The accidental pastry chef. I love it. I hope you're keeping careful notes -- this is something you should write about someday for a magazine, in order to let people know how the restaurant biz really works. And of course, as ridiculous as this employment selection technique is, in the end the restaurant is probably getting a more enthusiastic, conscientious, and useful pastry chef than it would have gotten by hiring an actual pastry graduate from one of the cooking schools.
First, just to be done with it, FG's initial comments should not be either taken personal by zilla, nor should any experienced pastry chefs take offense. In fact, I completely agree, and the circumstances here are not unlike my own humble beginnings...
We'll actually fast forward past my first couple of cooking jobs, because, while perhaps relevant even to this discussion, none of you will be interested in reading my boring, unabridged memoir...
So I land my first ever job in a restaurant, having previously worked for a bakery, caterer, gourmet shop, and wholesale bread/pastry operation. For some reason, I knew a restaurant was where I needed to be. While I had the pastry background, I didn't necessarily entertain thoughts of becoming a pastry chef, but rather wanted to prove myself as a blood-and-guts line cook, in hopes of becoming a chef like those of whom I was just starting to read about- from a Trotter or Bouley or Ripert, to a Robuchon or Blanc (Georges) or even Gagnaire. At this point, I had already considered school, both locally, and the CIA, but I was dirt poor, living paycheck to paycheck, and decided to follow the old chestnut, "Earn while you learn."
I didn't know a thing about the local restaurant scene, but I was smart enough to know that if I went to a small, just opened, chef-owned place, the potential for real education would be greater than if I got myself lost in some hotel or corporate restaurant situation. So I somehow found myself hired, part of a tiny staff, in a tiny, and I mean tiny, kitchen- the chef, his sous, the pantry guy, and a part time prep/expeditor. There literally was no room for anyone else! I was to replace the pantry guy, who would move up to the line (mind you, for the first six months, the chef and sous were
the line). So I did the amuse, two salads, two apps, and plated the desserts, which were brought in from the outside. And our only ice cream was picked up at the market next door- Haagen Dazs Vanilla, which we served with the 'rustic apple tart' we bought. I think we may have made a coulis here and there, but for the most part, it was all purchased.
It only took about a month to get the station routine down cold. So with an extra half hour to kill before service, I'd started to knock out a tuile here, a sauce there, just because I felt like it. I'd begun to ask, "Why do we buy our crème brûlée? I can bake them off, and we can even play around with the flavor." And right around this time, having already devoured Charlie's first book, Andrew MacLauclan's book came out- it truly blew us away at the time. So I began taking on more of the dessert stuff; I was still more interested in tweaking the amuse stuff, or coming up with ideas for a new terrine or some other cold app, but I didn't feel as much confidence in suggesting those ideas to the chef (it wasn't until much, much later, as his sous, that I would end up kicking him out of the kitchen, as I thought I had things exactly the way I wanted!). Little by little, we phased out the wholesale items, and I became another "accidental" pastry chef.
Eight months into my first restaurant job, I was given the title, and even a printed dessert menu- up to that point, desserts were sold verbally. And while I was also responsible for my 'garmo' duties, I produced four or five plated desserts, from top to bottom, and we even procured a cheap home-use ice cream machine. But I still wanted to butcher the ducks, clean the fish, sear the foie, even blanch the asparagus. So my days got longer; I'd come in early enough to blow through my prep list, in order to make myself available to do whatever I could. Luckily, I worked for a chef who let me take a mile for every inch he gave, not because he was lazy or that he didn't care, but because, I felt, he trusted me, and perhaps saw some shimmer of potential. Sure, I made little money, and he certainly got two cooks for the price of one, but that restaurant became my "school," my "laboratory." And looking back, I suffered a lot of defeat and disasters, but his laid back mentoring set me on the path that I continue today. But again, at the time, I didn't see myself becoming a pastry chef. Sure, I enjoyed that aspect, and took an immense pride in what I did, but I needed more. I jumped ship into deeper waters.
A new restaurant had opened in town, unlike anything else at the time (or to this day, really), and doing food of the sort I had only seen in magazines and books. I had been in to eat and met the chef and GM. I realized I needed a kick in the pants, and this was my chance. I began my trial by fire as a line cook. Finally, I was really cooking, learning a ton, and as part of an elite staff. I was hungry for the discipline, the stress, the quest for perfection. And I got it there. It was there that I developed that internal knot that just feeds on that pressure, but is never satisfied. I loved it, but I also spent a lot of time looking at what was going on across the kitchen in the pastry area. I was amazed with the equipment, staff, and freedom the pastry chef had. I began fantasizing about what I
could do with all of that at my disposal. I also think I missed something I had at my previous job (and even a couple jobs prior to that)- a sense of autonomy, the feeling that I had a certain amount of control. I was doing very well, and I knew there were opportunities to advance in this restaurant, but something told me I had to bail. And I eventually did, but back to my first restaurant, where I finally decided to see where I might take the pastry thing.
Although I took a step backward in terms of the resources available, and the level of intensity, the confidence I had gained made me realize that not only did I seek responsibilty and leadership (even if there really was no one to lead), let alone autonomy, but also that I needed that environment where I could figure out and truly refine whatever style or passion existed within me. So I started where I had left off, building on what knowledge I continued to accumulate. But the place was still too small to afford a pastry chef proper, so instead of working pantry, and because I gained a lot of experience at the other restaurant, I now doubled as the number two line cook. I was content to have my own little private corner of dessert creativity, but I was also butchering those ducks and making sauces. I was still paid shit, but I was in my own heaven.
I had just been to France for the first time, eating at Gagnaire and Arpege. I had gone to cook with my chef at the Beard House, and then ate myself silly in NY, where I had, to this day, the most amazing dish I'd ever eaten (Ripert's skate sauteed in goose fat, with fennel confit, porcini, and a squab reduction). And also at this time, the first reports of this cazy Adria fellow in Spain were just starting to surface in this country. This was the stuff I really wanted to be doing. The savory gods were calling me again. By this time I had forced myself into the sous chef position, all the while maintaining and executing the desserts. I was an animal. I can recall numerous occasions of juggling last minute sugar or tuile garnishes while cooking off my first apps of the evening, but not being able to crank up my oven, because I still had brûlées in there! Looking back, it's a wonder I just didn't sleep at the restaurant- well, I did, but only a few
times! But my creativity with desserts could only be expressed so far. I had no space, no equipment, and still that little runt of an ice cream machine. And have I mentioned that the only freezer was in the basement? Of course, that meant dozens of trips up and down, for an ice cream or sorbet that managed to be incorporated into each plated dessert. So I had hit the ceiling, so to speak, with pastry, and thus continued to wreak havoc with the savory menu. Then one day I heard about a vacancy, a pastry chef position, at another restaurant in town.
Turns out the opening pastry chef of that big fish in our little pond, the restaurant where I had worked as a line cook, was leaving. Word was that the chef was willing to look anywhere for a replacement, even out-of-state. As much as I loved playing in the fire, I had always wondered what I could have done in that venue. Since I already had an 'in,' it was no problem throwing my hat into the ring and doing a try-out tasting. To my surprise, I got it. I was now a pastry chef. Full time. For real. With a staff. With money to spend. But most important, I didn't slow down. I continued on the pace I had been working, but now I could focus. Building upon the foundation I had begun with little to no resources, my 'style' and vision could now be fully realized and fleshed out. And in four years, that constant push and perserverance has paid off quite well, I think. I just have to keep raising the bar for myself, and I have to create higher and higher goals. I still feel the urge to jump on the line and flip a pan now and then, but I finally know that this is what I want to be doing, that the pastry realm is where I think I can do my best work. Also, though my management skills continue to evolve, I know that I need to do my own thing. I need to have that trust and autonomy and responsibility- the opportunity to run my own show. And for as far as I can see, the high-end restaurant environment is where it's at for me. I can't see myself in a big hotel, doing wholesale, or even in a corporate chef situation, though retail has begun to entice a little bit. I have yet to shake my physical and mental addiction to that daily energy and intensity. I know I may someday change my mind, but right now, that's where its at.
So zilla, it's awesome that you stepped up. You are young, or at least a fresh face in the business. Do whatever you can, learn whatever you can, wherever you can find it. You may not ever continue with pastry, or this opportunity may just open up doors you didn't even know about before. Don't get hung up on the title, but make sure your work is recognized. 'Cooking' and pastry are really the same thing. Trust your taste and your skills first. But you have to love it. You have to push yourself, and we can only hope your chef will allow you to do that. Be at once humble, because you are a bit green, but also be forceful- set some goals, and make sure the environment you are in will aid you in achieving those goals. If not, consider going elsewhere, whether it is as a prep cook, a line cook, or a pastry cook. In a way, I say, so what if the restaurant or the chef doesn't think enough of the dessert course to warrant seeking out someone more experienced? Be selfish. Use them
, instead of having them use you.
And I sweep the floor, too. I still want to sweep the floor. Keep sweeping the floor. Clean floors are cool.