Bakers & Reality

Reader Janey writes:

I’ve seen so many reality shows with chefs yelling orders at the cooks in restaurants etc., and [that show] the pressure in a kitchen…but they never show behind the scenes of pastry chefs/dessert cooks.

I noticed most of the time restaurants don’t have a pastry chef on board but that the cooks/main chef take those responsibilities on themselves. Do you have a good idea as to how different it is for pastry chefs in a kitchen [versus] a regular chef? Is it as fast-paced and hectic for pastry chefs? Is it the same rush as in a regular kitchen?

That’s a really interesting question, Janey. I think the reason you never see pastry departments on reality shows is because they’re much less dramatic places. Instead of leaping flames and jostling sauté pans you’ve just got a bunch of nerdy people hunched over trays of petits fours applying tiny garnishes.

You’re exactly right that few restaurants these days have pastry chefs or departments. The exceptions are grand hotels that need large pastry teams to do the catering for corporate meetings, weddings and other large events.

Among the restuarants that do keep pastry crews, they tend to come in earlier in the day to do their thing. Most pastries can be made ahead of time and then just reheated or and/plated by the kitchen staff during service. This system not only gives the pastry maker more time and space, it keeps extra people out of the kitchen during rush periods.

So I think your assupmption is largely correct: pastry people don’t experience the same crazy stress that cooks often do. Having done both I can say that while pastry has its own type of pressure, namely the pressure to do everything (mostly) perfectly, you generally don’t have people screaming, yelling and running around in a bakery setting.

Bakers and cooks tend to be very different personality types. Cooks are the crazy improvisers of the food world — a lot like musicians — and pastry makers are the architect/scientist types. They each do their own thing in their own way. Thanks for the fascinating question!

20 thoughts on “Bakers & Reality”

  1. That was a great question and answer! It definitely explains a lot. I’m one of those nerdy, scientist types. No wonder I find pastry making fascinating. Thanks Janey and Joe!

  2. i once interned with the pastry chef as a local restaurant. she got there at 4 in the morning played the radio and made all the baked goods for the day. it was a small restaurant, so it was just the two of us. she was a perfectionist and if i screwed up she let me know, but she definitely wasn’t as loud or abrasive as normal cooks. also, if either of us did mess up mad enough on something we got to eat it, and it usually still tasted amazing. so maybe that’s why pastry chefs aren’t as mean, even the mistakes are tasty and its hard to stay mad in the face of such awesomeness?

  3. You are talking with the truth. Im a pastry cook myself and enjoy the peaceful and under control environment one creates of an area such as. Among products I had to work on every morning were brioche and brioche au chocolat which had at least to proof for 24 hrs. From there an on most batters work even better the day ahead, even for cupackes! Even macarrons make the best when they have rested for a day with their filling inside… There´s only rush if you are a lazy person and have to face a big order! then consider yourself on trouble. Baked goods and sweets have very tight limits when talking about rushing. XO.

    1. Thank you, Chabelle! Just out of curiosity…where are you writing from?

      – Joe

      1. Well Joe, right now I’m in Mexico, just coming back from Canada. “Melon Pan” and “Conchas” brought me to your page,- which I visit at least once a week :)… I should add that every Friday there’s a man with a big basket on his shoulder nocking on doors offering his”Picones” they are similar to conchas but they are tastier, richer in egg yolks. Mexico has a huge bread and baking tradition must add. XO.

        1. Yes I need to do a better job about doing Mexican breads. I’m on the hook for some Brazlian baking this January. I need to get beyond France and Austria!

          – Joe

  4. In any kitchen (including bakeries), there is always the pressure to do things perfectly AND quickly. Being paid hourly means that someone is always checking up on whether or not you are worth it. The more efficiently you work (without screwing things up), the more you benefit the bottom line.

    As a professional baker/dessert-maker I would have to say, it is not a leisurely job. People who treat it like home baking are sure not to last long.

    1. Well said, Bri! Even if there isn’t as much screaming and yelling, a job is still a job with deadlines to meet.

      Tanks for the great comment!

      – Joe

  5. I love going into the kitchen at 4 am and working either in the quiet or to my favorite music. Because the place I work at is small, I only work 2 days a week. I make my doughs and prepare special fillings while the quick things bake (cookies, fancies and such). Then I get to work on cakes and special orders while my breads rise.
    Most days it is the rustic perfection for the area, I work on, though often times we do get “rush” orders from the nearby Outfitters. I have learned to expect at least a couple of these during each week of hunting season and prepare a bit of extra dough now.
    But, basically you have hit it right on the head. It is not overly rushed though quick and orderly. I do have to listen to the chef and cooks in the mornings though they don’t come in to start their prep until near 7am. This is a wonderful area to get into if you are precise or love chemistry.
    Thanks Joe! You give great advise and I am always interested in new ways to do old things and high altitude baking.

    1. Great stuff, Marykay! Thanks very much for this. And I’ll do more thinking about baking up high!


      – Joe

  6. I was trained as a savory chef with some introduction to the sweet kitchen. I am retired now but found that I much preferred the quietness of the sweet kitchen at 4AM. I knew what I had to do, jazz on the radio. I worked hard, for not one minute think that because you are a good home baker you could be a pastry chef. Yes, the high flames and high tempers are for the savory chef and fun days they were….

    1. No question there’s a big difference between a home pastry kitchen and a professional pastry kitchen, but the types of people who work in them are largely the same. Thanks for the great comment, Linda!

  7. Great answer, Joe!!

    Having worked on the hot line and in pastry, I vastly preferred the time spent working the sweeter side of the kitchen (production or service). Not because pastry is a walk in the park; to the contrary; mainly because baking appeals to my sense of order, artistic expression and is personally more satisfying.

    As for the drama factor, I have to agree, it is usually on the lower end of the spectrum. 🙂

  8. I agree with Linda that just because you are a good home baker in no way guarantees you can be a pastry chef. As an accomplished home baker I had the opportunity several years ago to be a pastry chef trainee for a hotel. I only lasted 6 months and it nearly killed me!! The hours weren’t the hurdle but the volume was. Making 40 pies at a time or cracking 8 dozen eggs was an eye opener, but my main problem was I just wasn’t strong enough to lift and move those huge mounds of dough. There is a bakery in my city that now has a special program to allow home bakers to try their hand in the commercial arena. They hire about 4 at a time and give them a month. If they make it, they stay on. Most don’t, however.

    1. Interesting point, Linda. There’s a reason that classically bakers have been bruisers. Not only did they have to lift big bags of flour, they had to knead huge volumes of dough by hand. Talk about a relentless, hard & sweaty job…that was it. But baking or pastry can still be quite physical. Eight hours of making anything…even petit fours…can be exhausting!

  9. The pressure is there to do everything perfectly… simply because you wont find out until the end if you screwed something up. (eg: forgetting to add yeast to a bread dough, forgetting gelatin in a recipe, if the cake you made a hundred times before suddenly looks different for a number of reasons, etc). Then you’ve just wasted a good part of your day for a product that cannot be served and has to go in the garbage 🙁

    There is occasionally yelling and tension, but because pastry cooks are such a small bunch, we need to stick together and support each other.

    To all the pastry cooks/ chefs/ bakers/ chocolatiers, and Joe Pastry, out there, pat yourselves on the back. You all deserve it!

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