When I quit my corporate job and moved to Paris to pursue my dream of becoming a pastry chef, I wasn’t sure how far down this path I could manage.
Sure, I loved eating pastries and I loved the idea of making them, but I had also heard enough Hell’s Kitchen stories that had kept me worried.
So what is it really like to work in a pastry kitchen in Paris? As a part of my professional pastry program at école Ferrandi, I completed a 5-month internship at Un Dimanche à Paris, a chic boutique known for its beautiful exhibition kitchen and delicious pastries. Here are some behind-the-scene snapshots to give you an idea of what the life of a French patissier is like.
Day-to-day in the kitchen
6:00/7:00am: We start at 6 or 7am depending on the day. The usual practice is to arrive 10 minutes earlier, change into chef jackets, get a cup of coffee, and get ready to rock and roll. The pastry team consists of 5 people, including the chef, two commis patissiers, one apprentice, and one intern (that would be me). The team is extremely young, with the average age being around 22 (To give you an idea, I was only 25 when I started interning there, yet I was the oldest in the kitchen. Yes, even older than the chef). This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, as most French people start their careers at the young age of 15 if they choose to work in the pastry industry. It’s extremely fun to work with a young team – we are passionate about what we do, efficient in our work, and always have a good deal of fun while we are at it. Music in the pastry kitchen? Yes, always.
Anyway, back to the routine. The morning starts with baking all the items that cannot be made ahead of time, such as pâte-à-choux (for éclairs and cream puffs and the like), which must be prepared fresh daily because they become soggy quickly after being filled with cream.
Then, we do the “finishing” for the petits gateaux. Take our tarte au citron as an example, we start by making meringue from whipped egg whites and hot syrup, then continue with piping the meringue and browning it slightly with a blowtorch, and finally finish by dotting points of lemon glaze and a piece of silver leaf.
10:00am: By this time, we have finished decorating all the cakes and have sent them to the boutique for sale. We then start with the “production” part, which can include the making of different types of cream (e.g. chantilly, cremeux, ganache montée), the doughs (pâte sablée, pâte à choux), and the baking of biscuits (e.g. pain de Gênes, dacquoise).
11:30am: Lunch break, which can last 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on how much work we have for the day.
4:00/5:00pm: We usually finish around 4 or 5pm, but again this varies depending on how much there is to do. During Christmas, for example, we can work till late in the night in order to finish all the Christmas log cakes. Regardless of what time we finish, we always end by scrubbing everything – the workstation marble, the cupboards, the floor – until the kitchen is sparkling clean, so that the next day we can start off fresh.
Always rosy? Not quite. My 5-month internship at Un Dimanche à Paris was one of the best times I’ve had in my life, but it wasn’t all rosy either. As the intern, I was automatically at the bottom of the totem poll and was thus expected to do tasks that others may not want to do (like zesting and juicing 20 kg of limes by hand, cleaning piles of cake molds, scrubbing the floor drain, etc.) It was especially challenging at the beginning, because I had no experience working in a professional kitchen (in my defense, in my previous life I was working in a cubicle), so I was much slower than everyone else and made stupid mistakes here and there. Another problem was my far-from-perfect French, which created some very frustrating and amusing incidents…
The only time I shed tears, however, was half way through my internship when I had already picked up on speed, French, and rapport with my colleagues. The story went like this. Famed French chocolatier Michel Cluizel was hosting his big birthday luncheon at Un Dimanche à Paris for extended family and friends, and my chef had spent days making a giant chocolate cake for this special occasion. One hour before the luncheon, I was reaching over to get something from the cupboard when I heard the chef scream my name. I followed his panicked gaze and saw, to my horror, that I had inadvertently touched the surface of the cake with my apron, leaving an ugly mark on the previously immaculate glaze. My head started to spin, and all I could think of was: “The luncheon is about to start and I just ruined Michel Cluizel’s birthday cake. I’m so f***ed.” Right there and then, tears of despair started oozing out of my eyes uncontrollably despite my colleagues’ effort to console me.
The incident actually ended very smoothly, with my chef salvaging the cake by placing decorative items over the blemish. He actually wasn’t even mad at me – “Mais tout le monde fait des erreurs!” Everyone makes mistakes! In retrospect, this incident really wasn’t as dramatic as it had seemed at the time, but it’s one of those moments that will probably stay with me throughout my pastry career. On that note, contrary to previous self-doubts, I am actually coping well with this switch from the cubicle to the kitchen, and have been working as a full-time pâtissier at another establishment for a few months now. I shall have more behind-the-scene kitchen stories to share with you soon…
- Want more sweets? Here is Carin’s list of the best places for a cup of tea and something sweet in Paris
- Remember the éclair smackdown we shared on HiP Paris last year? If not, here it is again.
- Paris Pâtisseries lists the top 38 pastries in the City of Light.