A life of artistry
Just imagine yourself stepping into a quaint little bakery in a quiet town. Beautiful sunlight is coming through the windows and falling on a case full of fanciful baked goods and pastries.
It’s hard not to imagine what your own life would be like if you were a baker. From the outside, it can seem like a charmed life of simplicity and artistry.
However, this fantasy can quickly cover up the realities of the situation. It takes quite a bit of work and persistence to become a professional baker, and there are many times when this career is less than perfect.
This article will be a crash course on how to become a baker or pastry chef, and to help guide us along we have Laure Larrose, a professional pastry chef from Southwest France.
Larrose is an experienced pastry chef who has worked with a number of prestigious bakeries.
By the end of this article, you’ll have a much better idea of whether or not the life of a baker is really for you.
Perhaps the best way to start is to take a close look at a few key skills that all bakers and pastry chefs will need to have before moving up to the professional level.
I asked Larrose to take a look back at her extensive culinary career and choose the key skills and traits that have helped her find success and establish herself as a formidable force in the industry.
Young bakers would be well-advised to focus on these skills as they start their own culinary journey.
The first skill is organization, and not just literal organization. I’ll let Larrose explain:
“I believe the most important skill for bakers is organization. All the ingredients must be combined in the right order and at the right time to obtain the desired result. Not only do you physically need to be organized, but you also need an organized mind to stay on top of each day’s production list.”
This is one area where bakers differ greatly from cooks. When cooking (a distinct chemical process from baking), the order of ingredients is often unimportant. Even after a small mistake, you can probably still salvage the dish.
But in baking, precise measurements and the order of preparation is absolutely crucial. Leaving out a single ingredient or adding it at the wrong time can be disastrous. The end-product will be well off the mark and the ingredients will have been wasted.
Staying organized with your materials and also your thoughts will help you find success in the world of baking and pastry.
Next on the list is dedication, in a general sense. Being dedicated to your craft will not only help you improve but also assure that you’ll be able to cope with the many difficulties of working in a professional kitchen.
Larrose elaborated on this idea:
“Another important skill is dedication, as this job sometimes requires long hours, working under pressure, and can cause physical fatigue.”
Culinary professionals are almost always on their feet, and a busy day can mean hours of fast-paced work, as well as hours of clean-up and prep for the next day.
Dedicated bakers put up with all this and much worse to pursue their passion. If you’re not fully dedicated to your work, then you’ll probably have a great deal of trouble putting up with the hassle and challenge it presents.
The last major skill Larrose recommended for all bakers and pastry chefs is creativity. The application of this skill should be fairly obvious. Sure, a great deal of professional baking involves following recipes to the letter, but coming up with your own creations is the ultimate goal.
“Creativity is an incredibly important skill that all bakers must have. Bakers who are curious about interesting combinations and who have the courage to try something new will be rewarded when they develop a unique treat that customers will love.”
As you might have guessed, developing your own recipes is especially important if you plan on opening up your own bakery or forming your own brand. Customers aren’t going to want just the same old sweet treats; they’ll want innovative designs and flavor combinations. Finding your own culinary voice is necessary.
Culinary school: is it necessary?
Now comes the big question: do you need to attend culinary school to become a professional baker or pastry chef?
After all, it’s possible to practice your baking skills at home, as long as you have the materials, free time, and can afford ingredients.
Besides, culinary school can be expensive, and if you’re already working full-time, you might not be able to make room in your schedule.
Still, culinary school can teach complex techniques and help you find job opportunities after graduation.
What did Larrose have to say on the subject?
“I believe attending a culinary school is an important part of the learning process. Culinary school allows students to learn the basics of baking, the science behind it, and get a feel for what it’s like to work in a fast-paced environment before setting foot in a real kitchen.”
It’s a bit like trying to be a professional musician without having formal music lessons. If you have the necessary skills, that will ultimately be more important than your education history.
However, it never hurts to have professional training on your resume. There are just certain things you can’t learn on your own.
Ask yourself whether you’d benefit from attending culinary school. If the answer is yes, explore all of the different options available.
Research different schools in your local area and speak with admissions advisors at each school. Many offer some kind of scholarship program from students who can’t afford tuition right out of the gate.
You may even find yourself moving to a new city to attend a prestigious culinary school with other talented students.
Adapting to a professional kitchen
So once you’re ready for the world of professional baking, what happens next? What does it feel like to finally step into a professional kitchen? Are all kitchens alike? More importantly, how long does it take to adjust to this new environment.
As Larrose explained, every kitchen has its own quirks and different types of teams. Feeling comfortable in a kitchen doesn’t always come easy, but if you stick around, there are sure to be a number of different benefits.
“Each time I enter into a new kitchen, it takes me a few weeks, but it also depends on where you choose to go. I’ve noticed that most kitchens feel like a family. The strange hours and schedule create a bond between us which makes it easy to feel comfortable with one another easily.”
That kind of bond isn’t something you’ll find in many workplaces. Maybe the biggest difference here is that, generally speaking, the members of a professional kitchen all want to be there. It’s a group of people pursuing their love of cuisine.
Being a part of that community can feel wonderful, even if it takes a good deal of hardship and struggle to get to that point.
Set goals and be upfront
To close out our introduction to the world of professional baking and pastry making, I asked Larrose to offer a singular piece of advice to young bakers, a lesson that she learned herself over years and years of hard work.
The advice she came up with is actually universal to the working world:
“When I started working, it was a very male-dominated environment, so I was afraid to speak up. I quickly realized that most chefs have a real passion for teaching their craft if you are willing to learn. I spend a lot of time after-hours in the kitchen with chefs to learn their ways, and it is always rewarding both professionally and personally.”
Through trial and error, Larrose learned to be upfront about what she wanted from a particular job. Thankfully, the people she worked with were happy to share their knowledge and expertise.
You may not always be so lucky, but if you never communicate what you want, then you’re certain to never get it.
No matter your skill level, age, or seniority, you’ve earned your place in the kitchen and have every right to make your job work for you.
You may not land your dream job right away, but every job is a chance to learn something new and, more importantly, a chance to learn a lot about yourself and where you’d like to end up.
Yes, there will be many challenges along the path to success, but if you truly love what you do and have the skills you need, you can focus on working hard every single day and advancing your career.