Satisfy Your Sweet-tooth with this Candy-coated Career: Become a Pastry Chef

26 02 2010

by Matthew Bentel

Original Ferrara Pastries at 2210 W. Taylor Street. Courtesy of www.ferrarabakery.com

Original Ferrara Pastries at 2210 W. Taylor Street. Courtesy of http://www.ferrarabakery.com

When Ferrara Bakery opened its doors over a hundred years ago in 1908, it was a staple in the Italian community of Chicago. Backed by a strong immigrant work ethic and an American public infatuated with pastries and confectioneries, Salvatore Ferrara opened a pastry shop on Taylor and Halsted Streets, with a candy shop located roughly a mile away on Taylor Street and Ogden Avenue. While the candy aspect of Ferrara’s business has boomed, distributing worldwide, the pastry shop maintains a more modest reputation. Forced to relocate due to the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Original Ferrara Pastries resides in the old candy distributing facility at Taylor and Ogden, though its pastries are not the hot selling item they once were.

“We were always a pastry shop until about five or six years ago and then I noticed…that people were getting away from eating as many sweets as they used to,” said Nella Ferrara, the granddaughter of Salvatore Ferrara and now owner of Original Ferrara Pastries. “The young professionals these days, they tend to go work out and are much more mindful of calorie counting and nutritional content, so they stay away from pastries, cookies, and cakes.”

While pastries have lost some of the allure they previously had, they have not become any less enjoyable. Original Ferrara Pastries, which now provides food other than pastries such as pasta, pizza, sandwiches, and salads, still sells dozens of confectionery delicacies, including its classic Italian cake and cannoli.

Becoming a pastry chef is a labor of love. It does not offer the most conventional hours – starting before dawn and working 60 plus hours is not uncommon – nor is the salary anything to write home about. However, for those with a passion for both creativity and detail, becoming a pastry chef may be the right channel to utilize those proclivities.

Breaking into the industry is relatively simple. Formal education is an option, satisfied by anything from a Baking and Pastry Certificate to an Associate or Bachelor’s degree from a culinary school. However, it is not required, and certainly not the most important thing according to Kelsey McLaren, a pastry chef for three years at Lettuce Entertain You, a Chicago-based restaurant company.

“While having a pastry degree is beneficial, restaurants hire based off of experience,” McLaren said. “The more places you’ve worked and the greater variety of things you have cooked, the better chance you have of getting hired.”

Similarly, there is not a definitive list of skills or tools that one is required to know or utilize. While prospective chefs should be familiar with cooking equipment and ingredients, it is also helpful to have a solid understanding of the chemical properties of food products, as well as knowledge regarding proper food handling. Being able to identify sanitary concerns, such as awareness of environments conducive to bacteria, are also important. However, as Ferrara stresses, experience is crucial since the chef can learn details and particulars along the way.

Other intangible requirements include a distinct attention to detail. Inaccurate measuring or inability to strictly follow directions will drastically alter the desired outcome. Moreover, pastry chefs are working with hot ovens and stoves, sharp knives, and are often making products for waiting customers who expect a certain level of perfection. There is no time to daydream or focus on anything other than the task at hand.

It may sound a bit odd, but pastry chefs also need an above-average level of stamina. While they may be confined to a small kitchen where the heaviest lifting they’ll do is taking a pan of cookies out of an oven, there are other taxing aspects.

“Chef’s don’t ever get to sit down. It’s really difficult to work 20 hours without a break and then wake up the next day (on maybe 2 hours of sleep) and do it all again,” McLaren said. “Kneading bread may look easy from a distance, but once you’re required to knead 50 pounds of dough you’ll get exhausted really fast if you haven’t built up any muscle strength in your arms.”

Pastry chefs can find jobs in a number of places. The obvious place – restaurants – still remains on the forefront. Whether creating confectionery marvels at posh, post-modern New York restaurants, or simple pastries for hotel room service, the restaurant industry is still a large employer of pastry chefs. However, there are other paths to consider. Opening and operating your own pastry shop is always an option, such as Original Ferrara Pastries that Ferrara still maintains on Taylor Street in Chicago. The type of work experience in this environment depends largely on the context of the business. For a local institution with the history of Ferrara Pastries, there is not much room for change, so creativity is stressed less. For more modern and cutting edge shops, however, creativity may be a focal point. These private shops often do catering, like Ferrara, but catering can become “time consuming and requires extreme detail and organization,” according to McLaren.

Another option is working in a test kitchen, like McLaren does at Lettuce Entertain You. For larger restaurant companies that manage multiple establishments across cities, countries, or even globally, test kitchens are a necessity to keep their different establishments going.

The best part about the [test kitchen] was getting to make such a large variety of items,” McLaren said. “Working in a restaurant, you only get to make about 15 different things, which can get tiring after working there for a couple of months.”

Ferrara Pastries owner Nella Ferrara Davy with her husband, Bill. Courtesy of http://www.cityvoter.com

Still, if those opportunities are not innovative enough, pastry chefs can find work with companies that specialize with contract work. These companies – often former or current owners of restaurant holdings – work with large corporations to come up with novel confections. McLaren remembers a certain nostalgia and interest in this work.

“It was pretty great to get to work with different food companies. I worked on projects with Mars, Carol’s Cookies, and Krispy Kreme, all of which I grew up eating so it was interesting to learn about their companies’ standards and policies,” McLaren said.

As previously mentioned, pastry chefs are not exactly lucrative careers. While the theoretical workweek is forty hours, it often starts around 5 or 6 a.m. or earlier. Coupled with the ever-present possibility of working overtime due to product demand or other responsibilities, pastry chef work is extremely demanding.  The pay often starts at minimum wage, according to McLaren, but there is room for vertical mobility, with higher positions such as assistant and executive pastry chefs earning anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 a year, depending on the level and place of employment. Thankfully, job security is relatively high for pastry chefs. In the 40 years Nella Ferrara has managed her grandparent’s shop, she has not let go of one employee.

While pursuing a career as a pasty chef may not reward you with a six-figure salary, nor will it have standard work hours like more traditional jobs, it often offers opportunities to be creative, with intrinsic rewards of satisfaction and perfection.

“If I had any ideas of my own I was allowed to start my own projects and work with them on the side. Everyone was very accepting of other opinions or suggestions so my ideas were never put down,” McLaren said. “I liked getting to work on perfecting items I had created.”

And even as the viability of the pastry chef career decreases due to a more calorie-conscious, fitness-oriented public, as Ferrara explains, there will always be the need for people to satisfy their sweet tooth.  As McLaren says, “I think there will always be a demand for sweet foods. I mean, who doesn’t love a fresh baked cookie? I think that currently the fatter pastries and the more decadent gourmet pastries might die out, but there will always be a need for birthday cakes. And summer really just wouldn’t feel like summer without ice cream.”

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