Pastry chefs don’t have the most glamorous job in a professional kitchen. They’re usually tucked away in a small corner where they work with limited space and supplies while doing their best to keep their desserts away from the heat of the main kitchen. Their dishes can be spectacular – light, flavorful, colorful and delicious – but it is true to say that few people come to a restaurant just to eat dessert and that restaurants make the bulk of of their money on the rest of the menu. This week, LA Weekly ran an insightful piece about the disappearance of the pastry chef from restaurants, as fewer and fewer restaurants employ full time pastry chefs to put together their dessert menus.
Los Angeles, where I live, is a city that is known for its love of informality. When I’m traveling to more formal cities – like Chicago or New York – I often have to remind myself that those are places where jeans are not what you wear to a fancy dinner out. We like rustic plating and are seasonally focused on fruit and vegetables both for main courses and desserts, not dishes where the ingredients are overworked or transformed into unrecognizable sauces. These are all big generalizations (and I own many pants that are not jeans), but they might well be a part of the “death” of the pastry chef. The article points out that top pastry chefs – including women like Nancy Silverton and Sherry Yard, who are the cornerstone of the pastry scene in LA – know that amazing produce will make an amazing dessert, even if the dessert is a very simple one. Fantastic strawberries tucked in a buttery crust will be an unbelievably good strawberry tart. This philosophy has led to a decades-long tradition of seasonal desserts at even the most upscale/fancy/formal LA eateries.
It stands to reason, for some, that you can cut out the pastry chef by supplying a savory chef or line cook with the same produce and telling them to put it on a plate.
But there is a reason that savory chefs are not pastry chefs, and that 4 out of 5 competitors on Chopped are only able to come up with some variation on pain perdu for their dessert course. You can start with amazing ingredients and make something that is decent, but you have to know how to work with them to make them shine. This is true of both sweet and savory dishes, and sweet dishes just don’t command the same respect that savory items do. To cut costs in a restaurant, more and more dessert menus are left to people who don’t specialize in dessert and they end up full of dishes that aren’t terribly exciting, such as ice cream with fresh berries or creme brulee. Diners end up with fewer choices (and far fewer good choices) for dessert, and pastry chefs end up out of a job.
There are still plenty of fine dining restaurants that are hanging on to their pastry chefs, but it does seem that they are much fewer and further between at restaurants. Fortunately, it isn’t all bleak for pastry chefs and dessert lovers to whom dessert is another crucial component of a great meal. The same restaurants that are cutting them out are still interested in serving delicious desserts – they would just prefer to outsource them to save money. So, pastry chefs who might have worked in a kitchen 10 years ago are blazing new trails in pastry. There are more bakeries than before and more businesses that specialize in desserts, desserts that can be supplied to a restaurant without them having to hire a pastry chef of their own. These aren’t your typical cupcake bakeries – but bakeries run by veteran pastry chefs, serving everything from elegant macarons to seasonal fruit tarts and homestyle baked goods that are better than your grandmother could have made. They have more freedom to work and can sell a wide variety of treats directly to dessert-loving customers, rather than being limited to a half dozen dessert menu items. One perfect example is the Helms Bakery Truck I recently visited.
The article asks if pastry chefs are becoming an endangered species – but it seems that they just might be finding new and better roles to fill, rather than being tucked away in the corner of a busy restaurant kitchen. This might not be the death of the pastry chef. It might actually be the time for a pastry revolution.