So today we’re going to be looking at what a pastry chef actually does.
I had an interview once, for a writing job, where my interviewer just had….no idea. Clearly she had never even thought about it because she literally asked “So what does a pastry chef do exactly? Put cakes in the oven and all that?”
… Uh, no.
I was so stunned at her genuine ignorance I didn’t know what to say. Honestly where to begin.
Different kinds of pastry chef.
Working in a restaurant.
Depending on the kind of restaurant and size of it, a restaurant kitchen might have anything from three chefs to over fifty. In some cases, the dessert menu is long neglected, and there aren’t any pastry chefs in the kitchen- the role is instead filled on rotation by normal chefs who move from station to station. In larger kitchens and fine dining restaurants, it’s not uncommon to have a large pastry team of four or five, with a Head pastry chef, Sous pastry chef etc. Etc. Most restaurants fall between the two, and have two pastry chefs who work around each other- so when one is off, the other is on. They rarely overlap for more than an hour or two.
Pros: Working in a restaurant has one focus; food for the restaurant. The menu is often smaller, which means you have more time to focus on perfecting dishes.
Cons: Tips make up a big chunk of your wage and it can really vary from location to location; if you’re in a City restaurant, you’re going to walk away with way more than if you’re in SE18 at the end of every month, even if your base pay is the same.
Also the uniform is not always provided, it varies.
Working in a hotel.
Now when you’re in a hotel, you need to be able to juggle EVERYTHING. As a pastry chef, you’ll be constantly working and making mise-en-place. For the restaurant. For room fruit baskets. For afternoon tea. For room service. For the lobby bar. For meetings and events. For dinner party menus. For brunch. There are a lot of different menu items for a lot of different causes, and if you’re working in a five star environment; running out of something is a huge no no.
Pros: High end hotels are all enrolled in the TRONC system. This means that all the tips from guests gets evenly distributed in a fair way- you earn more if you’ve been there longer and worked more hours etc etc, and it varies in each place. In general though, it’s quite fair. These aren’t just restaurant tips; it’s the money every guest has tipped on top of their £500 per night room or diner has left on their £50 afternoon tea, so as you can imagine they do add up. One Christmas I earned a good £700 in tips; it was a huge part of my salary that month since overtime was nooooot paaaaaiiiid. (And I’m talking an extra 100 hours a month UNPAID.)
Cons: There’s no set service time which is ANNOYING. In a restaurant, there’s usually some structure, such as: Lunch midday-3pm, dinner 6pm-10pm. This means that a chef can REST, and can focus on their mise-en-place and all their prep work. In a hotel, the kitchen is ALWAYS open, which means constant running around and juggling prep work whilst actually serving dishes. It’s also later nights, as room service is 24 hours and as a pastry chef you’ll have to wait for the night chef to begin their shift before leaving.
Working as a speciality pastry chef.
Macarons. Chocolate. Ice cream. Working in a speciality field is a breath of fresh air for most chefs because it’s a step away from being spread out too thin. It means pursuing a very narrow road until you know everything about that one craft.
Pros: This is the chance to become an expert in a very particular field. It can also set you apart from different pastry chefs as employers often like to see variety in their kitchen staff.
Cons: Eventually, you might grow bored of the one art. If you spend your whole day, five days a week, surrounded by chocolate, yes you become skilled but it eventually loses its charm.
There is no way in hell I’d become a baker. Not that I can’t make bread. Check out my fougasse. Nailed it.
Very talented etc etc. But seriously. I wouldn’t be a baker if you filled my crocs with glass.
I’ll be indifferent though, for this.
Again, a very scientific and speciality field, baking is an art. You need to be able to control all of the factors which can effect your creation; humidity, temperature etc. And every little detail counts; when you’re dealing with yeast, you’re dealing with life and you need to be able to manipulate it to your whim. Shaping, resting, proving; it’s a very strict process and when you’re making huge bulk quantities for the business, it’s hard.
Pros: There aren’t a lot of people going into the business of baking nowadays and it’s quickly becoming a lost art. There’s room, therefore, for an up and coming superstar master.
Cons: Physically gruelling. Hauling around 20kg bags of flours and hand working 15kg pieces of dough is backbreaking work. The hours are also tough; expect working through the night or 3am starts.
What about you Véro?
I’ve worked in a variety of roles, and as mentioned above they’ve each had pros and cons. I’m going to give you an idea of what it’s like spending the day as a pastry chef in a hotel though.
Working in a 5* Hotel as a pastry chef.
6.15am. Arrive, and you’ve already got your uniform because you always have one spare in your locker. This is just as well since the laundry room doesn’t open until 7.30am, and you’ve had to spend an hour hanging around before because of this. Wasting precious prep time.
6.30am. Day begins. Night chefs are just finishing off and they love you, naturally, because you’re cheery as fuck for no apparent reason. It’s actually just sleep deprivation and the fact that you love to be the first one in; more space, no aggro from other chefs, no customers, and no one else hogging the stoves.
6.40am. Set up. Knives out. Boards out. You’re in the shit already because, like always, you’re the only pastry chef and you’re serving 150 afternoon teas on top of everything else. Everything is done fresh. You’ve got scones to make.
6.45am. Make up a huge batch of scone dough in the industrial mixer. It’s 2 per portion so you need to make enough for 300 scones plus extras (Always. Need. Extras.) So you make your dough, leave in the fridge to rest. You’ll get back to that later. Next, brioche.
7am. Brioche mix has been made the day before, but you still need to shape and actually make them. They’re yeasted, so this means the balancing act begins. Once in their moulds, you need to find space for eight trays to be warm enough for all 300 to rise, but not so hot that they inflate and deflate. They’ll inevitably rise at different rates too, so some will be ready to go in the oven whilst the rest haven’t risen at all. And some will get too hot and be ruined. You also only have one oven because they other is always fucking breaking, so, as soon as shit goes in, stuff comes out, shit goes in.
7.20am. Scone mix out of the fridge, roll, cut, bake.
7.40am. AS SOON AS THE OVEN IS FREE, the financiers need to go in. You’ll have been piping them into their shaped moulds whilst the scones were cooking. Cook them off.
7.45am. Whilst they’re cooking you need to make 150 mini eton messes, fill 150 chocolate milkshake bottles, make cheesecake mix and pipe that into 150 chocolate eggs you’ve cut open and sprayed gold.
8.15am. The brioches should be in and out of the oven by now. Breakfast orders are coming in and room service are asking for baskets of complimentary fruit and fruit platters for the more important guests. If no nice fruit has come in, that means running out to Waitrose and buying some.
8.40am. The delivery of stock has arrived. Queue half an hour of hefting around heavy palettes of fruit and ingredients. Labels also need to be checked and the fridges all need to be cleaned before Head Chef does his checks.
9am. There’s a dinner party at 6.30pm and another at 8.30pm. They’ve both ordered different menus- one is for 12 X lemon tart, the other is 10 x chocolate fondant AND 2 x apple tart. The kitchen, by this point is 30 degrees if not hotter, and rolling out pastry thin enough to be delicious, and NOT have so much as a pinprick is a nightmare. One tart serves six, but you need to make three tarts just incase one slice isn’t presentable or a tart leaks in the oven, as they often do because lemon tart filling is unforgiving and finds every hole.
10am. Fondant mix is made and immediately piped into silver moulds to be cooked from frozen. You make shit loads because thirty seconds on either side of perfectly cooked results in a fondant which can’t be used for guests. Because I’m nice I’ll give it to the front of house, but most chefs get pissed and hurl ruined things around.
10.30am. Lots of things to do now. Need to make sure everything is set up for afternoon tea which starts at 12pm, but also need to prep for lunch service which also starts at 12pm. We have thirty confirmed diners but there will be walk ins. Not everyone always opts for dessert but we have a nice menu on the Set lunch atm and creme brulees will be popular. They’re easy to serve but only 4/6 can be used every time a batch is made because the deep silver trays used as a bain marie in the oven ALWAYS spills into a ramekin or two, rendering the brulee inedible.
11am. Colleague needs help so you help them. You’re a team; you help one another when someone is in the shit. Probably should go to the bathroom at this time. This is the breather you get before all shit hits the fan. Make some pastry, and start peeling and slicing the green apples for later tonight. Leave them in a water and citric solution so they don’t colour. Slice yourself a few times. Your hands and arms are covered in a galaxy of burns and scars.
12pm. It starts. The noise of the checks coming in through the machine makes your heart pound. The movement is constant. You’re jumping on Larder to help plate up starters as they get slammed with four tables at once. The first sweep of afternoon tea starts too, with the sandwiches and mini quiches being sent out. By half past the first load of dessert checks are coming through too, you need to get them out ASAP because by 1pm-
1pm. Sweet treats for afternoon tea are starting. That means dishing ups the scones, financier, brioche in their little baskets and making sure they go out warm. You’ve also got the little desserts for each and every table and, of course, you have to make candyfloss for everyone too. They’re made to order because once made, they only last ten minutes before looking like shit. The machine is an old school, HUGE, industrial thing and it’s like catching clouds on a stick.
3pm. The last few tables for lunch and afternoon tea. You’re exhausted but your break, if you get one, is after clean down not before. Sweeping, mopping, cleaning; your space needs to be spotless and your fridge needs to be empty of all afternoon tea related things now; time to turn your focus onto the dinner parties and dinner service. You’ve made a lot of ice cream but it all needs to be put through the PACO JET- an ice cream churner, if you don’t do it now, it won’t be scoopable for tonight. If you did it earlier, then it’ll be too hard to use tonight. If you do it in an hour, the ice cream will still be liquid when it’s time to serve. The ice cream needs churning twice a day and the Paco Jets are on the other side of the hotel, so you need a push cart to get there with your ten containers of ice cream.
4pm. This is the breather. The space where everything is a little quieter. If you’re only on the morning shift today then your colleague should be in around now for the one hour crossover. As long as it’s quiet you can leave at five. If you’re on the double, and let’s face it, you often are, then it’s little over the halfway mark.
4.30pm. The hotel has a staff canteen but you rarely go there. Instead you grab a sandwich and listen to music on your phone whilst you sit on the stairs for ten minutes. This is the boost you need.
5.30pm. Evening kicks off. You’ve made the lemon tarts and they’re ready for service. The apple tarts need finishing off in the oven upon serving, the lemon tart will go out at room temperature. The fondants are chilling in the freezer, they need to be done a la minute.
6pm. With the restaurant booked for 40 and walk ins, it’s busy. You help out on larder but you also need to start weighing up mixes for tomorrow’s afternoon tea. There’s a dinner party on Monday booked for 20 people and you can start making up a huge batch of chocolate mousse for that too.
7pm. Slammed with orders, you’re also running backwards and forwards to the prep area for the dinner party (it’s a table in the cold corridor outside of the kitchen). Plates are being set up, artistic smears are going onto them, along with crumbs ready for the scoop of ice cream later.
8pm. In between serving dinner guests who are ordering from the larger A La Carte menu, you’re desperately trying to slice perfectly a very delicate lemon tart and plate it all up with a scoop of creme fraiche. You run out of creme fraiche half way through, an oversight, so you make a buttermilk and cream cheese mix quickly and hope nobody notices. At the last minute there’s an extra portion of lemon tart being asked for, so it’s lucky you made three.
8.20pm. AS SOON as the table space is free, you prep the second load of plates for the next dinner party. There are still dessert checks coming through, so you’re running in an out of the kitchen whenever someone yells your name.
8.45pm. Head chef looming next to you as you pull out the first batch of fondants after the test one when okay. He wants to make sure you don’t fuck up. (You don’t). All the fondants go out with their ice cream, along with the two portions of apple tart. Your voice is hoarse after screaming for service. The ice cream always starts to melt the second it’s scooped because even in the corridor it’s over 20 degrees.
9.50pm. Post-theatre guests start to trickle in. Our restaurant closes at 10pm but because it’s a 5* establishment, they’ll sit anyone who comes in afterwards up to a point.
10.20pm. A new table has just sat down. They might have dessert so you need to stick around. You clean. You prep for tomorrow. Clean some more. Pee.
11pm. A dessert check comes through, front of house tell you it’s the last of the night. The night chefs are arriving too.
11.30pm. Final clean down. Time to go home and do it all over again tomorrow. Thank fuck afternoon tea is weekend only. It’s been a 17 hour day and that’s the norm for a weekend. On a weekday the double shift is about 15.
That makes me so tired to read.
Stay tuned for Part Three!