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.
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.
But such a philosophy has its difficulties for others, and hiring talent remains a long-term goal. "I am not a trained pastry chef," Curto-Randazzo admits. "I find doing the pastries at Talula a challenge, and sometimes a frustration that I struggle with on a daily basis. I have the creative ideas and visions, but having the time and trained skill to execute them is another story. In savory cooking we chefs can usually fix a mistake -- but when it comes to the world of sweets, nine times out of ten, you mess it up, you're SOL."
Perhaps that's why other chefs do the exact opposite when placed in a similar situation. For instance, "When I came to Zemi, I contemplated doing the desserts myself," Michael Schwartz says of his newest venture in Boca Raton. "But with my limited repertoire, I thought I'd be shortchanging the guests. Sure I can make some solid desserts, but I felt that I needed to find someone who is as passionate about sweets as I am about savory." And he did, in Stephanie G. Wong, whom he calls "a joy to work with ... unassuming and very talented. We often collaborate and she makes things to enhance some of my dishes."
Still Schwartz will agree with Chispa chef-owner Robbin Haas, who says that "one of the reasons we do not see a lot of restaurant pastry chefs down here is purely financial" and that finding someone as special as Nemo's Hedy Goldsmith is a rarity. "I've been so spoiled over the recent years from having Hedy and never having to worry about that department," Schwartz muses.
Goldsmith herself, who supplies the sweets for Prime 112 as well as Nemo and Big Pink, finds the current trend of restaurant chefs playing with pastry dismaying: "[Suddenly] we're an amenity, a luxury. Plus some chefs like to do the pastries now because then they can control everything. Schwartz really knew the value of having someone equal to his savory talents."
Though they may work in different cities now, clearly Goldsmith and Schwartz are still in concert. Schwartz notes: "I should say that for certain situations hiring a pastry chef is an expense that some operations cannot afford, but in the fine-dining arena I think it's money well spent." As for the talent pool, he adds, "I think it's a shame that some chefs take matters into their own hands and treat the desserts and the dessert menu like a red-headed stepchild. It's true that there is a glut in the industry for talented pastry chefs but there are some up-and-comers that just need a little direction."
For Haas, doing without a pastry chef was never an option, though he will acknowledge his luck. "We are fortunate. My chef, Adam Votaw, is also a trained pastry chef," Haas says. "He was trained by the Roux brothers in London, he was my pastry chef when I opened the Four Seasons in Palm Beach, and he was also my chef at Little Palm Island. He is as good in hot food as pastries, and has the background to back it up on both."
Like Nemo and Chispa, Cacao has built its reputation on both the savory and the sweet elements, and so can't do without a full-time, in-house pastry chef. As restaurant rep Dindy Yokel puts it, "Cacao restaurant needs one for the intricate desserts and handmade chocolates. But [in other restaurants], as the economy worsened, I think that pastry chefs were among the most costly of the staff and therefore the first to go or the first not to be hired at a new restaurant.
"Anyone can whip up a simple dessert or buy them from Bindi (no relation) but the true art of pastry is rare in Miami these days," she continues, sympathetic to the needs of the sweet-toothed public. "With portions at most restaurants so huge, so much bread being served, most people don't want dessert -- a sad thing. Most people go home looking for something sweet if they didn't order dessert, and that's when the midnight madness sets in and people eat really weird stuff to satisfy the craving. Wouldn't Hedy Goldsmith's apple pie or key lime cheesecake be so much better?"
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Other independent restaurants -- such as 32 East in Delray Beach, whose Max Canter was recently featured in Food Arts, and Tsunami in West Palm Beach, which has Jason Laukhuf, until recently the executive pastry chef for all Mark Militello's restaurants -- feel the time and money it takes to find and publicize the best in the field is part and parcel of running a restaurant. OLA MIAMI owner Ed Lieberman is emphatic in his response: "It is important for the overall success of a restaurant to invest in an executive pastry chef. Executive chef Rick Gonzalez is happy to share responsibilities with executive pastry chef José Luis Flores. With a pastry chef who possesses equal talents as our executive chef, we know the dessert will complete the dining experience."
Predictably, New World cheftrepreneur Norman Van Aken feels strongly. "Oh my God!" he says. "Live without a full-time pastry chef? What is the world coming to?
"We have four restaurants now and thusly ... four pastry chefs. Long live the sweetest givers!" And naturally he wouldn't mind taking one more step back toward tradition. "I long for the really olden days when we had butchers working with us. Then you could get both an education and some really tasty cuts of meat that just don't come along in the normal course of today's menus. Sure we can order beef cheeks and the like ... but ... ah well ..."
Of course newbie restaurateurs can barely afford publicists, let alone pastry chefs and custom butchers. But the time, for them, may someday arrive. "In a perfect world this is the person that I would like to show up at Talula: a young and eager pastry person, looking for an opportunity to grow with us. Must be able to follow recipes, and eventually develop their own creative ideas," says Curto-Randazzo. "Perhaps after this successful season we are predicted to have, Talula will find space in the budget for a pastry chef. At the same time, I can only hope that we can find space in [in our personal] budget for a maid," the multitasker jokes. "Until then, I bake and I clean!"