Are you crazy? I am so that's probably why I'm the owner of a small pastry business. More often than I can count, I am approached and told I have the greatest job in the world. I get to play with sugar and butter all day, how can that not be the best? Well, hold onto your seats, here are some pointers if you are looking to make the leap out of your desk chair and into the kitchen.
When I left college, I couldn't find a writing job, so I took a job with a PR firm. I was miserable sitting behind a desk all day, surfing on the internet for recipes and making hourly runs to the local coffee shop to chop up the monotony. I had to escape. The kitchen is where I found my happiness. The pace, the pressure, the creativity all invigorated me. But is it right for you? Here are some tips and information to help you make your decision.
Culinary school or entry-level pastry job? Entry-level pastry job all the way. Getting paid to learn versus paying $40,000 to go to culinary school is a no brainer. You can always go to culinary school later if you want a formal education. However, if you have never experienced working in a restaurant or bakery kitchen, get your feet wet and see if you really like it by getting a bit of real-world experience.
Be okay with your social life and sleep schedule changing. Pastry is what you start and end your day with. As the opening pastry chef for a coffee company or the closing pastry chef for a fine-dining restaurant, you will always either be first in at say 3 a.m., or last out, at 1 a.m. You will more than likely work weekends. If you own your own pastry business, during busy season, there is no such thing as a day off.
You get used to going to bed early or getting to check out all the late night places to eat. There is something beautiful having a few hours of quiet in the morning and in watching a city wake up. On the flip side, if you are just finishing up at 1 a.m., the debauchery you see in the wee hours of getting off a shift is truly priceless people watching.
Work with the best, and work with different chefs. If there is a chef that you admire, get in that kitchen. It doesn't matter if you are sweeping the floors and washing the dishes. Someone always no call-no shows and you may get a chance to jump in there.
Stay long enough to learn, but not too long that you stop growing. I've worked everything from fine dining to fast casual, and in doing so, I've learned so many different things, from how to properly cook a steak to sous vide to shucking oysters. Never say no to learning something, even if it's outside the pastry department.
I fully plan to go to some larger metropolitan areas this summer and do some stages in different pastry kitchens. There is always more to learn, be it new techniques or new tactics to improve how you are currently doing something.
Read everything. I constantly read cookbooks, magazines, and blogs, to keep learning and inspire. The amazon quick order app on my phone gets a lot of use, to the dismay of my husband who usually is the carrier of my boxes of books each time we move.
My home office has a wall of cookbooks, including pastry and savory. Some of the best ideas and techniques I've learned have come from savory cookbooks or methods. If becoming a pastry chef is the path you want to take, start reading.
Travel and eat out. I really dislike when I hear chefs say that they never eat out because they can cook better at home. That's moronic and small-minded. You should jump at the opportunity to taste the food of fellow chefs, to see what others are doing, and to be knowledgable about what is happening in our industry.
Traveling opens up another space for inspiration, and education. In a kitchen we become so focused on what has to get done, sometimes we forget to step back and look at the bigger picture of what we are doing, where we are going, and what we want to accomplish.
You will probably never attain perfection, in the form of a bakery or otherwise. The dream is for the perfect bakery (mine is the one from the Meryl Streep movie It's Complicated). However, it will more than likely never come to fruition. Currently I'm baking in the equivalent to an easy bake oven. I mix 10 batches of dough in small mixers because I have yet to find a large Hobart that doesn't break the bank. I use a commercial kitchen and a borrowed restaurant kitchen space until I can find something to call my own, carting in all my equipment, and hauling it all out at the end of a long baking session. It is tedious and frustrating. But it is a start, and it is what I can afford for now.
Perfection won't come together in your pastry either. The pastry you create will not appeal to everyone, either via taste or cost. I bake primarily organic, which most people say they like, but in reality there are only a small group of people who will pay the slightly higher price for organic baked goods. Be okay with not tickling every person's taste buds or wallets.
Be prepared to work harder than you ever have before. Working in a kitchen is challenging physically and mentally. Depending on what you are doing be it operating your own business, working on a busy line, or cranking out production, you body will hurt at some point, if not often.
My husband recently assisted me in doing some production work for my business. He had only ever helped me at events, the fun part, where you talk to people and hand out treats. After eight hours on his feet and 1,500 balls of cookie dough, he had a whole new respect for working in a kitchen. There will be moments of "what the fuck am I doing," but if this is what you truly want to do, you will make it through those moments.
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I show up everyday because I love food and feeding people. My feet hurt. I wish I had 10 more hours in the day. I need about five more hours of sleep. I could really use a gin martini after this past week, and I would love to have a whole day off with my husband. But I would not give up what I do for anything. Be educated about a decision like this before you jump in. It's not for the faint of heart and I've seen too many come through my pastry departments who couldn't handle the pressure.
And, hey, if you ever feel like scooping 1,500 cookies in an evening to see if you've got what it takes, call me.
Rachel Miller is a pastry chef and food writer in Phoenix, where she bakes, eats, and single-handedly keeps her local cheese shop in business. You can get more information about her pastry at www.pistolwhippedpastry.com, or on her blog at www.croissantinthecity.com.