Stumbling on Pastry: Should I be a Pastry Chef?

Dan Gilbert in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, uses science to shed light on the human condition. His basic finding is that humans are terrible at predicting their futures. This happens because humans routinely mistake how they feel now with how they will feel when they are in the future they are imagining. In his words, “Imagination fails to recognize things will look different when they actually happen.”

So if humans are so terrible at predicting what will make them happy, how can one reliably look into the future? His solution is surrogacy. Find someone who is currently experiencing the future you imagine for yourself and ask that person how she is feeling.

Gilbert addresses the objection that leaps first to mind, “but they’re not me” with the news that we’re not so unique. Whatever you may feel about his contention, his research at Harvard does show that asking a random person having the experience you seek can better predict what it will feel like for you, better than your own imagination could.

So I took Gilbert’s advice to heart and decided to apply his surrogacy concept to a career idea I had been entertaining: becoming a pastry chef. It’s funny how when you focus on something suddenly that something seems to be everywhere. Turns out there are a number of pastry chefs in my social circle.

I called up one of my favorite, Mary. Growing up in Mary’s house, the rule was she could bake all she wanted but she had to clean up. These were rules she could follow, so she baked and learned she loved the process. Eventually, a catalytic event in her life: cancer, sent her back to this passion from a life as a doctor.

She started where common sense dictates – a bakery. She went into a bakery and filled out an application and because small bakeries are always looking for warm bodies (to hear her tell it) she was hired.

Eventually she went to New York and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. There she discovered that 80% of the students were right out of high school. She ended up switching to the French Culinary Institute and found the students more her speed: 80% of those students were career changers. She also tacked on an additional nine months to get a culinary management diploma. She’s an over-achiever.

One of the things she learned is that unless you’re in a high-end restaurant, the people you will encounter are likely not to be the Type A, star performers someone who works in Silicon Valley is used to. She said that management skills and work ethic are completely different from the white collar professional world.

She knows because after school she went on to intern at LeCirque, a renowned restaurant in New York, in pastry. There she said that when working you are flying. If you’re no fast, efficient and good, you’re gone. It was a sink or swim environment.
She explained that the kitchen is intense and fast moving because that’s one of the ways a restaurant can make a profit. The kitchens make trays and trays of food (volume) and they don’t make everything from scratch each day (timing). Understanding both is what allows restaurants to eke out very slim profit margins.

Something she realized herself when she left Le Cirque and started her own pastry catering business. She wanted to do high end pastry but that required technique and that means labor, a space to house the labor, etc. There were a million compromises she had to make for the business to work and she found that one of them was lifestyle. When you run a catering business or even work in a restaurant, you work weekends. Which also means it’s really hard to travel and take vacations. The cakes don’t bake themselves, so in pastry you are very much a part of the product.

Literally. Baking is also very physically demanding. She tried her culinary dream when she was in her 40s and now in her 50s she can’t believe how much her wrists hurt when she was working in pastry. She said there’s a lot of attrition with age.

She still loves baking. She finds it relaxing, it feeds her soul. But ultimately, she found the pastry business to be an uphill battle where the chances for a big success are slim. She wanted to go into something where she felt her ability to be successful in the end was more assured, so she went back to her medical career.

Her ultimate advice to me was to have the courage to follow a dream but realize it may not turn out as you planned.

Informed but not quite yet deterred, I rang up another baker, Robyn. She was an accounting and marketing major in college who went on to become a litigation consultant. She did that for five years and then decided at the age of 25 she needed to switch gears.

She, like Mary, had always baked to relax but she didn’t know the technical aspects of baking or the skills. She started researching the career move by walking into restaurants. She literally walked into a good restaurant in San Francisco and convinced the pastry chef there to sit down and talk to her. That pastry chef turned her on to Tante Marie's, a French cooking school in San Francisco. The school has a six month baking certificate that those who work full-time can take on evenings and weekends. She studied along-side 13 other women and had an amazing instructor with whom she still keeps in touch. Her first day of class she said to herself, “Yep. This is it.”

She had heard her share of horror stories about baking: the lack of money, how hard it was to make a career out of it, etc. But she was undaunted. When she finished the Tante Marie program she did an externship on Friday and Saturdays. At that point she was still making money because she had held onto her other job. Eventually, she married and her husband supported her jump to pursuing pastry full-time. She took a job as a baker.

Like Mary, she recounted the hard hours and lack of vacation. A pastry cook is usually hourly and given no over-time. Once you are a chef, however, you are salaried and then you’re abused, she said. You work 5-6 days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. The job is both mental and physical and not at all like working 8 hours a day at the office.

She commented that pastry is just like any other industry – just a different game. There are those who get educations and those who don’t, but in the pastry industry, if you’re good you’ll go to the top.

When she first interviewed for the baker job it was a quick conversation. The real test was that many shops ask you to work 8 hours for them and that is what determines if you actually get a job.

She also noted that restaurants, bakeries, and catering are all very different environments from each other. One way to get to know these environments is through what is called “staging.” It’s when you request to work at a specific restaurant or bakery. You basically go in to observe, learn and work for free for a day, week or month. In Europe, many don’t even go to culinary school but apprentice on the job for three years instead.

Finally she added that pastry chefs tend to be overly organized and very anal. She found that savory cooks were messy and never planned much, while pastry chefs were immaculate in the kitchen.

Today, Robyn is no longer "on the line" and is doing recipe consulting for a woman opening up an ice cream shop. She's considered opening up her own bakery but admitted to being a bit intimidated by the obstacles: mainly the failure rate and the money required to start one.

Her parting advice was that you won’t always feel like doing everything, but she found she could not stay out of the kitchen. She highlighted that the pastry industry is a pretty small world. The people tend to be very friendly and open and most do it because they have a passion for it. “No one does it for the money,” she said.

After my conversations with Mary and Robyn and my first-hand experience at the San Francisco Baking Institute, I don't find myself rushing out to start a bakery or pastry business. I guess, that in and of itself, tells me something. Though I am still enamored with growing my baking skills.

In the end, I found Mr. Gilbert's advice useful. Getting some insight from those who have experienced or are experiencing what I'm interested in was very helpful. I learned I could make the switch to a career in pastry and probably do it well, but I'm not convinced it would make me happy.