My therapist has accused me of using very strong, broad-spectrum words such as “success” and “fail” or “perfect” and “disaster,” implying I should work on using words that are less “damaging” to my ego. Words that are more “realistic” and less “dramatic.”
I don’t think I come off as a drama queen, though I do use “disaster” often to describe things that are, in fact, fairly lovely and especially tasty. Whether or not my choice of language morphs into a collection of reasonable terms is not a future I can behold; it is very true that humans, as with animals, rarely change permanently. It is here that I am going to showcase some serious disasters alongside some of my best work. After trolling Tastespotting daily since its inception, I have determined not enough food bloggers show off the things they fuck up, and much like a fashion industry that makes us all feel fat and ugly, it can make people feel bad when things don’t turn out perfectly. And there’s nothing like airing out a little dirty laundry to help you feel less like a fraud.
Admittedly, the disasters in this post are all pre-culinary school. I spent 5 years teaching myself to bake, then decided what the heck, why not spend a bunch of money to really learn and get a piece of paper to prove it. It sped up the process, opened doors I refuse to walk through due to crippling anxiety and fear of failure, but it taught me a lot, and I don’t regret a moment.
Oh, and I wrote this cheesey essay about what it’s like working in my profession. Better get some kleenex…
What’s it like, being a pastry chef?
I want to preface this by saying that I don’t yet feel comfortable with that title, but I have had to use it because, in Canada, and in English for that matter, there really is no other way to describe my job or my training. I prefer even Patissier, but no one knows what that means, and I’m not a baker, because the implication is that I make bread and bread and I do not get along.
I met a guy at a party. He was a kitchen manager for the circus (oh shit, so awesome). he asked me a string of bizarrely personal questions, which I didn’t really mind because it was the second wedding of the day, and I’d already made a wedding cake and a hundred cupcakes and been up for something like 20 hours.
“Do you do what you love?”
“What is that?”
I told him. His response was laughter. Then “so you’re a sad, misunderstood pastry chef,” but not in a mocking tone, like he’d met a couple of us, more like we were all like that and he’d heard enough whining to be sympathetic to our cause. I was not offended by his generalization, rather I felt relieved because someone who didn’t share my profession had heard enough moaning from other pastryites to get what it’s like.
In general, pastry chefs have the following traits:
– naturally creative
– meticulocity (morphing meticulous into an ‘ocity’, it sound more like an awesome super-hero trait, rather than something that can get in the way of your personal life)
– perfectionist to the point of self doubt and/or self loathing
– tenacious and very passionate
I can go on, but I’m sure you get the gist. we are tough on ourselves, to an unnecessary degree I’m sure, but the results are often great when you really destroy yourself mentally whenever you screw up.
The French embrace this system; you become better almost out of spite because you are not being coddled, you’re being told you aren’t good enough. Some people quit because they can’t take the abuse of French chefs, but others (like myself) thrive, responding (in our heads of course) “you think I can’t do this, fuck you” while you say outloud “YES CHEF.”
The ‘misunderstood’ part comes in when we (the pastissiers) are grouped with them (the cuisiniers).
In school, everyone joked about the distinctions between the patissiers and the cuisiniers — it was something evident in every culinary endeavor. Cuisiniers would produce with flare, speed, and non-challance, while the pastissiers would carefully weigh everything, stand diligently over a low flame, and fuss about placement on the dish. “you’re such a ______” was common among the students, and the chefs only encouraged the divide, mocking students and each other at any opportunity.
Working in a kitchen with cuisiniers can be fun, but is generally very stressful. They never make room for you in the fridge or freezer — beef or stinky cheese or cooling sauces will always push your items out of the way.
They always ask you when you are going to vacate the oven or just throw their stuff in, and the next thing you know the glassy surfaces of your creme brulées have olive paper flakes all over them or the faint whiff of salmon.
They will ask you to do simple tasks like cut a bushel of shallots or a bundle of tomatoes and glare and stomp around if you take too long, but laugh when you complain your dough tastes like garlic or fish because the food processor absorbed cuisinier flavours.
They will steal your dairy to weigh down their Pommes Anna, and not let you make ice cream until the potatoes have been pressed fully, but that’s okay because they took all the pots to make stock for hours so you can’t make ice cream, or anything else, anyway.
The sensitive patissier will always feel as though they are in the way and like the least important person in the kitchen and they are. Dishwashers are more important — Oh that sounds diminutive I know, but a kitchen can’t run without a dishwasher or a cook, but it can run without someone who makes only pastries.
How often do you order dessert, as compared to how often you go out for dinner?
When I was at the bistro, where people ordered dessert regularly because it was usually ventured as a fancy night out, if we did 90 covers (peeps), I would send out 55 to 75 desserts. There people felt compelled to eat dessert. On average restaurants do not fair so well in the pastry department, it’s more like 20-30% if the dinner is à la carte.
This is why pastry chefs find employment opportunities to be few and far between (at least in north america — we have, after all, a lot of donut shops to keep people bountiful). Most restaurants do not employ us. Only the ultra fancy ones. And hotels. And of course pastry shops. Most restos bring in off-site desserts shipped from factories, or the chefs whip up lava cakes and slightly curddled crème brulées and pot de crèmes or apple pie sold by the slice.
I don’t mean to sound whiney about my profession. I obviously love it. I like that I get to make delicious things every day. I like that I have the opportunity to work creatively, to work on recipes until they are perfect, try new things and develop product. But I feel sad almost daily that no one really cares about or respects what I do unless I’m handing them free cake or telling them how to make something.
Pastry cheffing is like learning to play an instrument (as is any trade or practical job) — you need to practice. You must do things over and over again to be consistent and fast, and you need to keep challenging yourself to get better, do more and try new techniques. Saying you’ve learned everything is not possible, and you have to accept that from the beginning; you will never know everything, you will never be perfect, no matter what people tell you.
You need to be good at failing. Do you know how often I mess things up? Not daily or even weekly, not anymore, but before I messed up all the time. And messing up pastry breaks your heart because you can’t save a wronged recipe the way you can save an over-salted soup. You must throw the food out (ouch!). You must start again. It takes up a lot of time, collecting ingredients, re-scaling. It sucks. You cry. Your chef thinks you have lady problems. But no, you’re just a pastry chef.
While the foundational building is tough and long and seems as though it’s never going to end because the minor improvements seem greatly overshadowed by the monolithic disasters that will always occur, suddenly one day you’ll realize that you have made something five times from memory with perfect results. and you’ll think about it and try to remember when the last time you burned something, and you won’t remember.
A Chef instructor in school told me once that when you’re a pastry chef, you feel in your heart when something is done. At the time I was offended because I felt the words between the lines meant “if you cannot feel [now] when it is ready, this job, it is not for you.” I was mad at him for like three days and reconsidered my professional choice. Then I became distracted by the overwhelming, chest collapsing fear of failure, and forgot about how he’d been a jerk.
A year and a half later I tried to think about the last time I burned something. Then I realized I had something in the oven, and even though at work I must use timers (in school timers were a no-no — I still don’t know how long, by the minute, it takes to bake certain things), my chest tightened the teensiest bit and I made it to the oven 30 seconds before the timer sounded, just as I always do, and whatever I was baking was done. Initially this feeling felt like fear despite knowing I hadn’t burned anything. Eventually it became instinct. I no longer think about it, just walk to the oven. It’s just what he said it would be; a feeling in my heart.
Here’s a dessert I made with those Browned Butter Marshmallows from BraveTart:
Marshmallows (with Vanilla instead of Sage)
Bitter Chocolate Ganache
Gluten-Free Graham Cracker (Smitten Kitchen)
Caipirinha Ice Cream Adapted From Ad Hoc at Home
30g Cachaça (Brazillian fermented sugarcane alcohol – substitute with Rum or Tequilla)
Zest of 1 Lime.
Infuse lime in dairy by bringing to just a boil and steeping for 20 min. Strain. Whisk together eggs and sugar while bringing milk back to a boil. Temper eggs. Combine and cook to 82 degrees stirring with a spatula. Pour into a bowl and chill immediately (over ice if possible). Churn in Ice Cream maker once anglaise is 4 degrees.