If you’ve got that steady hand when it comes to baking pastries, you’ve got something special, and you may be ready to take your skill to the next level.
Ask even an amateur chef and they will tell you that baking pastries takes a special kind of skill. Unlike baking, say, salmon—which can be sprinkled at whim with spice—whipping up scones takes precision with a capital P. Add a dash too much baking powder or an extra tip of heavy cream, and you could end up with pastries that refuses to rise, to the occasion and quite literally. So if you’ve got that steady hand when it comes to baking pastries, you’ve got something special, and you may be ready to take your skill to the next level. Here’s how.
1. Decide whether you want to attend culinary school. Many culinary schools allow students to specialize in baking, and you may decide that a formal education—one that ends with a degree or other certification—is the right route for you. But, “I believe you do not need formal education to become a pastry chef,” says Joselyn Perlmutter, the pastry chef at and owner of Sweet Affairs Charlotte. (Perlmutter has an undergraduate degree in entrepreneurship.) “You have to decide whether a culinary [or] undergraduate education is a right fit for you,” Perlmutter says. If you decide against a formal-education route, then seek out a pastry chef who can mentor you, Perlmutter suggests. And move on to step No. 2.
2. Get a job in the industry. Here’s a true story from Jessica Scott, executive pastry chef of Puesto Mexican Artisan Kitchen and Bar and Food Network’s Dessert Games champion: “When I approached my brother about signing up for culinary school, he laughed in my face,” Scott recalls. “’You’ve never worked in a kitchen before Jessica, and you have no idea what you are getting into,’ he told me. And unfortunately, he was completely right.” Jessica quickly applied for a job as a pastry cook. “I not only applied online, but I emailed every single person on their contact list about my determination to work for them, and called the restaurant to confirm that they received my messages,” she says. “I got the job one week later with no experience, but determined to prove myself.” And if that doesn’t inspire you to give your pastry chef dream a go—formal education or not—we don’t know what will.
3. Take a leap—to a bigger and better job. You may be baking pastries at this point, but to be a pastry chef, you’ve got to take on more responsibility—think: like managing a team, says Michael Laiskonis, creative director of the Institute of Culinary Education. “It can be a daunting yet highly rewarding transition,” he says. “In addition to simply being a good cook with a solid base of experience, a chef at this stage must be self-confident and motivated, with organizational skills and the ability to lead a team of others.” So, take inspiration from the pastries you bake and rise up—get the food pun?—the restaurant or bakery ladder.
4. Don’t stop learning. When Perlmutter is at home, she’s not (always) kicking up her feet to a Netflix binge-session. In fact, in her free time, Perlmutter once taught herself cake decorating skills by watching YouTube videos and copying what she saw. “I made cakes for my friends and family,” she says. “Although I didn’t take any formal classes, I was able to make progress through practice on my own.” Perlmutter’s advice to up-and-coming pastry chefs, then, is to “never stop learning,” she says. “There are always new techniques to try, new flavors to play with. As soon as you stop learning, it will show in your work.”
5. Experiment without fear of failure. Along the same lines as step No. 4, Scott suggests you continue to expand your skills by experimenting with unique flavor combinations and unusual dessert ideas. That’s exactly what Scott did. “I made many mistakes,” Scott admits, “but sometimes those mistakes turned into a great breakthrough.” Ready to experiment? Start by “making desserts you feel comfortable with, then ask yourself, ‘what else can I add or substitute to make this my own?’” Scott says. “A simple lava cake with vanilla ice cream can lead you to wanting a crunchy component to add more texture—or you might ask yourself, ‘can I add some dimension to the cake by adding some spice?’ You’ll never know unless you try, and believe me, there will always be hungry friends to taste test.”