How Sweet it is: Becoming a Pastry Chef or Pâtissier

I found this really good article online about becoming a pastry chef (source cited at the bottom):

Who doesn’t love dessert? If you enjoy making them as well as eating them, have you considered a career making breads, pies, chocolates, candy, cookies, ice cream and cake? If so, you’ll be happy to know that there is a growing demand for food industry professionals, and pastry chefs in particular. There are many excellent culinary schools dedicated to teaching you the skills you need to become a part of this exciting and rewarding field.

Traditionally, the pastry chef is a member of the classic brigade de cuisine in a professional kitchen and is the station chef of the pastry department. As with other station chefs, the pastry chef may have other chefs or assistants within their department. Bakers may also be members of the pastry department in bakeries and larger establishments such as hotels.

Day-to-day operations include menu planning, costing, and ordering supplies. They also usually require the pastry chef to research recipe concepts and develop and test new recipes. Usually the pastry chef does all the necessary preparation of the various desserts in advance, before dinner seating begins (the actual plating of the desserts is often done by another station chef, usually the Garde manger, at the time of order). The pastry chef is often in charge of the dessert menu, which besides traditional desserts may include dessert wines, specialty dessert beverages, and gourmet cheese platters.

On a day-to-day basis, a pastry chef must constantly plan and prepare. Nearly every pastry made requires at least some advance preparation. After the preparation, it's time to begin the artwork. People must find a dish attractive before they order it (this is especially true for desserts, which are an unnecessary addition to a meal). This is when the chef gets to play with aesthetics such as taste, shape, size, color, calories, uniformity, presentation, etc.

You need a particular batch of skills to excel as a pastry chef. They include the following:

• Culinary Ability and Creativity. Obviously, pastry chefs need to be able to bake. They also need to have artistic ability and creativity to produce pastries and desserts that look as good as they taste.

• Attention to Detail. Small changes in a recipe can make a big difference. So pastry chefs need to pay attention to what they're doing, even while performing routine tasks.

• Customer Service. Some pastry chefs may supply other businesses with baked goods, while others may serve their confections at their own neighborhood shops. Pastry chefs need people skills in order to establish thriving businesses.

• Stamina. More physically demanding than many people realize, a pastry chef job often requires long hours on your feet. Many pastry chef jobs require exceedingly early morning hours—starting around 3 or 4 am. There is often also some lifting involved.

Culinary School

There are several educational paths to choose from for a career in pastry arts:

• Baking and Pastry Certificate
• Associates Degree in Applied Science Culinary Arts
• Bachelor of Arts Degree in Culinary Arts

While all three programs offer classroom study along with hands-on baking experience, curricula for programs of one year or less, normally the Baking and Pastry Certificate, consist primarily of pastry courses that prepare you for an entry level position. The two-year Associate Degree and four-year Bachelor of Arts Degree programs include both pastry courses and general education classes and electives that provide a more well rounded education. In any case, you will gain the creativity, flexibility, and innovative thinking that lead to a successful career in the field.

Most programs begin with lessons in biology, physiology, and history. What do these things have to do with baking a cake? Everything. You will not only learn how to keep a kitchen free of germs, but also lessons in what types of environments can promote bacterial growth. Pastry chefs use a lot of eggs, cream, and butter, so it is important to understand the proper handling of these and other fresh and perishable foods. You will learn at what temperatures to properly cook foods to destroy bacteria. You will also learn the physiology of taste and how sweet, salty and bitter flavors and textures affect taste buds. Finally, a history of pastry and understanding the origins of basic ingredients can help round out the fundamentals of baking.

Your hands-on kitchen lessons will begin with the techniques of measuring raw ingredients and how to properly handle a knife and other necessary tools. You will learn the correct methods of baking everything from breads, the perfect piecrusts, tarts, chocolate candies to sugar candy, ice cream, sorbet, soufflé, and many other desserts.

Salary and Job Prospects

An entry level pastry cook or helper will often make at least $8.00/hour, a skilled assistant pastry chef will start at $25,000, and a corporate executive pastry chef can make upwards of $60,000/year. These figures will vary based on region and education, but these are industry standards. The best salaries go to those with the most education, experience, and specialization.

As the entertainment industry continues to be one of the fastest growing segments of the economy, positions for all kinds of chefs will continue to be widely available.