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Being Head Pastry Chef Is the Best Job in the Kitchen

Apart from the obvious scope for creativity that comes with running a pastry section, the best part of the job is that your imagination is trusted. No one fucks with the pastry chef.

Male, pastry chef, 28, London

I never imagined I'd be a pastry chef. Growing up in New Zealand, my dream was to be Gordon Ramsay-type character in the kitchen—a bullish, peacocking presence, making my authority and prowess known. That pipe dream quickly dissolved when I went to catering college—cooking is too damned involved for you to be a prick, unless you've worked your way up to that highest level and your entire reputation depends on the level to which people cook your food. Anyway, when my ambition to be a professional cook solidified, I never imagined where I'd be now: a stocky, six foot guy with tattoos and a beard, manning a pastry section.


The main inspiration for me wanting to go into pastry, I can say with some certainty, was Heston Blumenthal. The man is a wizard. I was a big science nerd at school, always fucking around with bunsen burners and conical flasks. It was his application of science and chemistry to food that switched something in my brain. I remember first seeing him use liquid nitrogen and thinking, "That's so fucking cool, I want to do that."

The truth is, though, that I went to pastry school because the main courses were all booked up and my mum said if I didn't leave the house and go and do something she'd make me get a job on one of the dairy farms shovelling cowpats all day. Fuck that.

I thought I'd go and do a couple of terms at pastry school and then transfer, somehow, onto the real stuff, the game cooking, butchery, and French sauces. I soon found that working with pastry was like being a scientist, though, and was enraptured. Everything is so precise, so dependent on chemicals and molecular structure, and I found myself willing time to go slower. There was so much to learn. It was like being back in the science lab—only, if I got good enough, I could get paid to do this shit.

Now, I work in a fantastic restaurant in London where we serve people a set menu. Therefore, as head pastry chef, I only have three chances to shine—the pre-dessert (a palate-cleanser type thing, usually something that is being trialled, and, if it's good, will end up as a proper dessert), the dessert, and then the petit fours.


Every part of a set menu has to sing, even down to the petit fours—they're the last thing people eat before they leave. One of the most amazing petit fours I've had recently was a burnt rhubarb marshmallow at James Lowe's restaurant, Lyle's, cooked in a wood-fired oven. Fuck me, that was good. I left thinking, "Yeah, this guy cares about sending you off in style." That's how it should be, though. A petit four shouldn't be an afterthought, a shitty little ganache truffle rolled in enough cocoa to sink the QE2. There's no excuse. I was lucky enough to eat at noma a couple years back, too, and their bone marrow toffees (served in hollowed-out bones) were basically a Damascene moment for me.

For me, apart from the obvious scope for creativity that comes with running a pastry section—there are arguably more techniques that can be applied to ingredients for dessert than other section in the kitchen, and you can be way more playful—the other benefit is that you kind of get left alone. (I really hope my boss isn't reading this and guesses it's me.) I realised that pretty quickly in the first kitchen I worked in. Your imagination is trusted. No one fucks with the pastry chef.

Pastry is so specific, so down to science, technique, and dependent on a left-of-field thought applied to everyday things, that, once you've commanded it, people will respect you. It's like you exist on another planet to everyone else. Certainly, a lot of the best desserts I've eaten have looked like something from another planet, like an alien had walked into the kitchen and squirted it out of a tentacle onto a plate.


One dessert, like the one we have on the menu now, may have around ten individual elements, all involving their own development process, and the head chef of any restaurant (particularly those running set menus, I find) will taste the progress of a dish along the way. Generally speaking, though, what you say goes—no one questions the nerdiness of a pastry chef or the chemicals he uses. They might question the use of liquid nitrogen on a sweet granita made with nasturtiums, rolling their eyes as the cold smoke billows around, but then they taste it and are like, "Ah, OK. I get your point, dude."

No one wants to go to an exciting new restaurant, particularly one run by a young team—we are, by our very nature, supposed to be the most progressive, creating new boundaries for ourselves—and get a slice of apple pie and custard. Well, maybe they do sometimes, but people expect something exciting these days, I think. They want to be challenged, and God knows they deserve to be for the money they're paying to eat out.

Dessert can be such a surprising experience for people. I love watching someone being served a dessert that is based around two ingredients they never thought would go together—chocolate and a strong herb, say. You can see them thinking, nah, then they taste it and you watch them have a little eureka moment. That's why pastry is so exciting—you can play with people's perceptions so much.


It is a fine art not stepping over the just-boundary-pushing-enough-to-still-be-delicious threshold and entering the fuck-that's-awful zone that makes a good pastry chef, though. A friend of mine staged at noma when they were serving a dessert of mashed potato, plums, and cream, and when they told me about it I went into work and tried to recreate it as I imagined it would taste, using apricots instead.

It was rancid. Unbelievably bad. You can't try and match those guys.

Besides, pastry is so individual—you can't plagiarise, because someone, somewhere, will find out. Pastry chefs are very territorial over their creations. But again, that's what makes it exciting. You have to strive for ultimate individuality at all times.

I would encourage any young person thinking about being a chef to consider going to pastry school. It's not all macarons, genoise sponge and palmiers—although those basic techniques will stand you in such great stead later on. You might find yourself making chestnut and pine macarons later on and wowing someone with how you can apply new flavour combinations applied to old techniques. In my opinion, meat, fish and vegetables have their limits, no matter how imaginative you are with them. In pastry, you create everything. I've even brewed my own beer to add to ice cream in the past.

Every good kitchen needs an excellent pastry chef, and there's not a huge amount of us to go around. You probably won't ever find yourself out of work, and, when you do find a good kitchen to shine in, you'll be instantly thought of as the kitchen nerd. It's a really good place to be. People respect you. Don't be thinking that it's not a bloke's game, either—that's bollocks. In what world is it still right or proper to think that a woman should be doing the cakes?

It makes me laugh when people say anything like that because being a pastry chef is about the most masculinising thing I've done. Liquid nitrogen and huge, blue blowtorch flames are not for the faint-hearted. And, if you're anything like me, being a pastry chef will make you feel like you're being paid to piss about in a science lab all day. It's amazing.