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Learn the Basics of Baking & Pastry Art

As the popularity of high-end restaurants increases, the demand for quality pastry chefs also increases. Combining a scientist's eye for detail with an artist's flair, pastry chefs create edible art as the crown jewel of every meal. Although pastry chefs do bake, a good part of their job is administrative. First and foremost, you're responsible for the pastry team in the restaurant. For example, many pastry chefs will bake individual orders, leaving the bulk work of breads and basic cakes to the baking team. A pastry chef’s job is to oversee all baked goods prepared in a restaurant, including cakes, tortes, custards, and soufflés. They also supervise pastry cooks and prep cooks by preparing key ingredients that go into baked goods and desserts. 

An executive pastry chef is responsible for creating new recipes and desserts for the restaurant. These recipes require extensive baking experience and a high degree of creativity and technique. It's been said that if cooking is art, baking is science. Since baking is so exact, pastry chefs must use exact measurements in their creations, recording all attempts and keeping clear records that others can follow. 

It’s also important that a restaurant's menu is harmonious. In that regard, a pastry chef will so work with the executive chef to create a dessert menu that complements the chef’s main dishes offered each day.  As a food executive, a pastry chef must also be a food service and health manager, ensuring a high level of food safety and sanitation that meets safety standards for all diners. A pastry chef knows food safety laws and requirements and makes sure that all subordinate cooks are following the rules as well. 

Administrative duties are a key part of every pastry chef's day. He or she must keep track of inventory, monitor equipment, schedule maintenance, and manage the pastry staff. In larger kitchens, an executive pastry chef may manage a large team of pastry cooks, prep cooks, and dishwashers. 

To become a pastry chef, you must have some native talent and the desire to work sometimes long hours in the culinary field. The job requires a high attention to detail, an extensive knowledge of ingredients and an artistic background. Most pastry chefs complete professional training at a culinary school. Culinary chefs must also be in good health and have stamina, as their work day can begin as early as 4:00 a.m.

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Learn Advanced Concepts & Techniques

All culinary schools teach the same basic skills to prospective pastry chefs. These are the talents that they'll rely on throughout their careers. Think of them as the foundation of a building on which the creative juices begin to flow. The most common basic skills for every pastry chef include identification of essential ingredients such as sugars, flours, and chocolates; culinary math, including weights and measures; food safety and sanitation; identification and use of basic baking tools; basic cake decorating skills; sugar cooking from caramel to hard candy; and creating frozen desserts. 

Once the basics have been covered, all pastry chef students move on to more advanced techniques. It begins with breads and the theory of yeasted dough and includes the science of fermentation, which advances to lessons on cakes and other baked goods. In class, you'll learn about how to calculate recipe percentages which allow you to increase recipe size while keeping all chemical reactions working correctly. Once breads are perfected, you'll move on to learn such topics as pastry doughs from phyllo to tart, cakes and their many forms, and finally the most creative of the baking topics, cake decoration. The final topic in most curriculum is chocolate making, which involves equal parts scientific accuracy and creative flair. 

Real world experience might be offered during training or as a formal section after your classroom work. Externships are common, and you may work as a pastry cook for months before graduating to a pastry chef position. Some schools have restaurants as part of their campus where students work throughout their studies. This can give you a leg up on students from other schools without this added benefit.

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Continue Developing Your Skills & Experience

A great resume takes time, and the least prestigious restaurant can be the most important stepping stone for building a career. The restaurant business is very unpredictable; reputations spread quickly, both good and bad. Once you get a label put on you in one restaurant, it's very difficult to shake it without moving to another town. Make a plan for moving up in the restaurant hierarchy in your city, then work that plan. Always know where your next step will be after your current job. Do excellent work for every restaurant, and impress every executive chef you work with. After all, they're the ones who will spread the word about your skills to other kitchens in town.

Your personal brand is a statement of your creativity as a pastry chef. Find what you're good at, then be better at it than anyone else in town. Restaurants will try to recruit you if you're known as the best at innovative desserts. Entire careers have been made on simple things like frozen desserts or creative local fruit usage. Find your thing and work it until it pays off.

Building a network is an invaluable tool to advance in this career. The cooks and kitchen workers you've worked with are your best connections, especially if you've impressed them with your artistic abilities. Building good relationships with these people is the most solid step you can take toward a long and successful career. Pastry cooks won't always stay cooks. Even some dishwashers go on to own restaurants ten years down the line. Keep in touch with everyone you've worked with, if only on a casual basis. Having two dozen solid names you can put on a resume can be the item that pushes you ahead of your competition when looking to move up in the business.

Get to Know Our Experts

Deric McGuffey

  • Title:
    Pastry Chef
  • Company:
    G2B Restaurant & Brewery
  • Where:
    Durham, NC
  • Experience:
    15 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • My mother owned her own cake company in my hometown, and I would help her mix on the weekends. When other boys were talking about fire ladders and police lights, I was pulling cookies out of the oven.
    • While attending Georgia College, pursuing arts, I took a job at a local restaurant in order to pay my way and quickly became very interested in the Culinary Arts.
    • After spending about two years working at my hometown restaurant, I decided to attend Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College for a degree in the culinary arts.
    • I was very fortunate to land an internship at one of the best restaurants in Atlanta, and under one of the best chefs. Canoe restaurant fine-tuned my attention to preparedness in all aspects of dessert making. The Chef, Gary Mennie, taught me how to work efficiently, and to never compromise the quality of our craft.
    • After graduation, I moved with my wife from Asheville, back to Atlanta and pursued a job full-time at Canoe. The Pastry Chef, Robyn Mayo, was always eager to teach me how to better my dessert technique.
    • After a year, we moved back to Asheville, and I took up my first pastry chef opportunity at Rezaz in Biltmore Village.
    • Next, I was fortunate in receiving an interview with One restaurant, where I was Pastry Chef for two years, establishing the Bread and Pastry programs. Three months after taking a job at One, we opened G2B restaurant, where I also developed the bread and pastry programs.

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    Advice

    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    There are many professionals who never attended culinary school or a Hotel Management program. It’s completely feasible to make way in this industry without a formal education. What I took from my time in culinary school, is a sense of order, and learning the basic techniques of cookery. It’s very important for individuals to know that in order to make a life doing this work, dedication is of the utmost importance; starting at the bottom and toiling year after year to attain higher responsibilities is a given, even with a degree.

    Apprentice with a Chef who you admire

    Be persistent with what you would like to get out of cooking, and don’t settle for anything less. If you’re demanding of yourself, you will eventually be surrounded with like-minded people. Also, expect to make just enough to live on in terms of wages.

    Be open

    Learn to do anything that is asked of you. Always be looking to help out your colleagues without question and under any circumstance, including the porter. Make sure you actively listen.

    Set a goal and go for it

    It’s pretty straight forward; seek out where you would like to work and go for it. It might take a couple of years, but if you’re determined, it will happen. It might not happen in the exact restaurant your thinking of, but at one that is of the same standard. Being detail oriented is a huge plus in a pastry kitchen.

    Yvette Marie

  • Title:
    Head Baker
  • Company:
    O Taste and See Treats
  • Where:
    Gilbert, AZ
  • Experience:
    3 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • Oct 10th, 2011 it was all divine intervention. I experienced a major life change and having no formal training or ability to even bake a box cake right, I started baking from scratch the next day.
    • Within 2 days I was selling, within 5 days I was in 4 restaurants. Within a year I had outgrown my home kitchen.
    • Within 2 years I had a retail store. Within 3 years I was a featured Bakery at Super Bowl 49, which turned into making treats for the Oscars, and that brings up to the current day.
    • Join your local chamber. There are several “Pastry Chef” associations, which require you to pass their test to belong as well as pay dues.

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    Advice

    On whether or not she recommends a formal education

    No. Baking is a true art, and it’s been my experience that all of the book knowledge in the world cannot make up for true craftsmanship. It’s truly a love that goes into the food, and you can taste the difference. I’ve had many staff members who are formally educated pastry chefs and not one has been able to come close to what I do, even with me teaching them at a side by side mixing station; it is close but not the same.

    Love what you do

    Have a true passion for your craft. It’ll show in your food’s taste and quality.

    Be teachable

    We all start somewhere and you must be open to learning new ways and methods.

    Don’t compare

    It steals your creativity. Sure, stay up to date on all things pastry, but figure out what you do well and stick with that. Don’t compare yourself to the croissant guy/gal when you’re the cake guy/gal.

    Offer to intern

    The art of the intern is dying. As a business owner, I usually hire my interns before someone with a resume full of past pastry experience.

    Scott W. Meyer

  • Title:
    Chef
  • Company:
    Arizona Culinary Institute
  • Where:
    Scottsdale, AZ
  • Experience:
    16 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • Before I got into pastry, I was a navy interpreter. After eight years, I knew I didn’t want to make a career out of the military, and baking was the only choice I felt passionate about.
    • I had a friend who knew somebody that owned his own restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, and he agreed to let me work for him. I spent seven months working the line at the Mustard Seed.
    • In March 2000, I headed north to Hyde Park, New York, and started classes at the Culinary Institute of America.
    • For my externship (held half-way through the CIA’s program) I worked at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was an amazing experience. The Executive Pastry Chef, Dave Blom, is an amazing pastry chef, and was very generous in sharing his knowledge.
    • Following completion of school, I returned to the Fairmont, where I spent three years as the night baker. I also worked in the pastry banquet department, as well as prepared desserts for the resort’s four restaurants. I was promoted to Pastry Sous Chef in 2006.
    • While working at the Fairmont, I also taught pastry classes at Phoenix College and Mesa Community College. I also did a brief stint in the grocery department at a local Target; that turned out to be rather disappointing when I realized that they didn’t actually produce anything from scratch there.
    • In June of 2009, I was able to finally realize my dream of teaching full-time when I started at the Arizona Culinary Institute. I initially taught Advanced Baking, and after two years I moved to Basic Baking where I’ve been ever since.

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    Advice

    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    I do recommend a formal education. First of all, professional training at a culinary school automatically confers upon a graduate a legitimacy that on-the-job training cannot match. Secondly, culinary schools expose students to a wide variety of methods and techniques. I do believe that working in the industry while attending culinary school is extremely valuable. I always tell my students that they will learn the “ideal” or “textbook” method in culinary school; these methods may change considerably in the industry. Before anyone can take a shortcut, they need to understand the basics, and why certain shortcuts will work, and why others won’t.

    Get a job in a bakery or pastry shop

    Make sure you like doing this! Get used to peeling apples, rolling out tart shells, scooping cookies, etc. The Food Network does many students a huge disservice; on one hand it does generate interest in the industry, but it also tends to circumvent the less glamorous aspects of cooking and baking. No one wants to watch a show called Scooping 150 Dozen Cookies.

    Read as much as possible

    No need to buy a collection of cookbooks, there’s plenty of material online, or visit a library. This industry changes constantly, and the only way to keep abreast of what is new is to read.

    Learn cooking and baking

    Once you are sure this is what you want, enroll in a culinary school that offers both cooking and baking. There are far fewer baking and pastry jobs than cooking jobs, and having something to fall back on if a pastry job isn’t available can be a life saver.

    Find a pastry mentor

    Once you have a job in a bakery, find someone who can help you. Almost everyone in the industry had someone to help them when they were just starting out, and many people are happy to mentor someone else who is just getting started.

    Put yourself out there

    Some bakery owners will let people work for free. Not everyone is in a financial position to be able to do this, of course. It is always a good idea to let everyone know that you are looking for a pastry job. Eventually someone will know someone who is willing to give you a chance. That is how I got my first ever job in a restaurant kitchen. Craigslist or other job sites can be good sources for job openings as well. Don’t be discouraged by “experienced only.” Attitude and a willingness to work will go much further than experience. Lastly, be willing to take a job that might give you the opportunity to transition to a pastry job.

    Pastry Chef Infographic