What It Takes To "Earn" the Title of Pastry Chef
I get emails from high school kids, their parents, people looking to change careers and individuals looking to start new businesses asking about becoming a professional pastry chef or baker. They want to know where to start, is culinary school required, what skills are necessary....questions like these. So I put this article together with hopes that it will help answer some of these questions.
If not, there are a lot more articles about getting into the restaurant/food industry at my Culinary School Resources page and throughout the web site and blog. If you do a search, I'm sure you will find many of the answers you are looking for and I'll do my best to answer any questions you may have by reaching out to my network of professional chefs.
Earn the Title of Pastry Chef
I call this article "what it takes to earn..." rather than "how to become..." because, in talking to many chefs I've met in pursuit of learning to cook through this website, they all say that nobody walks out of culinary school with the title of chef. Chef means "chief," or the number one person in the kitchen, and only through long and varied experience in hotel and restaurant kitchens can someone claim the title "chef."
Having said that, though, I am not trying to discourage anybody who has the desire and the passion to become a chef. After all, if you have your own business - say a cupcake business or a croissant bakery - you can call yourself "pastry chef" or "head baker" because you are technically in charge of your kitchen. Regardless, here are a great number of roads you can take to earn the title pastry chef.
If you are interested in baking and pastry and are considering it as a career choice, it is important to know what area you want to focus on.
Do you want to bake artisan breads?
Are you interested in making wedding cakes?
Perhaps you are inspired by pastry competitions and really want to make complex presentation desserts.
Or maybe you want to become a chocolatier or candy maker.
There are many facets of baking and pastry, so it really pays to concentrate on a particular area.
How Do I Choose
The question then becomes, "How do I choose?" I think it's important to take a look at what inspires you. Like my oldest daughter, do you live for watching The Cake Boss? Then maybe your passion lies in decorating high end wedding cakes.
Do you DVR Top Chef Desserts? You might consider working in a restaurant putting out high-volume and consistently excellent desserts. If you find bread making therapeutic and relaxing and you get excited about words like "poolish," "biga," and "fermentation" you are probably going to want to look into becoming a baker.
If you're still not sure, there are many ways to get your feet wet in these different areas without having to spend a lot of money. Many craft stores offer cake decorating classes. Consider signing up for one and seeing if you love it. Look into enthusiasts' cooking classes in your area. Some restaurants and many caterers offer classes that focus on one specific area of cooking or baking.
Using the Internet
A quick Internet search should turn up many opportunities in your local area. If you are in junior high or high school, check and see if there are any Home-Ec type electives available at your school. Go to the library and check out books on chocolate and candy making, on cake baking, or bread baking and learn from them. Try out recipes, and then buy the books that really speak to you and hold your interest.
There are many online forums for bakers and cooks, and most of them welcome anyone from chefs with years of experience to novices. These forums are wonderful places to go to get answers to your questions and to ask chefs and pastry chefs about their personal experiences. And then their are some great baking and pastry web sites.
Find a Job Locally
If you are old enough, you can get a part time job in a bakery. Believe it or not, grocery store bakeries are pretty good places to start. You'll be exposed to baking everything from rolls to birthday cakes, and this can really help you decide where your interests lie.
Here's another great idea. Some company, organization or other is always having recipe contests. Develop and submit recipes. If your submission is the best, you win! Winning contests is a wonderful way to gain experience in recipe development and in baking in general, and it is also an excellent confidence builder. Listing your contest wins on your resume certainly won't hurt, either!
Along a similar line, submit your baked goods to your county or state fair. The judging will give you excellent feedback on your strengths and also in what you need to work on. Again, coming up with a submission will involve at least a few test batches, and all of that experience will help hone your baking and pastry skills.
And don't let lack of experience stop you from applying for jobs in restaurant kitchens. One chef I talked to told me that passion and "teachability" are much more important than cooking or baking experience.
Strictly speaking, it is not necessary to attend a high-dollar culinary school to become a baker or pastry chef.
More and more schools are offering that option, and I'm not trying to discourage you from going to culinary school if you want to experience it, but willingness to learn on the job, practicing and experimenting on your own are time-honored ways of eventually earning the "chef" title. Working your way up the ladder, at least in hotel and restaurant kitchens, really shows the people you work with that you are dedicated and serious about your chosen profession.
Going to Culinary School
If you know, however, that you want to go to culinary school, most nationally recognized programs offer specializations in baking and pastry. This is a great option for "pastry folks" for a couple of reasons:
- Baking and Pastry programs are usually slightly less expensive than culinary programs and
- You won't have to butcher any meat or filet a fish!
Another option is to attend a baking and pastry school strictly devoted to pastry arts. Again, the Internet is your friend here. Search for one in, or close to, your area, and then go visit. Make sure that you like what you see, that you like the instructors you meet and that you like their philosophy of baking education, whatever that may be.
Never, never, never apply to a school sight-unseen. You want to make sure it is a good fit for you, so make sure you go take a tour of the facilities and ask a lot of questions.
No matter what road you decide to take on your journey to become a pastry chef, you should continue to bake and explore pastries on your own and in your own kitchens. They say practice makes perfect, and "they" are not wrong. Not only will your techniques and methods come more and more easily, but you'll be improving the speed and accuracy with which you complete baking tasks, and working precisely and quickly are skills that are necessary, whether you work in a bakery, a restaurant kitchen or your own shop.