traditional work hours because you need your product ready when the customers arrive each day.
If your position is required to bake specialty breads, breakfast pastries and other pastries "favorited" by your clients, you will often begin your day by 3 or 4 am.
Many successful chefs prefer the quiet and serenity of baking alone in the early hours each morning. If you enjoy creative work in solitude you will look forward to your mornings of prep work.
Mellisa Root details her typical day:
You must be extremely precise and detail-oriented - yes even at 3 in the morning!
For example, things like dough must have perfect rise times after mixing, and every step of preparation must be carefully attended to. There is often little room for error in this industry.
Of any type of chef work in this industry, the pastry chefs are held to the highest quality standards. For example there are specific chemical reactions that must happen exactly on time when baking fine pastries. There are precise measurements and temperatures to adhere to with everything you make - and timing must be regimented. In fact, many top quality chefs find themselves using double the amount of timers to ensure they always have accurate timing.
Is This Career a Lifestyle You Want to Live?
You will have to decide if you enjoy the responsibilities you will be challenged with each day in your kitchen. Is this lifestyle worth the education and training you will need to become invested in? Mellisa Root explains:
Before spending a boatload of money on a formal culinary school, most professionals suggest students try working in a kitchen, under chefs they admire to get a feel for the environment they will be committed to once they graduate and begin a full-time career.
You'll be required to know scientific principles surrounding your foods and ingredients. Using fragile foods and many that are perishable has an accountability attached that requires you to fully understand things like the biological safety of food.
In order to create visually exciting and appealing pastries that taste delicious, you will need to understand the basic concepts of design, nutrition, and human physiology.
Some of the skills you will use on a daily basis are:
- Devising dessert menus
- Working with other chefs to compliment their menu selections
- Developing and testing new pastry recipes
- Preparing budgets for raw materials
- Researching the best sources for ingredients
- Overseeing the work of your apprentices and assistants
Do you have the personal characteristics that make this profession an enjoyable one for you?
Realizing your potential as a pastry chef is less about playing with sugar and butter all day and more about being discipline - ie regularly being the first employee in at 3 am in the morning.
Also you should not be surprised when your manager prohibits you to take weekends off during the height of business such as holiday and vacation seasons.
You also need interpersonal skills to be work effectively with other chefs. You need a personality that is dedicated enough to your own career growth to stay with each chef you train under long enough to learn what you can from them, but do not stay too long or you will stop growing.
Should you seek individual training, industry experience, or begin with formal cooking school training?
Many local bakers want pastry chefs with a basic food knowledge and skill level, but prefer to train one-on-one when it comes to baking techniques, recipes and inventory management.
They set up their kitchen to run a certain way and want the operations to continue the same way, whether they are in the kitchen or not. It is often easier to work with new chefs that will eagerly learn the owner, or head-chef's methods without bringing formal education to the table.
Undergraduate courses in pastry arts, such as secondary education cooking school credentials, and individual cooking classes may be enough of a foundation to begin an apprentice position in some industry areas.
A Pastry Arts Associate's Degree covers hands-on components of coursework and lectures on the science of baking.
Many culinary schools offer an on-site cafe' to advance students in learning the baking situations that come up daily in the "real world" environment. The menu process is a first step, graduating to studies in industry requirements like safe food handling, nutrition, cost control and purchasing.
In order to complete an Associate's Degree in the field of Pastry Arts and Science, some type of paid internship is often required.
Students who seek further educational advancement can continue with a Bachelor's Degree Program to understand things like:
- Regional pastry traditions
- Advanced pastry design
- Cafe' operations
- Contemporary cakes
- Restaurant law
- Food purchasing
- Inventory control
- Business management classes
- Marketing concepts
Some coursework will require students to attend field trips that include visits to fisheries, produce locations including farms and farmer's markets to learn flavors, food sampling, and tasting techniques for various food groups. There are specialized classes in food and wine pairings, dessert gastronomy, and wedding cakes that will enhance a serious pastry chef's resume'.
How to Become a Pastry Chef Without Going to School?
A question we get a lot is "how can I become a professional without any schooling?"
It's a great question, and there are many reasons why this can be a concern for some.
Whether you just don't have the money to attend a formal educational institution, don't have the time to attend classes, or just don't see the value in it, everyone has different reasons.
The truth is, while it certainly helps to have a proper education, you don't necessarily need it (as long as your potential future employers don't require it).
Here are some things that you can do:
- Apprentice with an experienced baker in an actual bakery. After all, there's no better education than real-life experience.
- Read and study well-known books to understand the science behind how baking works. Some books we recommend are:
1. Baking and Pastry: Mastering the Art and Craft by The Culinary Institute of America
2. The Professional Pastry Chef: Fundamentals of Baking and Pastry
3. How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science
- Commit yourself to constant practice and experimenting with different ideas to hone your skills. It's also important to ask your friends and family to give you unbiased feedback.
What kind of salary can I expect with training?
As diversified as the route you take to get trained in this career, is the salary range you can expect. There is also a difference in pay depending on your location and field of hire - just like any other job. A chef in a 5 star New York City restaurant will make considerably more money than in small town middle America.
Obviously their are several other factors such as:
- What stage you're at in your career - ie what kind of experience do you have under your belt.
- Type of establishment you're going to work for - ie small local bakery, big city restaurant, cruise ship, etc.
- If you do opt for a larger establishment, other responsibilities you might have such as managing other chefs.
So you can see there are many, many factors that go into determining your salary as a pastry chef.
But generally speaking, we like to tell entry level chefs to expect an annualized salary of about $20,000-$40,000.
If you are mid career you can expect around $30,000-$50,000 per year and if you're late career then up to $75,000 per year.
And if you're in a big city like New York, add on an extra 20% of so for a more accurate figure.
What About the Demand?
There is data tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, (BLS), that indicates each state with highest pay ranges and highest concentration of Pastry Chef and Bakers in each state. In accordance to information supplied by these statistics, here are the top paid states and greatest number of jobs for the U.S.
Salaries in each state in 2014:
The top five states are:
- Washington DC
- New Jersey
The states with the highest employment level in this occupation according to BLS as of 2014:
The top five states are:
- New York
If you were to break it down to the city level, the top 5 cities in the U.S in terms of employment levels as of 2014 were:
- New York City (nearly double the 2nd ranked city)
- Los Angeles
- Washington DC
- Las Vegas
The most active hiring businesses in this field?
- Restaurants and Other Eating Places
- Traveler Accommodation
- Special Food Services
- Other Amusement and Recreation Industries
- Grocery Stores
The top paying industries (extremely difficult to get but I thought I’d like them anyway):
- Federal Executive Branch Organizations (OES Designations)
- Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services
- Activities Related to Real Estate
- Technical and Trade Schools
- Scientific Research and Development Services
Here is a example of a job description posted by a five-star hotel, needing a “Pastry Chef de Partie”.
The enterprise consists of four on-site restaurants with different food styles, 410 private rooms, 16 functioning banquet facilities used for various sized conferences, special events and productions, a typical hotel operation at this level. What would your role be as an experienced pastry chef used to a busy and industrious level of production for the varying demands of this operation?
Your duties and responsibilities will include ensuring all guests’ satisfaction with the pastries and desserts you send out of the kitchen. Train your chefs and assistants to run all of the different sections when you are not there – as if you are. Demonstrate efficiency in cost control practices. Use clear and effective communications. Have the ability to work and supervise a face-paced environment, maintaining efficiency. Show outstanding self-motivation and self-discipline through multi-tasking and organizational skills. Willingness to go above and beyond expectations to coordinate superior complimentary menus that work within the scope of the other chefs’ menus.
You must set a superior example of absolute professional grooming, and safe handling of foods. Present an array of industry class recommendations and work specific references.
There is a great deal to read between the lines in a job description. For example multi-tasking, what you have going on in food preparation, cooking on the many different kind of stove tops, and baking in ovens, not to mention the ice creams in many stages of mixing, chilling and freezing.
There are also candies and sauces for caramels, pies, tarts and innovative snacks for the hotel’s bars and lounges. They often ask for special mixes for the bartender’s designer drinks and specialized dessert menus for special events.
The dynamics of the pastry and dessert kitchens are your responsibility. There are always 10 things occurring simultaneously.
So, have you got what it takes? We hope that you use this information to determine the realities of what you may be facing if you want to become a pastry chef. This is the first step toward determining if your goals match the information you now have.
We surveyed a number of professional pastry chefs from around the world and asked them to give their best piece of advice for aspiring pastry chefs. Here is what they had to say:
Never stop learning. Find someone you admire and place yourself under their tutelage and leadership.Always try to be just a little bit better than you were yesterday. Do this by perfecting an existing skill or learning a new one.When it comes to making money/selling yourself/selling your product: SOCIAL MEDIA has been a HUGE part of my success. It doesn't matter how good you are if no one knows you exist.
I would say, take your time, get plenty of experience of all kinds within the field. The best thing you can do for yourself is learn from people you admire and then build upon those foundations.
Being Passionate. Pastry is more than a job, it is a passion. Only with passion you can pull up with long hours, full time availability and reliability (sometimes frustration and quite low income at the beginning).I had an old teacher at my Paris Pastry school back in the 80's, when we were all in class he used to look at us and say "i am looking at all of you today (we were around 20 pastry students) and i keep thinking that 75% of you will have left the Pastry field in the next five years." Unfortunately those statistics figures were right. Without passion you just give up.
The best advice I can give is be curious! Your pastry education doesn't end when you finish school - you have to keep learning! Search out experienced pastry chefs and study their work, experiment with new techniques and tastes, ask yourself how you can make things better. Challenge yourself and continue being curious so you never stop learning. That's what makes going to work every day exciting.
The main piece of advice I would suggest is to take as many classes or courses as you can -- to make sure that this is the right career for you. Practice as much as possible. Visit bakeries/patisseries, especially while traveling -- don't let anything stand in your way!
So the advice I would give to aspiring chefs is to never stop learning your craft. There's always something new to learns and skills to perfect. Also, never stop being passionate and curious.
Be a great communicator and cheerleader. You can't do everything yourself so you want to surround yourself with people who believe in your vision and are as passionate as you are in making it come to life!
The hospitality industry can be very demanding at times so it's very important to remember why you started in the first place. Always remain true to your love and passion for food. Continuous research and wanting to gain knowledge is key but most importantly to enjoy what you do and this will always reflect in the dishes you create.
Know your ingredients. Only when you truly understand the ingredients you work with can you use them effectively to create, incredible inspiring food.
Don't give up and always keep thinking outside the box. Never rule out bad ideas. Organization is the key. Six p's(Proper preparation prevents piss poor performance). Failure to prepare is prepare to fail.
Be as well rounded as possible. Working in pastry can be a very specific identity, but it's good to experience everything you can within the field, from restaurants to bakeries, cakes to food styling and even tv production
My advice would be, there is always more to learn with pastry, so don't just always stick to the stuff you know, push yourself and you will get there in the end. Visit different restaurants, try new foods and get inspiration from other dishes. Always be patient and take time with what you are making because it is all worth in the end when you feel that sense of pride because you have produced something amazing.
Aim high, do work experience, give your all. Soak up everything that you are taught & learn from your mistakes, be the best you can be.
No matter what they tell you at school, most places still want experience before they will give you a job. Start your job search at local mom and pop bakeries. They are usually willing to take a new pastry cook and train them properly.
A big THANK YOU to all that participated!