Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a scary trend: Major magazines and food publications say that pastry chefs are going extinct. As a pastry chef, this is bad news, to say the least.
These articles tell us that as margins shrink due to inflation, pastry chefs are either out of work or looking for more secure jobs in other industries. But when I look around, it doesn’t take me long to find a plethora of people doing amazing work in the pastry space. Pastry chefs are disappearing, but only from the places we are used to seeing them. “Every trade has to evolve. It can’t be the same all the time,” says Tavel Bristol-Joseph, executive pastry chef and restaurant owner based in Austin, Texas. “As humans, we couldn’t survive that long if we didn’t evolve.”
When I started baking professionally, the pastry chef path was pretty straightforward: you spent your time working in fancy restaurants and working your way up to becoming a pastry chef. I began my baking career by walking in the back door of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California and applying for an internship in the baking department. Since then, I have worked exclusively in pastry for the last decade in various kitchens in Northern California; these kitchens, often run by women or queer people, they were very different from salty cuisines.
All the pastry kitchens I worked in were great places to work, with a peace of mind in the midst of the rigorous workload. Those of us in the pastry department work just as hard as our colleagues on the savory side, but you never saw the chefs in charge throw dishes against the wall. In the pastry kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant where I worked briefly, cooks from the salty side would come to cry or vent their frustrations in the safe space of the pastry kitchen. They were saying things like, “If I can survive here for a year, I can work anywhere.” When I finally left the restaurant’s pastry kitchen in 2019, it was his attachment to the savory side that fueled that desire.
Opportunities for pastry chefs began to change with the advent of cabin laws beginning in the 2010s. A home cooking operation allows people to produce foods in their homes that are not considered hazardous, such as bread, cakes, and jams. . While these laws were not originally intended for professionals like me, they did create a pathway to ownership. With the home cooking laws, those of us who had left restaurants but didn’t have the resources to open a bakery or pastry shop, which requires large amounts of money or a grant of power to investors, were able for the first time to bake on our own. terms.
Don Guerra founded the celebrated Pan de Barrio in 2009 from his garage, where he made hundreds of loaves a week for his neighbors with locally grown ingredients. In 2015, Bonnie Ohara founded Alchemy Bread in Modesto, California after experimenting with home baking. I started Desert Bread in Las Vegas in 2018 with my husband Brendon Wilharber, selling bread and pastries at farmers markets. I used Instagram as the primary tool to market directly to our consumers, posting images of weekly specials and telling the story of where our ingredients come from. This allowed Desert Bread to grow by word of mouth as people told their friends and family about us, tagged each other in the comment section of a post, or posted their market purchases on their own pages. Instagram gave us the ability to tell our story on our terms and create a direct dialogue with our customers. As we began to grow, we realized we were too busy for the farmers market, so we began selling directly from our home in January 2020.
Home cooking has been around for the last decade, but it has really taken off in the last five years. these laws, Coupled with the fact that social media became a powerful tool for business marketing, it helped create a divergent path from restaurant to retail bakery model. And when the pandemic put many pastry chefs out of work, companies like Barrio Bread and Alchemy Bread provided a roadmap for the many Instagram pastry pop-ups and apartment-based micro-bakeries that kept customers going through the shutdowns.
Like many other industries, the pandemic has drastically affected the world of pastry. People left the industry for good as difficult circumstances revealed how slim margins had become for even the most successful restaurants. But the pandemic also forced pastry chefs to reflect: Where are we now? Has the restaurant industry returned to normal? And then he inspired pastry chefs to find ways to make the industry work for them.
Jennifer Yee, though respected by those she had worked with since 2018 at Konbi in Los Angeles, knew it would be the last job she would work for others. So, in 2021, Yee opened Bakers Bench vegan bakery, not as a home bakery but in a kiosk in a busy strip mall in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. She didn’t leave the industry entirely; she turned the company over to her own so she could work for herself. “I don’t have control over the food industry in general, but this is something I can control and it’s something I want to be a part of,” she says. Yee has plans to open the next version of Bakers Bench in a historic building that will also house other small business owners.
“The pandemic has taught us to balance work and personal life,” says Diane Moua, a James Beard Award-nominated pastry chef who announced in October that she would open her own location next year. Ella moua hopes to open her cafeteria and bakery, where she will combine traditional Hmong home cooking with French pastry technique, combining her heritage and her classical training. Moua is using her position as an industry leader to change her employees’ work schedule so they have more days off, shifting her staff to four-day work weeks. “My biggest regret was missing out on my children’s lives growing up. I can’t take that back, but I can make sure that, moving forward in the industry, I can try to change that a bit.” Moua plans to make room for parents who often leave the industry after their children are born by creating flexibility in scheduling and condensing the number of shifts per week.
American pastry chefs are not just creating great food, they are living their lives instead of being locked in pastry dungeons working 80+ hour work weeks. “There are so many things you can be, there are so many ways you can be, you don’t have to work in a restaurant or a bakery. You can do it,” says Rachel Caygill, who now runs Green House Bakery out of her Oakland home while still having time to actively raise her three children.
Even the James Beard Foundation has acknowledged the changing landscape. The James Beard Awards, known as the Academy Awards of the American food world, have expanded their requirements for 2023 award nominations. The foundation added outstanding bakery as a category, stating: “Eligible nominees must sell products directly to the public on a consistent basis, but do not require a physical presence. It also combined the Outstanding Pastry Chef with Outstanding Baker category, no physical bakery location was needed either.
It is clear that the pastry industry advances beyond the four walls of the restaurant. If you’re looking for exciting pastry chefs, don’t look where we’ve been. Look where we are now and where we are going.
Brett Boyer, a veteran of Bay Area bakeries, is part owner of desert bread with her husband, a Las Vegas-based home bakery specializing in rustic Italian and French pastries. julios garcia is a freelance illustrator based in Burlington, Vermont.