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17 things you need to know about pastry chefs

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Anthony Humphreys

They might occupy the same kitchen as savory chefs, but pastry chefs live in a different world, where orderliness and exactitude reign and measuring things in “pinches” leads to disaster. We talked to four great ones -- Melissa Walnock of the Culinary Institute of America’s American Bounty Restaurant, Zak Miller of New Orleans’ Coquette, Isla Vargas of Wolfgang Puck in Dallas, and Ron Paprocki of New York’s Gotham Bar and Grill, who graciously let us invade his meticulously maintained space for photographs -- about what makes their profession unique.

Pastry Ingredients
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“We’re in grams, they’re in ounces. And they’re like ‘How many grams are in an ounce?’ and I’m like ‘How can you not know?!’” - Melissa Walnock

They’re OCD

All four chefs listed an appreciation for structure as the number-one attribute on the pastry side. “Pastry has to have a plan,” says Paprocki, a one-time landscape architect who cut his teeth in hyper-organized German restaurants.

Vargas, who originally intended to be a savory chef, says that, to that side of the kitchen, pastry’s emphasis on exact measurements of specific ingredients is about as appealing as math is to a poetry major. But it's not because pastry chefs aren’t creative; it’s because if they don’t obey the laws of chemistry, stuff just won’t work.

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“We’re making flour taste good.” - Zak Miller

They’re building something out of nothing

“We’re creating something brand new,” says Walnock, “whereas savory chefs are working with something that already exists, like a chicken or a potato.”

Building something out of nothing takes time

Unlike what reality TV competitions might have you believe, Walnock insists that “you can’t conceptualize and build and finish a fantastic dessert in half an hour". Case in point: once Miller’s got the idea for a new ice cream, it takes him around three days to create it. Even when recipes are set, the work required to complete them might take over a day. Says Miller: “I’m always thinking about tomorrow or the next day rather than the service right in front of me.”

Their screw-ups can't be redeemed

If a pastry chef makes a mistake, 99% of the time that means throwing the mistake in the garbage. “You can’t just add a little bit of salt and it’s all fixed,” says Vargas. You do get the advantage of learning very specific lessons from your missteps, but you also miss out on hero moments. Says Paprocki: “You don’t get the opportunity to make that glorious save.”

When they do screw up, their euphemisms are pretty great

“During service, burning things is our biggest problem, but we’re not going to tell the guest that we burned their dessert,” says Vargas. “Instead we’ll have the front of the house say, ‘The chef is not satisfied with how your soufflé rose’.”

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Like Cardigan-era Kanye, they’re passionate about prep

Miller estimates that 70% of the pastry side’s time is spent in prep, the other 30% in service -- roughly the opposite of the savory side. The bulk of their work -- treating doughs, baking bread, building cakes, molding mousses -- happens well before the rest of the kitchen arrives.

When the rest of the kitchen gets frantic, they’re calming down

Getting ready for service is the savory side’s rush period, a chaotic ballet that at least on TV involves a lot of yelling and maybe a little bit of crying. By this point, the pastry side’s service crew is applying finishing touches (making caramels, glazing mousse, spraying cocoa butter), while anyone responsible for plating is prettying up near-finished desserts for prime time.

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They catch a little flak because of those different schedules

A savory-side line cook during the early-evening freak-out might look over and see the pastry side very calmly finishing up their business like it’s no big deal. He might jump to the conclusion that pastry’s job was easy, but that’s only because he was watching sweet, sweet Knight Rider reruns on Cozi TV while the pastry side was engaged in their crazily rigorous prep work.

Pastry’s service shift isn’t entirely stress-free though

As Walnock points out, whatever work remains to be done has to be done fast. Why? Because diners are willing to wait a long time for their entrees, because they’re drinking, and having conversations, and are largely willing to concede that making entrees takes time. Their desserts, however, they expect within 10 minutes, because they've already had one long wait, they’re unaware of how much time desserts take to make, they’ve drank all they’re gonna drink, and their conversation is faltering to the point that they need that crème brûlée in order to have something to talk about.

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They're very conscious of the impression(s) they make

Pastry chefs take special pride in knowing they're responsible for the first thing you eat (that bread you try in vain to abstain from because you don't want to get full too quickly) and the last thing as well (the dessert you order despite having gotten full too quickly).

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“We have the dullest knives in the kitchen.” - Isla Vargas

Their knives are less awesome

As Vargas notes, pastry chefs don’t have to cut a million onions, and even if they had the totally rad knives wielded by the savory side, Miller figures they’d just end up destroying them by cutting on sheet trays. He doesn’t feel too sorry for himself though: “We have our own cool tools we get to use, like blowtorches.”

They don’t spend all their time making wedding cakes

Because of shows like Cake Boss, Miller says there’s a misconception that all pastry chefs are experts at providing tiered, frosty masterpieces to new couples, or possibly elaborate boxing-glove-shaped cakes for former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. But the pastry world can get pretty specialized -- many pastry chefs don’t concentrate on that stuff, or on making giant sculptures out of sugar. Though those are pretty kick ass.

Ice Cream
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They’re super-cool

You might think their side of the kitchen’d be hot because of the baking, but not so much -- working with chocolate and ice cream means temps have to be kept down. And if a freezer goes out, that stuff lasts about five seconds before it’s ruined.

"They told me, 'You can do anything you want, but don’t f*ck with the cake.'" - Ron Paprocki

They give the people what they want

Outside of his duty to preserve the sanctity of Gotham's signature flour-less chocolate cake -- now a near-30-year-old institution -- Paprocki has enviable creative control, but he's nonetheless always mindful of customer expectations. "We're not artists. We'll never say 'They just don't understand it'." That means aligning desserts with the savory side to ensure a cohesive experience. Miller elaborates: "You can’t have a hyper-modern dinner menu based on foraging but do basic desserts, and you can't do savory classics for dinner and then put foam on all your desserts -- you can’t confuse the diner and take away from what the restaurant is trying to say."

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They grow to appreciate the classics

Miller again: "Young pastry chefs get excited about incorporating new technology, and savory flavors, and all the El Bulli stuff. As I get older I get just as excited about creating a beautiful tart."

They measure success differently

Almost everyone who goes to a restaurant orders an entree, but pastry chefs can’t dream of batting 1000. In their world, 50% is a pretty magical number -- hit that, and you’re the Ted Williams of Tiramisu.

They’re economic bellwethers

The higher the dining public’s expectations, the more pastry chefs will be seen as a necessity instead of a luxury. Still, you saw very few restaurants employing them in 2007, and now that the economy’s on the mend they’re in high demand. So next time your last course comes out delicious, remember to say “Thanks Obama!” or “Thanks private enterprise!” or “Thanks naturally occurring market cycles!” -- or thanks to whoever, as long as you keep on ordering dessert.