On a characteristically grey British day in April of 2005, I was standing in a tin covered addition attached to the back of old British house in the village of Bray. Under this thin roof was a small passage between the hot line and the walk-in refrigerator. Lined with two small counters and a blast chiller, this meager space was the pastry department of The Fat Duck. Between these two counters I stood, wide eyed and 25, living my dream; cooking in Europe, cooking at a Michelin 3 star, cooking in the pastry department.
As a stage, there was no guarantee a more permanent job was mine to have, but I was determined that was I to leave, it was onward and upward and into another kitchen of this caliber. It had taken 3 years of grueling work to get there and I was fueled with the unstoppable energy of an impassioned youth. Every time I looked at the plating, tasted a newer, purer flavor, learned a new technique, listened to new ideas, my heart started pounding against my ribcage. It beat with such a force, drawn towards this cuisine with such power it risked breaking through my chest.
Despite my seemingly unbreakable determination, the next month found me in Seattle, the city I’d fought so hard to break out of. My impassioned heart, it seemed, also beat for my mother. While I was in England a diagnosis of early onset parkinson’s brought my mothers life to a stand still. Within months, it proved to be something much much worse. A degenerative brain disease her doctors simply deemed “striato-nigral degeneration” generated a rapid deterioration of my mothers motor skills until 2 years later her lungs no longer had the strength to expel the carbon dioxide within them.
Upon arrival home, I began managing the care of my mother, a decision I haven’t regretted for a single moment. I also took a job at a neighborhood farm-to-table wine bar called Eva. They were brave enough to hire me as their pastry chef, and I was brave enough to throw myself into the task of managing a dessert menu without a mentor. While I was broken up about canceling the opportunity to pursue work in Michelin starred restaurants in Europe, what I mourned most was loosing the potential to work for another pastry chef. In the fledgeling restaurant community that was Seattle in 2005, there was an extremely limited amount of pastry jobs in restaurants. If a restaurant hired a person solely dedicated to pastry, it was a one man show. When the chance to take charge of the dessert menu at Eva came I didn’t hesitate.
I’ll be honest, I had no idea what I was doing. I employed the “fake-it-till-you-make-it” mentality, and was propelled forward daily by the generosity and faith of the owners, Amy and James, that my lack of experience would soon be eclipsed by determination and talent. I was very insecure that I had never worked for another pastry chef, sure that others in the industry were scorning me for taking on a chef title too early.
I eased my worry with one truth; that Heston Blumenthal had never worked for another chef. Rather, he pushed himself to where he is now by constantly evaluating, educating, and editing himself. He grew each day by simply asking the question “why?”. If he could become the chef-owner of the best restaurant in the world by blazing his own trail, then surely I could push myself to become the pastry chef I wanted to be.
I looked everywhere I could for information that would guide me towards becoming a pastry chef. If I couldn’t poise myself beneath someone more experienced I’d have to work twice as hard to find that same guidance elsewhere.
My shelves began to sag with the weight of the cook book collection I was amassing. I bought anything and everything written by a pastry chef. My early menus were a collage of other peoples desserts. I lifted anything that resonated with me from the pages of books, magazines, and the screen of my computer. I mixed fruit preparations from David Lebovitz and Chez Panise with cakes from Nick Malgeri, ice creams from Emily Luchetti with Claudia Flemings chocolate terrine, or Sherry Yard’s Cobbler. A chocolate dessert contained pieces from Alice Medrich, Fran Bigelow, and Marcel Desaulniers, and the candied rice krispies on Pierre Herme’s rice pudding became a staple in my pantry.
I measured everything with cups and spoons, and hand wrote my recipes on yellow legal pads. There may or may not have been cupcakes and hearts drawn all over them.
I searched the newly minted blogosphere and found windows into the kitchens of a handful of pastry chefs like Shuna at Eggbeater. I devoured every word they wrote, consuming every scrap of wisdom, philosophy, technique, and kitchen etiqute. While cobbling together dishes with borrowed recipes, I was simultaneously discovering a creative process, menu conversions, ordering and sourcing practices, the role of the diner in the restaurant experience, and the kind of people skills that come with management and following another chef’s lead. I was starving for any tidbit I could find that would inform my daily routine and help better me as a pastry chef.
I wrote about my explorations on a blog of my own. All the while I thought, when I finally figure this out, I want to write again. I want to write to the younger version of myself, and tell her everything I’ve discovered along the way. This blog is simply that.
8 years and a lot of restaurants later, I am now the pastry chef of Blackbird and Avec in Chicago, overseeing 2 divergent menus and a staff of 6. I’ve been to Europe and back a few times now, held that position as chef de partie in Michelin 3 star, and finally worked for that pastry chef I’d always wanted to. I no longer need someone else’s recipes, and have finally developed something of a style I can call my own.
This blog is written for her, that wide eyed girl making the untethered leap into her first pastry chef position, and for anyone like her pushing forward into pastry careers of their own.