“Go home, Barbara. Go home.” It was almost 10:30 PM and I was the only chef left in the kitchen that night. It was almost December. Abdulah, the head of the kitchen-hands was urging me to go home as he started clearing out all the dirty dishes left. I stared at the docket machine in front of my section and no order dockets were coming out still. I knew I still have to plate about five desserts in total as there were still two tables left. Abdulah kept on peering at me, checking if I was done with my section so he can clean the floor next. “Can you plate the remaining desserts for me?” I joked. “Give me your salary, I’ll do your job.” We both laughed. My joke was half-meant though since I badly wanted to go home and go straight to bed. I just felt like a zombie. It was a very busy Italian Fine Dining Restaurant situated by the lake in Sydney. That day, I had to come early as there was a function at 11 AM. I was the first chef to arrive in the kitchen because I needed to bake my ciabatta earlier than usual. I was there an hour earlier than everyone else. Not even the head chef was there, not even the entree chefs, who usually have more preps than I have. It was a loooong tiring day, and I didn’t expect that I would be the last to go home. FIRST TO COME, LAST TO GO. That was my “normal” hustle. For my readers who have been following this blog since Day 1, you all know the hustle I’m talking about. This was the job that offered me a full-time pastry position and a possible Australian sponsorship, I couldn’t just bounce and leave as I please.
It was almost summer in Australia, the breeze was starting to become warm but I didn’t mind. I was used to it. My section was usually warm even in spring, as I had a big commercial oven few steps away so I relied on an industrial fan for ventilation. Christmas was just around the corner, big functions are happening in the restaurant and I was one of the only two pastry chefs they had that time.
I stood by the pass, trying to get a clear view of the servers on the floor. I wanted to tell them to push the diners to order their desserts so I can close my section and go home. Luckily, one of the servers saw me and nodded. I don’t usually stand by the pass as my section is at the back, but when I do, the servers knew that I’m the only chef left in the kitchen. I was hoping their desserts would be easy, something like Trio of Gelato, so I can just scoop the ice cream from the tubs and place them in bowls. Finally, the dockets came out and it wasn’t my lucky night. They ordered for two Chocolate Fondants, Apple Galette, Petit Fours, and Panna Cotta. I quietly placed the hot desserts in the oven, set two different timers, plated my remaining cold desserts, and patiently closed my section after. That night, I was re-thinking and re-evaluating what I really wanted in life. Do I really want this? I was home by 12, took a shower, changed, went to sleep, and got back in the kitchen to do the same routine. Bake ciabatta, do preps for desserts, plate desserts for lunch Ala Carte, do more preps, take a break, plate desserts for dinner Ala Carte, and wait until the last diner finishes for dessert. My routine changes somehow when the restaurant is holding a big function, because then I would have to prep for the function and plate all 200 or 300 dessert plates in one go. I spent 4 days in a week as a pastry chef in the Fine Dining Restaurant, and the remaining three days? I was at Pastry School, balancing life as a working student in a foreign country, still doing pastry at school on my free days. The hospitality industry was my playground. That was my life for almost three years, and the next thing I knew, I was on the plane back to Manila to build (yet again) another pastry shop.
Since 2012, I was in the pastry business. I had a pastry cafe, making cakes and dessert buffets. My career as a pastry chef started after I finished Culinary School in 2011, realizing that I wanted to specialize on a more exciting but more difficult track. I wanted to be in the pastry department. Thus, I flew off to Australia to study more of it. Pastry was more liberating for me, as I get to showcase my art through my plates, my cakes, and my desserts. At the same time, I can master unique flavors, and incorporate them with something I wanted to create. Pastry chefs play an essential part in the kitchen. Being one requires distinctive set of skills, massive patience, knowledge, and exceptional organization to succeed.
When I worked in a commercial pastry shop in Sydney (a year after my job in the fine dining and a short stint as Head Pastry Chef in a health cafe), I was one of the three pastry chefs to fulfill certain roles. We bake the cakes, we decorate them, we bake artisan breads, rolls, croissants, and whatever pastry it was on the shelf. I remember my head chef telling me… “Pastry Chefs are usually slow because you guys work with finesse. You are very precise and you pay close attention to details, while us hot-kitchen chefs, we tend to be more rustic and fast. We don’t mind if the french bread is a bit crooked.” For some reason, I wanted to prove him wrong. I wanted to show him that pastry chefs can work fast too, but still refined at the same time. I was baking 10 big carrot cakes and small mandarin cakes that time. It was November, almost Christmas again. Orders were loading up. I was working like a machine, trying to go beyond my usual speed. I ended up with a long stinging burn on my arm in the process. The battle scar is still on my arm until now, and I remember that very moment each time I see it. A baking tray accidentally slid on my arm right after I took it out from the oven. I wanted to be fast, but I paid a price for it. I didn’t want to admit it. But it’s probably true. PASTRY CHEFS TEND TO MOVE SLOWER THAN THE REST OF THE CHEFS, BUT WE ARE SLOW FOR A REASON.
We have to get every ingredient in the exact amount. Pastry is NEVER similar to cooking. In the hot kitchen, you can add ingredients and dilute and reduce anytime of the day. If your dish is bland, add more salt. If it’s too salty, dilute it with water. If it’s too runny, make a reduction. However in Patisserie, you measure all ingredients in one go, bake it in the oven, and hope and pray that your recipe is not f*cked up. You cannot just open the oven, check if it’s runny, check if it’s salty or too sweet, you cannot just add baking powder and hope it rises how you want it to rise. There’s only two things in Pastry: SUCCESS OR FAIL. It’s either you get your perfect cakes and cookies out, or you get them flat and dry. There’s no addition, dilution, reduction, whatsoever in pastry. This is why we are slow, because we have to get every detail right.
Being a pastry chef is never a glamorous job, but it is very fulfilling. Especially in the Holidays, when you get to see your loaf boxes, your cakes, your desserts in the middle of a party or family table. It is very gratifying, seeing people receive special cookie boxes from your regular clients.
What is it like to be a pastry chef during the Holidays anyway?
In a commercial restaurant set-up, it is more often than not massive numbers of desserts to plate, huge amounts of preps, and tiresome hours spent standing and walking right and about your kitchen section. This is probably the part when you start working on auto-pilot while your brain is somewhere in The Bahamas. I have experienced being both, an employed pastry chef and a business owner. The difference? With being a part of a restaurant kitchen team, YOU NEVER DEAL WITH CLIENTS FIRST HAND. You have the servers and the floor-manager to do that for you. Sometimes, when the encounter gets a little bit close, the Head Chef handles it. It’s never you. You are but a chef of the pastry section, the higher-ups can do the “talking” while you do all the pastry work. But when you are a business-owner… It’s another twisted story. Ask me again.
What is it like to be a pastry chef and a business owner at the same time during the Holidays anyway?
Here it goes. It is numerous inquiries on your page, asking for your location, menu, lead time, and delivery details. It is triple the number of your usual orders, Christmas parties, corporate events, family gatherings, name it… your dessert is the star of the show. You have to make this right, honey. It is countless hours of reviewing orders and making sure that the raw materials that you have ordered is enough. It is a whole day spent with suppliers, shopping and ordering for the ingredients that you need. It is hours and hours being physically stuck in traffic while your mind and soul is in your pastry kitchen. It is a daunting process of making sure that all your packaging and preps are of the perfect shape. It is staying up late, baking whatever it is on the order sheet, making sure that the orders will be delivered to your clients’ doorstep in the best possible quality. It is several days of doing your preps, but no matter how hard you try, you end up messing up something unintentionally and you have to do the entire process all over again. It is having no social-life, because you spend your days talking to your clients and delivery partners, making sure that every delivery runs smoothly. It is constantly having nightmares about plumbing, kitchen failures, and pest-control. It is a battle between baking powder, baking soda, and icing sugar… and wondering why they all look the same but taste and reacts enormously different. It is accidentally putting the wrong powder on the pastry, pulling out the deliveries, and having no one to blame but yourself (no boss/head pastry chef to yell at you, no kitchen hand to point fingers to). It is immeasurable hours of reading and researching the perfect recipes hoping that what works in France works in your kitchen in Asia too. It is straight hours standing and sauntering in your own kitchen, listening to whatever that will wake you up to keep you focused. It is a roller coaster joyride waiting for a client feedback, hoping it is positive and winning. It is seeing your piled-up bowls, scrapers, wire whisks, and spatula in the sink, wishing they get washed and dried in a blink of an eye. It is sleepless nights and days, eating lunch in the afternoon, and dinner as midnight snack. It is trying to get comfort with Christmas songs, hoping that everything would be over soon… but still wishing that next year is as lucrative (or more) as this year. It is feeling guilty turning on Netflix, when you have preps waiting for you in the kitchen. It is delegating responsibilities and tasks to your staff to ensure that your workflow is as organized as possible… and if you don’t have staff, it is waking up really early in the morning, pre-heating the oven yourself, and cleaning your kitchen counter to start your day (maybe a chance of having breakfast if the time allows it). It is months and months of costing, calculating every cent that goes into your work (ingredients, electricity, water, packaging, shipping fee, overhead… lalalalalala. Yes, that pinch of salt is worth a penny). It is constantly thinking of your worn-out set of equipment and dreaming of upgrading them through the fruits of your labor. It is concocting and stabilizing the perfect mixture, for what it’s worth. It is continuously asking yourself whether you really want to pursue this or not? It is having trust issues with everything (including that opened box of cream that has been in the chiller for 3 straight days). It can go on and on forever. It is an exhausting, draining, emotionally challenging, life-sucking profession, but there’s no way you will exchange it for anything in the world.
You sit there in one corner, maybe with your family, or maybe alone in a foreign country (or taking a break from your kitchen duty). Thankful, you still have a bit of energy left to enjoy the festivities. You know deep inside, it’s not the money that pays you. It’s the thought of having your desserts out there, bringing delight and pleasure to anyone you serve.
BIG SALUTE TO ALL THE KITCHEN WARRIORS WHO CHOOSE TO WORK DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON!
Through out the years, it’s a challenging but joyous battle we all have won. It’s the service we provide that completes every occasion. If you’re an aspiring pastry chef/executive chef/business owner, we all start from somewhere. Have faith and never give up. If you feel like you are experiencing failure, remember FAIL means First Attempt In Learning. The best teacher is not your books nor your degree. May your sweat and tears bring you to success. Like I always say in my previous blogs, BE BRAVE. TAKE RISKS. NOTHING CAN EVER SUBSTITUTE EXPERIENCE.
This is probably the last blog post I can ever write for this year as I’ll be back to “pastry-chefing” a few hours from now. The holidays is a yearly challenge, but it allows us to grow, improve, and learn from previous mistakes. To you reading this… JUST KEEP GOING! YOU’RE SLAYING IT! 🙂
Happy Holidays everyone and enjoy the rest of 2019. All the best for 2020!