How to become a Professional Pastry Chef

October 28th, 2010  |  48 Comments

My inbox is overflowing like a molten lava cake. Turns out, some of you want to be pastry chefs and are looking for advice on the how to go about it. Well, thanks for thinking of me, I’m happy to help. I’ll tell you what I wish someone told me when I first started because at the time, I had no idea how I was going to do it, and the thought of it left me bewildered. It was like trying to swim across the ocean.

First, we have to squelch The Fear. I remember how intimidated I was. It all seemed so out of my reach, like the industry was made up of untouchable gods, able to work miracles that us mere mortals only imagined. Please.

Once I saw the motley crew that was really behind the scenes, I wondered what scared me so much in the first place. There they were, night after night, leaning against the “pass” (the area where you pass finished plates to the waiter), looking half dazed and gearing up for another night of drinking after a long shift. You had your career changers, illegal immigrants, drop outs, misfits, those with no English, bookish scholarly types and those who never touched a pastry bag in their lives (including me.) Some people were in the kitchen because they really didn’t know what else to do with themselves, and fell into the job accidentaly. Fer cryin’ out loud, if you can fall into a job accidentally, it can’t be that hard to do it on purpose.

Pastry school or no pastry school?

When I first decided I would really make a go of the pastry chef thing, my goal was to go to school, namely the creme de la creme of culinary schools, The Culinary Institute of America. I put on my finest and took a trip up to Hyde Park, NY to tour the campus and instantly fell in love. Just as I was gearing up to fill out my tuition check, they unceremoniously killed my plans. Apparently, they didn’t accept students unless they had prior restaurant experience. My pen and my jaw hit the floor. What ogre made up this crazy Catch 22? You can’t get a job without some sort of school, and you can’t go to school without having had a job? All I could do was shake my fist at the heavens and come up with a plan B.

Now, looking back, that was the BEST thing they could have done for me. If you’ve looked into going to any culinary school yourself, you’ve undoubtedly found out that it’s EXPENSIVE, and you’re going to have to make a lot of crullers over your lifetime to dig out of that debt. I’ve seen too many people leave their old lives behind with a kind of determined naiveté, fork over their life savings for tuition, only to discover upon entering the profession that it is nothing like they imagined. They discover that it is ridiculously hard work, unglamorous most of the time and they don’t get to be famous just for showing up. Disillusioned, some of them even quit after a year or two.

So, obviously, the biz is not for everyone. The best favor you can do for yourself is to try the job on for size before committing to a school. It’s nothing like baking at home, and you really need to understand what you’re getting yourself into. The pace is fast, the time runs away from you, the stress can get so intense, you sometimes want to throw down your side towel and stomp out the door, all your bones ache like you’ve been beaten with a bag of potatoes, and it can be highly repetitive. The job may bear an eerie similarity to factory work, what with the industrial sized quantities, and equipment working in constant rotation.

Hopefully, you’re still reading and aren’t completely discouraged, because it can also be really exciting. There were days when I was so far in the zone, I felt like I was on fistfuls of heroin. My adrenaline was pumping, the heart racing, hundreds of stunning plates making their way out of the kitchen with swift precision, and a thick buzz in the kitchen air. It was like being in the World Series every day — a constant rush.

The one thing I will say for going to school is it gives you something to put on your resume, and usually the school has a placement program that will help you get a job. But still, it’s a small advantage.

First job in a pastry kitchen

I’ll drop the (raspberry) bombe now, because no one seems to want to hear this. If your goal is to really be the best high-level pastry chef at renowned fine-dining restaurants or bakeries, you’ll probably have to intern at first.

When I was hiring, I didn’t care too much about what school someone came from or if they’d even been. I had a set budget for a staff, and I wanted to fill the team with people who would make my life easier. School doesn’t give you the kind of experience that makes a chef’s life easier. A chef will still have to show you a lot of the ropes and spend a lot of precious time holding your hand. If I had a choice between a candidate with some kind of school certificate or someone with restaurant experience, but no certificate, the experienced candidate would usually prove to be better suited.

BUT, I always had room for an intern, and even the greenest interns made life easier to some extent. Because I didn’t have to truly depend on them, everything they did was a bonus. An intern meant extra hands, free labor, and it almost didn’t matter how slowly they did the assigned task.

It really is a win-win for both you and the chef. Because you’re unpaid, you can decide how few or how many hours you want to work per week. You learn so much, and that education doesn’t cost you anything but your time. You get valuable experience and a true picture of restaurant life. It really doesn’t have to be for long, and as soon as you start, you’ll instantly have something to add to your resume. Meanwhile, you can continue to search for a paying gig, which will be easier to get because you are gaining experience while searching.

How to get that foot in the door

I imagine there are lots of ways to go about this, but here’s what I would do:

  1. Seems to go without saying, but I’ll say it: if you are a career changer, don’t quit until you find a paying job. You can intern a couple of nights a week and/or a day on the weekend.

  2. If you are serious about greatness, don’t strive for any old job in any crummy Crisco-using bakery. Make a list of 15 to 20 places in your area that you would die to work in. You know which ones—those that get all the buzz, get written about in magazines, and get consistently high ratings in Zagat’s.

  3. Find out the names of the pastry chefs. You can look online, but be sure that information is current. If  you can’t find it, call the restaurant. Don’t panic, you will most likely get the reservationist, who is making a few bucks an hour trying to pay for college. Tell them you’d like to send  a resume to the pastry chef, and would they kindly give you the name.

  4. Once you have your list together, prepare yourself mentally because you will call each restaurant back, and ask to speak to the pastry chef. Don’t worry, this will only be a few uncomfortable minutes and you could potentially change your life. Only call between 3PM-5PM, the hours between lunch and dinner service, when the kitchen is relatively quieter. Don’t take up too much of the chef’s time. Be brief. Give your name and explain that you’re determined to get into the pastry business and are looking for an internship. Ask if they would allow you to “trail” in their kitchen for a day. This means you will spend the day trying out. If they agree, ask what you need to bring—maybe a set of knives, or a pocket pad, Sharpie marker and pen, and be sure you bring it. Wear really comfortable shoes. Clogs are a favorite in the kitchen. The chef can decide if they want to continue on with you at the end of the trail day.

    Speaking for myself, I usually agreed to let someone come in for an afternoon, because it was no skin off my teeth. It was just a day. And think about this: if I wanted an intern, I usually had to go find one myself! People rarely took the initiative to call, choosing more passive approaches to contact me, so if you do call, you will stand out.

  5. I’m pretty confident that you will find an opportunity within that list of 15 or 20 names. The turnover in this business is almost laughable. Positions constantly become available and you WILL find one.

  6. If you really, really, really can’t bring yourself to call, then mail. Pastry chefs don’t get much mail at work, so your envelope will stand out. Craft a short cover letter about your search for an internship, your passion for pastry, your desire to learn, and all that good stuff, and attach your resume. I don’t think this is as effective as calling because with a phone call, you’re putting the chef on the spot a little bit to let you come in, and that is an advantage for you.

So there you have it — a step-by-step, of sorts on how to go about becoming a pastry chef. After you get started, the rest will fall into place because you’ll meet people who’ll give input and help. Anyone been down this road and have any other advice? Please share.

Would you ever consider doing anything like this?

Also, these are two FANTASTIC books I read that were incredibly informative and motivating when I was starting:

This one has loads of stories from big-name chefs, how they started, their insights, as well as signature recipes.

The Making of a Pastry Chef: Recipes and Inspiration from America’s Best Pastry Chefs

This one’s about what it’s really like to go to the Culinary Institute of America, and above all, what it takes to really excel in the biz.

The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America






48 Responses to “How to become a Professional Pastry Chef”

  1. Cindy says:

    Very interesting article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  2. PastryPal says:

    Hi Cindy — Thank you for getting through the opus! :)

  3. Bunny says:

    WOW!! This is fantastic advice!

  4. PastryPal says:

    Bunny—Thank you!

  5. Cyndy says:

    Oh my but this would be a dream of mine if only to have the knowledge. I would love to attend the CIA. But for now I have to stay where I am. But dreaming about it is nice though. Thank You for the advice, you just never know……….

  6. PastryPal says:

    Cyndy—I know what you mean. I dreamt about it for a good couple of years before I did anything about it. Even now, I would still love to attend the CIA, even if just for fun.

  7. Deanna says:

    That is quite interesting. I met a cake decorator who went to pastry school and she said all she really needed was a few courses in cake decorating to do what she’s doing now. I think it would be great to attend culinary school and obtain all of that knowledge in a short time. For me though, I’ll continue to soak up as much as I can on my computer and from Pastry Pal!

  8. PastryPal says:

    Hi Deanna—Interesting what your friend says. I personally don’t think going to school is necessary. I see people come out of school and they’re not much more prepared to work in the biz than people who didn’t go. Once I started working, I found a lot of opportunity to take courses (some of them were even designed especially for the professional) and that worked out well and saved me a lot of money. I have a lot to say on the subject, but I that’ll be for another post.

  9. Deeba@PAB says:

    Loved the no holds barred views on becoming a pastry chef, something I might have dreamt of being if I was younger & fancy free. I’m glad I’m past the ‘date’ now, else would have been tempted to join! Thanks for a great post Irina!

  10. PastryPal says:

    Deeba, you are fancy free. Have you seen your last dessert? So whimsical.

  11. cellia says:

    I am from philippines,Since i came here in italy 5 years ago until now all i can do for work is baby settir,domestic and caregiver nothing else,because italian doesn’t accept the person without diploma/certificate which mean you are studied here in italy..this year i want to go to school to become a pastry chef to change my work and to add my resume,its not so easy because for 5 years here im not that good of thier languages..in this article makes me really encourage to try to go to school but im still afraid maybe i can’t do it..:(

  12. PastryPal says:

    Cellia — If you really want to do it, you have to try. Fear is the only thing holding you back. I have a friend who didn’t speak french and went to work in Paris. It was tough at first, but she found a way! There will always be obstacles, you just have to fight through them. I wish you the best!

  13. Michelle says:

    This article is definitely insightful! Thank you for sharing it. I’ve been toying with the idea of culinary school and making a whole new career change for a long time, but it took recent dramatic circumstances in my life to force me to take the next step…so now I am in culinary school. I was trying to do the shortcut and volunteer as an intern to gain more industry experience without paying for a school, but I found a really great program that I is right for me. For $12k I school for 4 months and extern for 2 months, which is a 1/3 of the cost to other culinary schools. I look at it this way..many people spend at least $30k for a wedding that could result in a divorce and knowledge stays with you forever…so it’s well worth it to me.

  14. PastryPal says:

    Thank you, Michelle. I’m glad you found the right kind of situation for you. Sometimes we really need that push, whether intentional or not, to get on the path we’ve wished for. I hope you have a great career ahead.

  15. christine says:

    hi, after reading this, i feel like i make good choice, i live in ireland, i always like cake, so everytime i eat cake, i wish i can making, until i decide to go to school to learn how to cook irish food, then i find that they were doing cake, every time we have class for the cake i was so happy, but i have a problem, my writting in english was not good, when it came to my assignement, i have problem, sometimes i have problem with my tutor, i felt like stopping the course, but my husband and my family was my strengh. when i start to improve they could not believe it was me. now i decide to be a pastry chef i dont know what to expect but i know that in live you need detemination, still i know my writing is a problem but i decide not to put that in my mind, i have to believe in myself and have faith and trust God, along that i know what i am capable of doing it. today at home i can bake, my children and also my friend and family like, now i have reader this i will try the experience how to make some desert.thank for the advice.

  16. angela lynn says:

    hey whats up?! this is a good site! i really like the food!:)

  17. Courtney says:

    I want to become a pastry chef so bad. I am creative and I love to draw. I am married with 3 children. My family does not support my decision except for my 14yr old son. My family thinks that I will not make enough money to support the family and that I will not find a job. I live in connecticut and I have done a ton of research. This is what I want to do because I know I will be happy and love my job. I want to attend CT Culinary institute they have a paid externship program job placement and even recruiters from Disneyworld come up to this school. I feel very sure that I can be successful and I’m not going to let anyone stop me. It would he nice to have all of my families support but they want me to become a nurse and that is not my passion. I am very aware that it is hardwork and I’m alittle nervous about being able to balance work and a family but I have faith and I know I can do anything I put my mind to.

  18. farahsha says:

    hi again :)
    very very helpful , really like the idea of intern ( free of cost ) .. i wish i wish ….

  19. Susana says:

    Hello! I like the info here,and how your story is detailed and very good! I want to be a pastry chef! I adore cooking,and I have patience! But Im berly 13 year old,and I am shy. So do you think I can make it in that kind of bussinesss? And Also what are the requirements usually to be a pastry chef!? Help me,please?! Thankk you

  20. Nikki says:

    Hello! I’m really interested in the culinary arts, and I’d love to one day become a pastry chef. However, at the moment, I’m only 15. So I was wondering if there are any courses during high school that you might recommend to a kid like me, who is unable to undergo proper study right now. Your article has really inspired me (again) to go into this profession. Thanks for the great advice! I’ll definitely use this in the future!

  21. PastryPal says:

    Hi Nikki, You’ve got a lot of ambition, and kudos for that. You know, honestly, I don’t know of any specific courses for someone in high school. Most communities (and it depends on where you live) have individual cooking classes that you can take here and there at a local culinary school or college, but most are designed for the hobbyist. Sometimes there are vocational programs that are designed for mentoring younger people who want to enter the profession. I’d suggest you look into that first. Or you can be an apprentice to someone that already works. Give a professional in your town a call, explain your situation, and ask if you can be their “right hand man” once or twice a week. It’s an amazing way to learn, maybe better than a side class. Hope that helps!

  22. Heidi says:

    Hi there,

    Hope you got the email i just sent.. anyway, in case you didn’t, brief summary :)..
    I have no experience in th pastry/hotel industry, but am keen (really keen) on learning how to bake pastries, etc. so am looking to go to a pastry school next year. It is really pricy, and all I intend to do with it is LEARN HOW, so thatI can open a pastry & coffee shop of my own, and work from earrrrly morning until around lunchtime. Do you think it’s necessary to go pastry school for that? Ive read 2/3 of yr blogs now and am thinking maybe some trailing in a local bakery(s) would suffice, that I could learn how to bake well outside of the pricy ‘system’ :) WhatI do like about doing the course, is the ‘name’ behind me when I open my own pastry shop. Please give me some advice/tips! I have to enrol by March if I want to study from July-Dec, so pls do let me know asap. Thanks a mil :) Heidi

  23. I do alot of net search . Your blog, this article and recipes are one of the best I have seen…Im a consultant by profession, but my real passion is food…the best part of this article , besides the humorously entertaining writing style , is that you have laid everything out in black and white and have given the truth and both sides of the picture. I would have never thought that you could be come a pastry chef without high class culinary schooling!. This really opened my eyes and it is true..if there is a will..there is a way!…God bless you…PS your step by step photographed procedures are just heaven for a novice baker like me!

  24. Jorge says:

    All my life I love cooking food specially Desserts, but money been a problem to go to school and most pastry chefs here in Florida don’t like to be bother to let one in to see and help and learn this fantastic art of pastry =( One day I hope I can become that pastry chef that I always want to!

  25. Kara says:

    I just started a pastry program and am finding disappointment in where my enormous tuition check is going. This was fantastic advice, and I am absolutely going to reach out in my area to find an internship. I can back down to a 1 year program and find a place to learn real expertise. I do think that doing both simultaneously can be a huge advantage for me, but like you said, experience is more important in this field. Thanks for the guidance, it was so helpful!

  26. Vania says:

    This article definitely helped a lot. THANKS! I am 16 and I really want to be a pastry chef one day. I only started making cupcakes and banana breads. I still could not get my cupcakes right. But hey, I still want to own my own cupcake bakery one day in my little hometown of Balikpapan. Your advice definitely pushed me to keep on going. I am not planning to get into pastry school or any lessons, I want to start by being an intern. Calling the restaurant would not hurt, so why not! I really want that experience. It is inspiring to hear about other people’s experience in the field. I still want that cupcake bakery no matter what! Making beautiful food, looking at happy faces that is something I want to be able to do one day. Keep on going with the suggestions!

  27. Stacye says:

    Thanks for your blog. I recently applied for pastry school, but did not get in . I searched and If I can get a job in a bakery, I maybe be able to get an apprenticeship. I am currently working as a line chef, so unfortunately a completely different game. I enjoy baking, it is my passion and I love to see the reactions to my baking. The things people can do with fondant amaze me ! I would in time like to own a cupcakery or a cafe based on patisserie.

    Thanks again for your blog !

  28. PastryPrincess says:

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with your article. I spent ten-plus years in the advertising industry and decided to make a change and follow my dream – of being a pastry chef.

    I really think you should promote education over ‘cold-calling’ — you can never underestimate formal training. Do I think you can be successful in this industry by working your way up in a kitchen? – Yes.
    Is it the norm? – No.

    A formal education gives you the foundation to go into a kitchen and not have to be watched constantly by the chefs. You also get the opportunity to learn the classics. — I noticed in your one post that you just made a DoBos torte for the first time. This was one of the first things we made in our classical pastry class — now I can take that knowledge and use it put a twist on a classic.

    I don’t go to the CIA or The French Pastry School. I go to a local technical school where the education is top-notch and the opportunities are endless.

  29. Lisette says:

    Hi, I really enjoyed reading this. I am a student at Le Cordon Bleu and I have an interview with the pastry chef at a great restaurant. I am wondering if you have any advice on how to prepare for this interview. Or any basic things I should be sure to remember.

    I am very passionate about baking and I hope that will translate in my interview. But any help you can give would be much appreciated!

  30. PastryPal says:

    Hi Lisette — I understand Le Cordon Bleu is an amazing school!

    If you are able to commit yourself for at least a year, I would emphasize this. Tell the chef you’d like to stay at least through all the seasons to get a sense of what a year of pastry is like. Tell him about how much you love pastry and how dedicated you are. That you are willing to take direction and want to learn as much as you can, and you want to learn how to do things right and fast. Talk about your high standards and how you want to be part of the best. Hope that helps and good luck! Let me know how it goes.

  31. Carol says:

    Everything I wish someone had told me back in 2006! I went from making wedding cakes for friends to baking school (certificate program for 10 months/not as expensive as CIA but still an investment). Wouldn’t trade the experiences and training I had for lots of reasons, but wish I’d had a more realistic vision beforehand of life as a baker/pastry chef. I might have made a different choice. Maybe not — who knows?

    Excellent blog! Your photography makes me swoon almost as much as the pastry. Keep up the good work.

    Carol

  32. Carmen says:

    Amazing article!!!!
    I am trying to find a intern job… not luck so far…
    But I will not give up, I love pastry!!!

  33. Lisette says:

    It went really well! I got my internship at that company and I’ve been in the bakery doing catering. It’s a lot of fun and I really enjoy going to work every day! Thanks for your advice!!

  34. Alê says:

    This is a great article, very informative! I have a question though…
    In step 3 of ‘get your foot in the door’, how do I go about constructing a resume to send to the pastry chef?
    I’m 20 years old and before last year, I never cooked anything in my life (aside from packaged ramen). My boyfriend taught me how to cook and I instantly fell in love. I now know how to cook basic dishes such as rice, beans, pasta, and curry dishes. I’m at a very basic level and have a far way to go. As far as baked goods go, I’ve baked a date cake from scratch only a handful of times (following an online recipe).

    Should I look up recipes, make them, take pictures, and write that up into a resume? How exactly does that work? Also, am I right for this career? I know I’ll find that out for myself once I start interning but…

    the one thing that worries me isn’t waking up at 3 or 4am or standing for long hours or having to work for long shifts…it’s being able to bake and make and multitask all at an incredible speed. I assume you gain speed through experience but I’m not very quick on my feet and that is what worries me. Is there a way I can develop this skill? Should I time myself every time I prepare something?

    Thank you so much for your article, it is very helpful and most of all, gives me some hope. : )

  35. Abby says:

    Im so glad I came upon this web page. it’s been so helpful. For a long time all I ever wanted to do was learn about pastry but like u said, sometimes it seems so impossible. There’s a passions for it I can’t explain and a dream of one day owning my own bakery. pipe dream huh? so I’ve stuck to studying therapy in school which I also love. reading this explained a lot though.

  36. puja says:

    Thank you soo much for this post..it is one of the most lucidly laid down path to being a pstry chef…i am 26 and live in india…and have been for a very long time now , really aching to get into professional baking…the course fees for CIA, cordon bleu just make that dream seem even more distant…i love baking…its what i think about all the time even when i sleep i dream of the many things i havent made yet…. this post has given me some light and belief that things can happen even if i dont go to a professional school…just yet…
    i cannot thank you enough..:))

  37. Annie says:

    Hi, im in NYC, do u have any openings for an intern? This is solely for personal pleasure, ive been baking all summer and would love to trail a chef.

  38. PastryPal says:

    Hi Annie – I’m sorry, but I’m not working in a pastry kitchen right now, so have no need for an intern. I would contact pastry chefs in restaurant kitchens!

  39. Cakelady says:

    What I learned is that after submitting countless apps for pastry jobs, in which the employers use the online applications, I have not find success in getting my foot in the door. I work at Publix Super Market and fyi they offer decorating apprenticeship jobs that provide pay, training, opportunity for advancement, and most importantly experience to put on one’s resume. They offer culinary internships, as well. I attended a culinary school, so I don’t want my skills to go to waste. I want to build my skills in pastries, so I am now researching pastry apprenticeship programs. I found a few nationwide ones. After a few years I will be proficient with an emphasis on decorating :D

  40. H says:

    Hi I want to be a pastry chef ever since I saw cake boss when I was in h.s ,I’m interning for a bakery for 3 weeks? I started in June this yr . U wouldn’t recommend culinary school and I agree but I’m lost on how I keep up this internship . I’m also lost where I should look ,I looked in stop shop and waiting for a reply . I live in the ny state . Not the city, um took a break from community college . Could give me some advice and tips ? I really wanna do this regardless how hard it is and look back how hard I worked . Also, have my place sometime .

  41. ollie says:

    I love this article ! Because of You , I have an interview for an internship in one of the best restaurants in London! I just left my cover letter there !! Thank You!

  42. abrar says:

    Hi, i enjoyed the article above. i got 1 question, what is your opinion if after i’m done with my study, should i go for work experience or run my own bakery.. i’m from Malaysia

  43. Xiomara says:

    Hello,

    Thank you so much for this article, it is really helpful. After 5 years studying liberal arts and languages, I’m realizing that the traditional careers related to my degrees don’t interest me. I love baking for family and friends and as a hands-on kind of person, I like seeing what I have accomplished and the joy it brings to those around me. Making a career of it seems like the logical thing to do. But, having just graduated with almost 80k in debt, pastry school is not a feasible option and I’m more curious than certain at this point. It’s nice to know that there are other ways to learn about the industry.
    Again, thank you for your sensible and realistic advice!

  44. Amber says:

    Hello, I’m just like Nikki the girl who posted above (except I’m 16) and I need the same help. However I would not be able to afford special classes. I do bake a lot for my friends at school and try to self teach myself(would this help me in any way?). I would like to shadow the pastry chief to learn whatever I can. But I do have a fear that the chef I ask to do this will tell me that they don’t have time for a kid. I feel this way because I’ve sent in a resume to company and have not gotten anything back.
    PS: would you recommend any books that could teach me some basics and great recipes to try?
    …also thank you. many people have been pushing me to go to school and the fees look impossible, so you just helped me prove to myself that I can become a pastry chef without schooling THANK YOU!!!!

  45. Chaitanya says:

    I stay in India. And i wanna be a best pastry chef. So please suggest me the best colleges.

  46. Sam says:

    Thank you so much for your advice!!

    I was wondering, as a high schooler, how would you recommend obtaining an internship? I would love to attend a top culinary institute when a graduate, but for now, all I can do are internships. How would you recommend I approach one with only a high school resume and not much experience? I am really determined to make it into the pastry industry and would work really hard in order to obtain an internship at a top restaurant. Thanks!

    - Sam

  47. Sohail Mohsin says:

    Hi PastryPal i’m Sohail and i w’d like a professional pastry chef,and i’ll follow you for that,thankyou

  48. Taylor says:

    It was a good article, but its not exactly what i wanted to know. But i really want to become a pastry chef. Thanks for all the good advice.

Post a Comment

Your E-Mail will be kept private. * = required fields.