Culinary Careers: Spotlight on Pastry Chefs
By Michelle Vessel
Do you have a knack for creating fabulous confections, perfectly flaky pie crusts, melt-in-your-mouth cakes, and other to-die-for desserts? Are you constantly challenging yourself to come up with tantalizing and unexpected combinations of sweet, sour, and savory flavors? Does the idea of creating tasty sweets and treats for crowds of appreciative diners sound like something you'd like to devote yourself to full-time? If so, a career as a pastry chef just might be the right professional path for you.
Unlike traditional chefs who often are given open-ended responsibility over everything that goes on in a restaurant's kitchen, pastry chefs specialize in a narrow niche area of the field, albeit one that can be surprisingly complex and demanding. In fact, the average career arc, job responsibilities, and work schedule of a typical pastry chef diverge in many ways from those of other types of chefs and kitchen personnel. Read on to learn more about the educational requirements, duties, and opportunities for pastry chefs--and to get a handle on whether this kind of role is right for you.
What Does a Pastry Chef Do?
For pastry chefs, the workday's shape and schedule is likely to be determined by the type of establishment where one is employed. For example, the responsibilities and work schedule for a pastry chef at a large institution such as a workplace cafeteria are likely to differ significantly from those of a pastry chef who owns and operates a small boutique bakery or patisserie.
In the typical restaurant setting, pastry chefs' workdays often begin very early, sometimes as early as 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. In the early morning hours, the pastry chef prepares the desserts and breads that will be available on the day's menu. Depending on the size of the establishment, a pastry chef works either alone or with a small team of assistants.
Although the early morning hours that the position requires can be difficult, a pastry chef often completes the day's dessert preparation by early afternoon. In some restaurants, pastry chefs remain on duty to assist in the service of lunch and dinner, but service duties are often assigned to other kitchen personnel, allowing the pastry chef to attend to other responsibilities--or get some much needed rest!
In addition to taking care of day-to-day baking duties in the kitchen, pastry chefs often have to engage in menu planning, budgeting, and staffing, often in collaboration with other chefs and upper-level kitchen staff. These duties might include developing desserts that complement other themes or entrees the restaurant is offering; generating suggestions for dessert wines, dessert cocktails, and digestifs; creating a budget for the pastry department; and managing personnel issues.
In some establishments, one pastry chef handles all of the baking and administrative duties for the department, while in larger facilities, an entire team might be required to handle these tasks. Team members might include positions such as:
- Executive pastry chef
- Pastry chef assistant
- Pastry cook
- Cake decorator
- Pastry commis (apprentice)
How Will Formal Education Help You Become a Pastry Chef?
In the classical European apprentice system, those with aspirations of becoming a pastry chef often began as understudies at a very young age, arising before dawn's first light to scrub pans, mix batters, and perform other menial kitchen tasks under the eyes of experienced pastry chefs. Although some in the industry still rise through the ranks as apprentices and go on to reach the upper echelons of the profession as executive pastry chefs, there is a growing emphasis on formal education among newcomers in the field.
The increasing complexity of the demands placed on contemporary pastry chefs all but necessitates formal education for those with the ambition of reaching the top of the field. In the past, pastry chefs were expected to have a repertoire of traditional recipes and ratios that was relatively limited in scope. Now, the more adventurous palettes of today's diners require that pastry chefs have a handle on things like ethnic sweets from around the world, or the advanced scientific techniques used to create molecular gastronomy, deconstructed dishes, and other avant-garde desserts and confections.
What's more, pastry chefs who are engaged in the preparation of large quantities of baked goods and desserts, such as those who work in institutions or the catering field, often have to use complex mathematical calculations and chemistry formulas to scale up standard recipes.
Due to the significant professional demands placed on today's pastry chefs, the number of available pastry chef degree programs and courses has increased in recent years. Today, budding pastry chefs have many educational options at their disposal, including campus pastry chef degree programs at top culinary institutes or online pastry chef degree programs that can be completed, in large part, from the comfort of one's own home.
What Is the Job Outlook for Pastry Chefs?
Although Americans have been tightening their belt in recent years, most are still making room for a sweet treat. Although the economic tumult that hit the U.S. in the late 2000s put a dent in the amount of disposable income many families had for entertainment options such as fine dining, many Americans continued to indulge in affordable luxuries, like the occasional gourmet cookie or pastry--the cupcake craze that swept the nation during the recession is proof that even tough times can't put a damper on our love of decadent desserts.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in the restaurant industry are likely to keep pace with those in the general workforce in the years to come. However, demand for highly skilled chefs and bakers such as pastry chefs with formal training and some experience is likely to be grow at an above-average pace.
Average Pastry Chef Salary
Because the experience and prestige of the positions in the pastry and baking field vary so widely, compensation can be quite variable as well, ranging from minimum-wage hourly jobs for inexperienced first-timers looking to get a leg up in the field to six-figure salaries for executive pastry chefs at top fine-dining establishments. Here are some average figures based on recent salary data:
- Chef de partie: $17,000
- Pastry cook: $22,000
- Cook/baker: $25,000
- Pastry chef: $44,000
- Executive pastry chef: $53,000
Other factors that impact pastry chef salary include the location of the restaurant, the type of establishment, and whether or not the candidate has completed a pastry chef degree program.
If you're interested in pursuing a career as a pastry chef, consider signing up for one or two online pastry chef courses--it's a great way to determine whether your aptitude in the kitchen could translate into a full-time career in this exciting field.
About the Author
Michelle Vessel is a freelance writer based in Huntsville, Alabama.