How to Become a Great Pastry Chef (Even If You Can't Bake)
If you are thinking of entering the food service industry as a baker or pastry chef, this is a good article for you to read and learn from. In addition, be sure to read Master Baker Leslie Bilderbacks interview and some of her comments on my blog including Cooking School Is Not For Everyone.
Are you a creative type who also likes to know the hows and whys of everything you do? Do you enjoy making desserts that taste wonderful and are beautiful, too? If so, you might enjoy being a pastry artist.
A pastry chef’s job is interesting, challenging, creative and complex. Of course, you create wonderful breads, pastries and desserts. But they must also be beautiful—artistic presentation is more important for desserts than for any other part of the meal—people want something that is a feast for their eyes as well as their palates.
Qualities of a Good Pastry Chef
A good pastry Chef has certain personal characteristics, specific knowledge and specialized skills.
Personal characteristics - Pastry chefs need to be organized and detail-oriented. Making desserts often requires several components that must be assembled individually and then brought together to create the final product. Every ingredient has to be measured precisely and added in the correct way and in the correct order. Good pastry chefs are very organized.
Pastry chefs are hard working. Baking can start as early as 3 or 4 am. Pastry chefs work long hours and they spend many of those hours on their feet. It takes stamina and strength to do the work of a pastry chef.
Creativity is an important quality, more so than for any other type of cooking. For example, Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier was the White House pastry chef for 25 years, creating all the wonderful and beautiful desserts for every White House gala and state dinner. In all that time, he never served the same dessert twice. Now, that’s creativity.
Patience is definitely a virtue for a pastry chef. Desserts can require extensive preparation—and the people who order the desserts can require extra patience, too. It’s also good to have a sense of humor; laughter is a gift that makes patience much easier.
Knowledge - To be a good pastry chef, you need an understanding of the scientific principles behind your craft. You’ll be using perishable and fragile foods and will need to understand the biology of food safety. There’s a chemical basis for the way certain foods are combined.
You need a good understanding of nutrition and of human physiology. You also need to know the basics of design—how to create visually appealing desserts.
Skills - There are many skills you’ll acquire as you learn to be a pastry chef. How to measure correctly, how to mix and blend. Specific food preparation techniques. How to make food visually appealing. Plus people skills, management skills and business skills—all necessary skills for the pastry chef.
Education - Finding the Right Baking / Pastry School
There are several different educational opportunities for you to choose from if you want to become a pastry chef. You could get a diploma or certificate, usually in less than a year. This gives you the skills and knowledge for an entry-level position. An associate degree gives you more skills and more basic education.
You’ll probably qualify initially for the same positions as a diploma graduate, but as you gain experience you’ll have more advancement opportunities than the diploma graduate. If your goal is management, Executive Pastry Chef or teaching, you should consider eventually getting a bachelor’s or advanced degree.
Whatever level of education you choose, it’s important to choose the right program. The most important things to consider when you’re comparing culinary programs are the faculty, the school’s accreditation and the facilities.
Faculty—culinary faculty should be chefs who have the appropriate education and industry experience to teach and mentor people who are entering the profession.
Accreditation—you’re looking for American Culinary Federation, Cordon Bleu or other recognized culinary accreditation.
Facilities—you should learn to cook in a professional kitchen with industry-standard equipment.
Some secondary considerations are the kinds of practical experiences available, the availability of flexible or part-time scheduling if you need it, finances, student support services and career placement services.
Read my article on choosing the right culinary school for you. The same advise holds true with pastry schools.
Career Options - Pastry chefs are not limited to baking bread and making cakes. There are many career options open to you. You can work in a bakery, restaurant or patisserie. You can open your own business. You can become a food critic or writer. You can teach. You could even become Executive Pastry Chef at the White House.
Pastry chefs are in demand and they are paid well. The more education and experience you have, the more money you will make. Experienced pastry chefs make upwards of $60,000/year.
Pastry chef or Chef de Patisserie is a wonderful career choice for anyone who is artistic and logical, practical and creative. It’s a career with rich opportunities—making rich, wonderful and beautiful desserts.
Read, Read and Read Some MoreOne of the best suggestions I have for anyone thinking of going to culinary school or just getting into the restaurant industry is to read everything you can get your hands on. Learn from professional chefs who have worked in the industry and those who have taught in culinary schools.
There are many great books available to get you started in your culinary education and I suggest you read as much as possible before making that big decision to make sure this is the right move for you. Below is just a sample of books you might be interested in checking out.
For a much more comprehensive list of books for aspiring culinary, baking and restaurant management students, I suggest checking out my post on books for future culinary students and chefs.