Last week I read “Why this is the Dark Age of Desserts” by Adam Platt and it was the first time in a long time that I had such a visceral reaction to an article. I spent the day reflecting on my career choices, going through a bit of an emotional roller coaster. All spurred by Platt’s take on the current state of sweets in restaurants. I felt like I was grieving for a job that, at times, feels like it defines me.
My first reaction was complete denial. “This is ridiculous!” (I might have used a four letter word other than ridiculous but you get the drift.) “He’s just doing this to get attention, right?” I mean how could it be true? All I could think about was all the passionate, talented pastry chefs I have worked with and around throughout the years. And the talented pastry chefs whose desserts I have not just enjoyed but bene inspired by. People like Jenn Yee at Lafayette, who is turning out stunning, delicious desserts and confections using what seems like every technique that exists with a level mastery I’ll always be envious of. And Brooks Headly, who redefined the way I looked at desserts in just a few bites. There is no way this article could possibly be right, right? Not with chefs of this caliber representing us…
Yes, of course there are lots of bad dessert out there, I’ve had my fair share of disappointments at the end of a great meal. But I’ve had just as many unseasoned appetizers, poorly composed entrees and generally bad meals that cost a pretty penny. I can even remember a time or two where the desserts saved the meal, convincing me to give a restaurant another shot when the first experience was less than extraordinary.
But after thinking about what Platt said all day, and reading the article about a dozen times, I had to finally accept that he’s right. As much as I want to defend my craft, almost as if this article was a personal attack against me, I know there is a lot of truth to it. For more reasons than I can count on both hands pastry is, generally speaking, the lowest on the list of necessary restaurant components. I’m not talking about the actual desserts, every restaurant has those, I’m talking about pastry as a driven department rather than an afterthought; as a priority, not an inconvenience.
And I get it. It’s impossible to quantify what a pastry department does for the business. Great desserts require talented hands to develop them, prepare them, and plate them. You rarely make your money back on a pastry chef let alone a department even if that “department” is only a chef and an assistant.
But how do you put a dollar value on the excitement of a guest when that dessert that was designed, prepared, and plated by those talented hands is placed in front of them? Or the joy warm, fresh bread can bring to the beginning of a meal. Or the reaction to a bite of ice cream so smooth and rich its unlike anything they’ve ever tasted. I like to think those experiences are worth something. Or even a lot.
So I guess the question is, “where do we go from here?”
We accept the issues and learn to overcome them. Make ourselves as valuable as possible by being more organized, more efficient and being more about the bottom line of the business than we ever have before; to the point where a chef or restaurant owner feels like they’d be crazy not to have you on their team. Train under great chefs longer, as a pastry cook, before taking the title of Pastry Chef. Looking in the rear view mirror at my career I realize now that I wish I had taken more time studying. And, of course, we must focus on the desserts we serve. Being a chef is a balancing act. You need to execute a menu that satisfies your passion to create, while ensuring the experience of the guest is always the main priority. Many times I’ve eaten desserts that left me with mixed feelings. First excited that the pastry chef tried a cutting edge technique or an “interesting” flavor profile. Then disappointed that I had to eat it. If you take away the thrill the guest gets from ending the meal on a perfect note then don’t be surprised when the popular combination of a prep cook/garde manger cook might replace you. They can make moderately satisfying desserts too… At a much lower salary.
Nothing can be perfect 100% of the time. We all have hits and misses in this business. But we have to get better at being indispensable or what little opportunity we have to create and contribute will, understandably, continue to shrink. This is exactly the kind of article that should inspire a pastry chef to be better tomorrow than they were today. Yes, it’s hard to think about working harder but as I always tell my interns and assistants when I can tell they are feeling frustration from the time it takes to truly understand our craft, “if what we did was easy and everyone could just do it then it wouldn’t be nearly as special to be a part of it.” Chefs thrive on long hours, intense work and a constant uphill battle… And I’d be pressed to come up with something I’d be more willing to climb mountain to save. Yes, to some it’s just a few sugary bites at the end of a meal but to a pastry chef it’s so much more. I know for me it’s not just a career but the career I’ve built my life around.