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To paraphrase an old folk song: Where have all the pastry chefs gone?
A decade ago, having a pastry chef on staff at a South Florida restaurant was both de rigueur and a badge of honor. It implied that here, at least, dessert was a special enough course to be considered in its own right. That this particular restaurant was trendy enough to acknowledge the importance of spun sugar sculptures, chocolate bombes, and concentrated fruit coulis. That the establishment was so successful, a pastry chef's executive salary, along with the expense of separately printed menus and embossed leather menu covers, was easily recouped by padding the bill with the sale of a few ten-dollar sweets -- which consumers wouldn't hesitate to order.
Conversely, not having a pastry chef on premises was akin to declaring yourself a shoestring operation, whereupon you were expected to charge less -- much less -- than ten dollars for a dessert.
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Post 9/11 and Bush-brother governmental policies, though, pastry chefs have become rare sightings along the lines of the once-abundant South Florida panther and highly visual Xavier Suarez.
Is it a trend or simply economic reality?
"Pastry chefs have been partially displaced by the horde of companies doing upscale desserts in a mass production sense and then teaming up with large-scale distributors [i.e. Cheesecake Factory packaging a line for Sysco]," notes Doug Zeif, former Cheesecake Factory impresario who now has gone independent with Brasserie Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale and Bocadoro in Boca Raton. "Plus it's an art and there's only so much glamour in it, whereas being a successful executive chef has the potential to be full of glamour." Zeif, who was responsible for taking Cheesecake Factory national and creating the tail-eating animal, currently finds himself in the somewhat ironic position of searching for a pastry chef for his two eateries.
Of course one might think that executive chefs should be trained by the schools they attend to learn a little about the science and chemistry of baking. But Tony Sindaco, chef-proprietor of Sunfish Grill in Pompano Beach, says they're learning little and teaching themselves even less. He recalls: "When I was an apprentice some 25 years ago, I knew I wanted to be a chef. But without knowing pastries, I could never really be well rounded. And when you're a chef, how can you not be able to assist either your pastry chef or pastry cooks in what to do? When I had a day off or got in real early before I was supposed to, I would spend time in the pastry shop. I learned as much as I could and built a good foundation."
But to be a true, full-time pastry chef requires focus and dedication, Sindaco says. "Over the years I've seen so many young guys and women that maybe have two-three years experience under their belts calling themselves pastry chefs. They go out into the field after school, learn a few things, then just copy what they learned. To be a great chef or pastry chef takes many, many years of training and dedication, something that the new generation of cooks must take note of."
The outcome is insufficiently trained pastry chefs who may not be worth the investment. As a result chefs like Sindaco often wind up training someone trustworthy -- in Sindaco's case, his wife -- to fill the role.
But sometimes reliable, relatively talented, and reasonably priced is just a buttercream pipe dream. To that end, recently opened, up-market eateries such as Talula and Carmen the Restaurant, no matter how glowing the reviews and how positive the long-term outlook, have forgone the luxury of a seasoned pastry chef, at least for now. The reason is often two-fold, as Talula chef/co-owner Andrea Curto-Randazzo, who also makes the pastries, observes: "Good pastry chefs are hard to come by. And when you do find one, who can afford it?"
Rightly so, agrees Carmen Gonzalez, chef/proprietor of Carmen the Restaurant. "I thought in the beginning of hiring a pastry chef, but the only way I could afford to do it was if the pastry chef was going to wear a couple of hats in the kitchen ... help with prep for lunch and then work the lunch shift. And that was too difficult to find. So we just decided to create the pastries, and we all do them," she says.
Kris Wessel, executive chef at Elia, also takes the egalitarian approach when it comes to dessert. "I have always dreamed up or written the pastry items to match with the direction of the cuisine and main menus. [Then] I surround myself with usually young pastry minds who can produce my ideas and improve upon the consistent output," he says. "I now have a French, Spanish, and Greek team of young minds who handle the department at Elia. If I could find one person who could work with me in both a creative and productive capacity, then he/she would be 'the pastry chef.' But for now I am happy with the team effort."
The proprietary amateur-to-professional Olympic approach works well for Wessel and his employees -- he proudly points to Vanessa Paz at his former restaurant Liaison, who "translated my Florida/New Orleans regional ideas, then moved on to head the department over at the Shore Club." For a tightly budgeted restaurant, as Liaison was, adding a pastry-only staff member is viewed as an extravagance, especially when the executive chef has the will or ability to take on the added role.