Hot and cold
Regular chefs vs. Pastry chefs
I’m a regular ‘hot kitchen’ or ‘savoury’ chef who has worked alongside several pastry chefs from different backgrounds: Italian, French, Quebecois, some with classic training, others who were more home-baker types, young and old, medaled and not. I’ve admired them all, but still, I can’t help but notice the inherent fundamental difference between a true hot kitchen chef and a true pastry chef. I’m not talking about cooks who show up to punch their cards but the ones that live and breathe their vocation. Amongst these cooks, you see two groups: two callings, two people, two beasts. Between them, there is a contrast in temperament, in talent, in likes and dislikes.
I have long been intrigued by the difference between these two types of people and their intricate dynamic, having lived it, studied it and marvelled at it for so long up close. This is what I can say for now about what makes the hot and the cold sit at opposite ends of the food production spectrum.
Pastry chefs need to measure. Cooks hate to.
Pastry chefs operate in MEP mode. Cooks more often than not are under the gun.
Pastry chefs don’t like to have to move at a fast pace, or improvise too much, they do anything to not be ‘in the juice’. Cooks need to fly, are always ‘in the juice’ and get off on it.
Pastry chefs find finicky, monotonous tasks satisfying and soothing. Cooks find them a boring bother.
Pastry chefs like early mornings. Cooks don’t.
Pastry chefs hate yelling. Cooks are used to it. (But you never really need to raise your voice in a pastry kitchen because the bulk of the work is done before hand, where as in the hot kitchen, it is all about à la minute.)
Pastry cooks are soft and fuzzy. Cooks are hard and gritty.
Pastry chefs are polite. Cooks are brutes.
Pastry chefs strive to be Zen. Cooks should, but they’re off the hook and they like it that way.
Pastry chefs show restraint. Cooks tend to excess.
Pastry cooks are always organized and meticulous. Cooks need to be, but it’s more of a stretch, hence they need more discipline.
Pastry chefs are more esthetical, they tend to think more about the look than the taste. So often, they are thinner. And their homes don’t look like cooks’ homes (designer decorated vs. student apartment).
Cooks taste. Pastry chefs don’t.
Cooks smell like veal stock, grease and garlic. Pastry chefs smell sweet.
Pastry chefs have more evenings off. Cooks are jealous of that.
Pastry chefs think they are superior beings. Cooks think they are superior beings.
Tied at the hip in a love-hate relationship, with a lot of mutual respect for each other deep down, they/we still live in separate worlds. We both know a little about the other, having learnt the basics about the adjacent school, and are vaguely interested in the other if only to taste each other’s offerings. We work side by side, share and joke around, occasionally party together, but often get on each other’s nerves. There’s a rivalry between cooks and bakers, just a notch lower than that between waiters and kitchen staff. In face of the other side, we stick together, but amongst ourselves, there are two camps, continually badgering the other, more for amusement’s sake than anything. We swap veal cheeks for donuts; we jump in to help each other out, but laugh at the other’s gaffes over staff meal.
Of course, a good pastry chef can be a good cook and vice versa, if the interest is there. But, in my experience, most often this isn’t the case, especially if a person is really good at one or the other. I find that the better the pastry chef, the least likely they are to be the chef type and vice versa. Understandably, the top guns aren’t usually interested in the other side and they don’t have the time if they’re busy climbing one ladder or the other. Those that are good at both are most valuable to a small kitchen, but we don’t hear about them often. In the upper echelons of the profession, in a high end kitchen or a big operation, Pastry and Hot are necessarily two very different fields.
However different, with modern trends blurring the lines between sweet and savoury, it seems that more than ever, the two should be working together, even outside the small restaurant scenario. The dessert, no longer just a finale, is morphing, multiplying and encroaching into savoury territory on tasting menus, salt and pepper and carrots and balsamic vinegar are showing up in desserts, while chocolate and gingerbread are now common in entrées. We’re more intertwined then ever, and it seems insensible to ignore the other. I suspect that the in-between type might flourish in the upcoming years.
Personally no longer part of a big brigade, I have no choice but to pay attention to and nurture my sweet side. As a savoury cook first, I sometimes find pastry to be a chore, especially if I’m swamped and feel like I could be doing ten other things while I painstakingly roll out butter dough. But at the same time, I think it is important to keep my fingers in the flour. It would go against every molecule in me to order them from the outside, and besides, it’s an endless source of challenge, not to mention humility. I think that a really good cook should be able to bake something, and I think that a person should struggle every once and a while. My pastry dabbling also means that I am not ultimately dependent on anyone, as dessert is an important part of the meal to most. On the other hand, I am more than happy to let a real pastry chef take over when it’s time, say for a wedding, a buffet centerpiece or when I need technical help in transforming a new idea into a plated dessert that doesn’t look like a kid made it . I now collaborate often with a queen (Isabelle Sauriol), who gives me the odd tip, and is big enough to serve my homemade desserts without scorn, making them look better then I ever could. Ironically, she is also one of the few real pastry chefs that can also cook, probably because she has an unbridled curiosity and passion for food. Patrice Demers, Montreal’s hottest young pastry chef (at Laloux, formerly of Les Chèvres) knows how to cook too. Funny enough, he fell into pastry first because the cooking class was full the year he tried to enroll. Maybe some things were meant to be after all.
Generally though, I do think we cooks and pastry people are two different personalities yet cut from the same cloth, like non-identical twins. We love each other but love to assert our individuality and we love to scrap. But we’re definitely two different animals. And like a good balance of girls and guys makes for a better kitchen dynamic, a good balance of hot and cold chef types can make a food team work magic. Here’s to them and to us, to salty and sweet, to hot and cold, to contrasts and extremes, to balance and harmony.. We need eachother and we can do so much together in the name of good taste and good fun.. Cheers.