WITH CAROLS filling the corner of each street, department stores announcing long-awaited holiday sales, and trees undergoing a fresh make-over of twinkling lights, the most joyful season of the year has arrived. What adds a finishing touch to the blissful atmosphere of wintery wonder are colorful and mouthwatering assortments of cakes, cupcakes, puddings, and cookies that are displayed beyond shiny windows of bakeries. The hands that skillfully craft each dessert into perfection belong to pastry chefs who are masters of bot fine arts and pastry. Although there are many people who have picked up home-baking as their hobbies, there are considerably less people who take a step further to turn their passion for confectionary into a serious profession.
To think about it, what would a holiday be like without having finest-looking desserts on the dinner table? Christmas, New Year’s, birthdays, parties, and even ordinary days— no celebration could ever be complete without the sweet treats that please the eye and palate. The Yonsei Annals met with Park Sul-hwa, owner of Noir Ne Café and a pastry chef herself, who shared the details of everything from her busy schedule to tips on becoming a pastry chef. For those of you dreamers who need a drop of sweet inspiration in your lives, do read on and discover more about the dulcet career of a pastry chef.
Who is a pastry chef?
Bakers are mainly categorized into three types: pastry chefs, bread bakers, and bakery chefs. To understand the difference, especially between bread bakers and pastry chefs, we need to understand the fundamental distinction between bread making and confectionery making. In bread making, the basic ingredients for the dough are water, flour, yeast and salt. Once the dough has been made, it must rise through a process called fermentation, which tests the skills and time management of a bread baker. On the other hand, confectionery goods, such as chocolates, sweet pastries and cakes, rely on sugar as a sweetening agent and do not go through fermentation. Baked confectionery goods also make use of chemical agents such as baking powder or baking soda instead of yeast.
Pastry chefs, also known as pâtissiers*, refer to those who specialize in making confectionery sweets. Bakery chefs do not have a specialty; they make both bread and confections, while carrying out their main role of operating a bakery. Pastry chef Park commented, “Until a few years ago in South Korea, the term pastry chef was not very well-known to the public and most people could not distinguish between the three types [of bakers]. Now, the domestic dessert industry is developing rapidly, garnering more interest in this field. It is important to understand that baking is a highly specialized profession.”
Pastry chefs commonly work in hotels, restaurants, cafés, bakeries, dessert shops, and confectionary companies, or they run their own businesses, as Park does. While they all share the same responsibility of making desserts, their daily agendas and levels of freedom vary on the establishment they are a part of. Pastry chefs who work at hotels and restaurants create desserts that complement the main course. They usually make desserts upon receiving orders from customers. Those at bakeries and dessert shops produce goods to be sold on display to visitors and accept orders for custom-made desserts. Park and her chefs spend most of the time in the bakery preparing desserts to be sold. Their special orders mostly consist of baking and decorating whole cakes. Pastry chefs are always flexible, accommodating, and skilled so they can realize the visions of numerous customers with varying tastes.
What does a typical day look like?
A pastry chef’s day begins earlier than most people’s. They need to prepare all the necessary ingredients, pre-heat the oven, load the icing bags, and make the actual desserts before the opening hour of 7:30 a.m., which is the opening hour for Park’s Noir Ne. Park and her chefs start at dawn, usually between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. In some bakeries, work starts as early as 5 a.m. The very first thing that Park does is lay out the stocks of pre-made desserts; these desserts include macarons and mousse cakes that can be stored in refrigerators the night before. She also checks if ingredients are available in sufficient quantities and that they are fresh. Then, as the chef-owner, Park determines the number of cakes and pastries for the day and orders the sous chefs** and line chefs*** to begin making the desserts.
Each chef is assigned a few desserts. As one type of dessert can take approximately two to three hours to make, chefs often simultaneously work on multiple desserts. For example, a chef would first make meringues for a macaron, and, while the meringues are drying, move on to whisk the cream for mousse cakes. A pastry chef would work in such routine for around ten hours a day— from dawn to late afternoon— while standing for the entire time. Thus, the typical day for a pastry chef demands physical stamina and endurance to bear the intensity of the workload.
Before the kitchen closes at 6p.m. pastry chefs prepare ingredients for the next day and clean up the kitchen. As the owner, Park leaves the bakery last to make sure that all the necessary work has been completed. Apart from her duties at the bakery, Park also teaches beginner and master classes in a separate room at her café, for a wide range of students— some of whom are hobbyists and some aspiring café owners. Each class is two hours long, so when she has several classes on the same day, Park would leave work at a very late time— often 10 p.m. Although there is not much work-life balance, Park added that “Desserts have become a part of my life.”
Making desserts...how hard could it be?
Besides churning out multiple rows of choux à la crème**** and the tiramisu cheesecakes, pastry chefs are constantly updating their signature dessert menus. This poses a challenge of finding inspiration for original ideas.
Pastry chef Park listed three ways she fuels her creative engine. First is to stay informed on current trends in the dessert industry. Much like fashion, worldwide food trends change year after year, so Park emphasized on being observant, curious, and committed to doing research. She advised to follow Instagram accounts of renowned pastry chefs, as well as regularly visit their websites and read their recently published books.
Another source for inspiration is experimenting with fusion desserts. Pastry chefs are creative artists—they are not afraid to take traditional ingredients from different cultures to invent something unique. Park explained, “For instance, apple is a common dessert ingredient that is favored by most Koreans and is harvested in large quantities in Korea. However, personally, I really dislike apples. So I try to see whether I can come up with an apple dessert that even someone like me can enjoy.”
Lastly, Park highlighted the importance of revisiting and ameliorating old menus. The process helps to build a competitive profile, especially in the realm of high-end desserts, as improving existing items to meet the standard of newer creations is essential in maintaining an edge in the market.
However, developing ideas for a new menu is by far the easiest part of the process. When attempting to bring a creative vision into life, a pastry chef needs to consider everything from taste and texture to color and shape. Park noted, “Devising a new menu and fully mastering it can take roughly anywhere between six months and up to two years. This is because it takes many trial-and-errors to create the ‘ideal’ dessert; sometimes, the combination of ingredients does not blend well, the dessert turns out way too sweet, or the baked good simply does not look appetizing. Following those outcomes, all I can do is to start from the very beginning.”
Achieving perfection is hard work: the chef needs to be patient and must place quality over time. Since it is hard to determine what went wrong, a chef must often be methodical with how he or she changes the recipe. Pastry chef Park continued, “If the dessert is too sweet, I reduce the amount of sugar amount by 5 grams at a time until it is just right. In the same vein, I also try increasing or decreasing the temperature by 5 degrees. If the process involves baking, I change the baking time by one minute. Developing a perfect menu is a long-term project. It might involve conducting around ten trials a day.”
Due to the level of care that needs to be devoted to such process, pastry chefs regularly end up working at the kitchen for 15 to 16 hours. Park emphasized, “The only reason I could work for such long hours is because it is time that is invested in something I love so dearly. Also, I have very supportive staff who help me endure this challenge.” Indeed, she does not work on the menu alone. Being open to assistance and honest feedback from other chefs shorten the time it takes to achieve the end goal. “Good chemistry between colleagues is very important in a pâtisserie.”
How does one become a pastry chef?
There is no specific certificate or degree required to become a pastry chef. However, the chefs still undergo intensive programs, or spend a long duration of time in gaining work experience to polish their craft. Aspiring pastry chefs usually consider three options for enhancing their career qualifications. One route is to train under a professional pastry chef. Learning how to master a certain dessert requires a student to be observant and always ready to help the chef when needed. Before building work experience, however, some students may decide to earn a degree in pâtisserie at a vocational school or community college. Education programs as such are two years long in most Korean community colleges. The courses cover training as well as theoretical knowledge in baking, cake decoration, nutrition, health, business management, and so on*****. Earning a degree gives a big advantage for a candidate applying for more prestigious jobs, especially those that are based abroad.
The other option is to study abroad, with the most popular destinations being France and Japan that have a rich history of desserts and are home to some of the world’s best pâtisserie programs. Fortunately, many foreign schools have opened branches in South Korea; so, those who cannot afford an education abroad can apply to these affiliate schools. For instance, one of the most prestigious pâtisserie education institutes is the world-renowned French institution, Le Cordon Bleu (“The Blue Ribbon”). It has a branch school within Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul and offers courses in baking and pâtisserie. A course in baking is seven-months long while a course in pâtisserie lasts for eight months. Students who complete the basic, intermediate and advanced levels offered for each course receive the Diploma de Cuisine****** or Diploma de Pâtisserie*******.
Park commented, “Since I started to dream of becoming a pastry chef only after getting married, I could not freely apply to institutions abroad. Fortunately, Le Cordon Bleu has a branch in Seoul, so I received a nine-month-long training in pâtisserie, passed the examination and acquired the Diploma de Pâtisserie. Then, I wanted to learn about baking as well, so I took a seven-month-long program on baking and earned the Diploma de Cuisine. Other than Le Cordon Bleu, many community colleges have formed sister schools with foreign patisserie education schools. There are more opportunities to become a pastry chef than you may think.” She then added, “In France, there are schools that offer short training courses related to pâtisserie. The duration varies from three days to one week. You can receive master-class training while from a short trip to France.”
With more foreign schools establishing branch schools in South Korea, the access barrier to the profession of pastry chefs has become relatively lower. Nevertheless, easier access to a high-quality education and educational resources does not mean being a pastry chef is easy. Park reminded that the training can be physically and emotionally draining. Trainees will be put under much pressure due to intense competition, and will not have much time to take a rest. Therefore, it is important to be prepared for what is ahead before walking into this career. “Simply earning a degree does not make one a professional. Also, it does not guarantee that one will be able to succeed as a pastry chef.” What really matters is a strife for refinement and elegance—to get there involves a process of constant self-improvement based on receiving feedback, experimenting, and nurturing of creativity.
What skillsets do you need as a pastry chef?
1. Design skills are absolutely imperative. A dessert is mostly chosen for its appearance. To develop an aesthetic eye, visit as many art exhibitions as possible. Pay careful attention to even the smallest details.
2. Developing a refined palate is also a must. It is necessary to be able to taste and identify the right amount of ingredients for a dessert. Avoid overly strong-tasting foods that dull the palate.
3. Exercise regularly. Pastry chefs spend most of the day standing and have to carry heavy bags of flour, sugar and the likes all the time. Not to mention the job of a pastry chef requires heavy daily sugar intake. Maintaining health is important to avoid becoming ill.
4. It also helps to learn about foods and drinks that can create good synergies with desserts. Drinks such as coffee and tea are perfect examples. Learning about them and serving them along with desserts will better satisfy customers.
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“During the Christmas season, pastry chefs at my café work 20 consecutive hours a day to meet customer demands. Despite the high workload, I see their eyes brimming with joy when I look around the kitchen. The sole reason why these pastry chefs can sleep for three hours and still work happily is that they genuinely enjoy giving life to the ingredients, decorating the cakes, and serving them to customers,” said Park. Coming to work every day, surrounded by shelves of mousse cakes, macarons, chocolate muffins, and always being the first one to taste the frosting sounds like a perfect childhood-fantasy-come-to-life. In reality, there are added responsibilities that come with being a pastry chef. Getting the pie crust just right in every order is a serious business, and the work that goes behind making the chocolate cakes— however stunning and effortless they may look on the surface— is tremendous. Still, there is no denying in that this is a career that wins the charms and wonders of many— after all, who but the beloved pastry chefs would live such a sweetened life?
*Pâtissier: A French term for a pastry chef
**Sous chef: The second most important chef after the executive chef, often in charge of day to day running of the kitchen
***Line chef: A chef responsible for the running of a particular faction of a kitchen
****Choux à la crèmes: French word for cream pie
*****Seoul Yonhee Technical College
******Diploma de Cuisine: A diploma in bread baking
*******Diploma de Pâtisserie: A diploma in confections