The Art of the Sweet LifeMar 01, 2016 ● By Amy Richmond
After hours of back-breaking, meticulous work, the pastry chef stretches, takes a step back and surveys her creation. Her overly-critical eye and palate demand perfection, and sometimes, she just shakes her head and starts over. Each ingredient must be perfectly balanced. The texture must be just right and the plate presentation must be a work of art. With bursts of color and flavor, each creation begs to be experienced to its fullest, but, most are reduced to crumbs in minutes. In these moments of sheer sugar ecstasy, it is easy to take the effort and artistry of talented pastry chefs for granted.
Frisco is home to a number of accomplished and artistic pastry chefs. Each of them brings something innovative and unique to the dessert scene. “It is such a temporary art. You spend a lot of time and effort designing cakes and cookies and then they are gone,” says Cara Posey, the bakery manager and pastry chef at Coffee N Cream in Frisco. “You have pictures, but it is a fleeting art. It can be rewarding and frustrating at the same time. I have to constantly recreate.”
Pastry chefs are rare gems in the culinary world, especially since more restaurants and hotels are choosing to repurpose frozen desserts. So, if you find an establishment with a pastry chef on staff, you have truly discovered a treasure. Whether they work in a restaurant, a bakery, a country club or a hotel, a pastry or dessert chef’s passion overshadows their grueling 50 to 70-hour workweeks. Their dedication to detail ensures a high-quality, great tasting product, and their creative genius elevates the final dessert product to an architectural and visual masterpiece. “If you can get artistry going on a plate that also tastes delicious, now you are doing something that is really special,” states Kent Rathbun, the award-winning executive chef and owner of Abacus, Jasper’s, Hickory and Kent Rathbun Catering. “Now, you are creating food where people do not want to eat it and mess it up, because it is so beautiful, but when they do, they are so happy and love the flavor.”
A pastry chef is a dichotomy of math, science and art all rolled into one. Each element is crucial to the success of the final product. For example, a pastry chef understands the science of how yeast behaves in different climates and elevations. To adjust for these variances, he knows how to alter the ratio of flour, yeast and water to achieve the desired results. In the end, by manipulating ingredients, adding feature elements and painting with color and flavor, a work of sweet art is born. “When you are in the savory kitchen, you can adjust on the fly and get things just right or even better,” says Mr. Rathbun. “That is not really true with baking.”
Christina Doyal, the pastry chef at Barnlight Eatery in Frisco, agrees, saying, “In baking, you have to get it right from the beginning. There is an art and a science to it. If you change just one ingredient, it can become a completely different product. You have to have the ingredients measured out and perfect every time. At the end, if you have messed something up, you have to start over. You cannot add things at the end to fix it.”
Consequently, pastry chefs are extremely picky about their ingredients. “The ingredients used in really good restaurants and desserts are amazing. They are very expensive,” elaborates Mr. Rathbun. “Good chocolates, good fruits, cream and butter are some of the top ingredients we use in the kitchen, in terms of price per ounce.” Ms. Posey adds, “There is time and energy invested in all of it, whether it is the initial recipe development or time spent decorating. It is not made in bulk sitting in a different state. It is all made here. Everything is made from scratch, and we do not skimp on ingredients.”
Detailing the extensive process one step further, Ms. Doyal says, “Consumers do not realize there are chemicals and artificial flavors that create the texture and taste of a store-bought cake. We make our desserts and cakes from scratch. We use high-quality ingredients, like fresh apples, to achieve good taste without being overly sweet. We do not have all those preservatives in our products.”
Despite the details and a passion for quality ingredients, in the end, pastry chefs are true artists. Each creation is an outward expression of their creativity, passion and hard work -- a heart-felt gift to the consumer. “One of the underlying reasons I got into the culinary industry is that I like to make people happy,” Ms. Posey explains. “I like giving them something they do not expect, or just adding a little bit of happiness into their day. The fact that small businesses are accepted in Frisco should be exciting for anyone in the culinary field,” Ms. Posey states. “There is going to be a lot of room for growth in privately-owned restaurants and bakeries.”
To earn the title of pastry chef, it takes years of dedication and hard work. “When you go to culinary school, you do not just automatically come out as a chef, just like you do not come out of college with your degree and automatically get a job,” explains Ms. Doyal. “You still have to start at the bottom, like a prep cook, and work your way up.” Mr. Rathbun also emphasizes that formal culinary school training is not required to become a great chef. “If you are trained on the job at some really great restaurants, with some really great chefs, it is really difficult to match that kind of training anywhere in a school.” Ms. Posey says, “Nothing will ever take the place of experience in the culinary field. School is great and it is very important if you are wanting to start your own business, but you will never learn as much as you can about a product unless you are making it all the time.” Getting experience before investing in culinary school is highly recommended to ensure the interest endures. “I do not think anything will prepare a person for what it is like,” she explains. “It is going to be different in every kitchen, but it is never easy. They just have to do it for a while and see if they still feel the same.”
If, after all of the training and experience, their passion for pastry still persists, then aspiring pastry chefs have some options for culinary school right here in Frisco. The Frisco ISD offers culinary classes for high school students at the Career and Technical Education Center (CTE). Its very own restaurants, Studio 08 and Corner Cafe, are open to the public on most Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monthly menus are posted online and reservations, which can be made by calling 469.633.6780, are highly encouraged. Collin College offers multiple certificates and degrees in the culinary and pastry arts. The Institute of Hospitality and Culinary Education is fully accredited by the American Culinary Foundation, and their restaurant, Red Room, is open to the public every Thursday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Weekly menus are posted online and reservations can be made by calling 469.365.1810.
Jill McCord, the lead pastry instructor at Collin College, and the wife of Chris McCord, the pastry chef at Abacus, has a wealth of knowledge and experience to offer her students. Mrs. McCord has served as a family consumer science teacher, an instructor at Le Cordon Bleu and has worked in the kitchens of The Ritz-Carlton and Stephan Pyles. She says she “loves helping her students become successful, find good jobs and love what they are doing.”
The next time your mouth waters in anticipation as you move on to dessert and that sweet delicacy to your lips, pause for a moment. Relish in the dessert’s artistry and flair. You may feel a little extra thankful for the time and effort that a dedicated pastry chef spent to bring this morsel of happiness into existence just for you.