Real Life as a Pastry Cook
by Adam Freelander
My friend Kate is a baker and pastry cook. Not a famous chef, just like, a working person. But to me she’s a real example of someone who “did it”; who had a moment of doubt, completely shifted careers, and has made it work. I thought it would be interesting to talk about that.
So I assume you grew up knowing that a fun life of food was the life for you. Yes?
No. I never baked a single thing until after college. I wanted to be in publishing and I worked for an academic publisher for two years. Then I miraculously got a job traveling and conducting interviews for StoryCorps.
Wait. StoryCorps? I feel like that’s the dream job for a lot of people. Was it for you?
Yes, absolutely. I was a huge fan of documentary radio and would carry around a midi recorder and have my friends tell stories into it; I think I got the job through sheer enthusiasm. I would be on the road about half the time, and people all across the country would tell me it was their dream job — or assume I was a volunteer. But traveling is hard, being away from home is hard. Most people don’t keep that job for more than a couple of years. I eventually transitioned to a desk job in the StoryCorps office; that’s when I started to feel itchy.
But what made you want to start an entirely new career, instead of just like, baking more as a hobby?
I was just not great at having a 9-to-5 office job. I wasn’t internally motivated, I didn’t take initiative. I was surrounded by mission-driven people who were able to keep that entry-level field work excitement up into middle management, and I realized so quickly that I couldn’t do that. And this was an organization I loved, with people I loved. I did not like the feeling of disappointing myself, of knowing I could work harder and just…not doing it, because oh look the internet.
I think I wanted to see if baking professionally might push me in a different way. I wanted to make something more immediate and tangible, and work more physically. I had been a team sports kid and a tomboy and I liked the idea of working in an environment like that. And not a small part of it was that cooking professionally sounds very cool and authentic and somehow brave, and I wanted to see if I was any of those things.
I saw a Craigslist ad for a weekend baking intern at a cafe downtown, and I took it. I worked both jobs, six or seven days a week, for almost a year.
So what was it like going from an office job to working in a kitchen?
I knew almost immediately that I was good at it. It was a huge relief. A lot of things I sort of hated about myself became assets in a kitchen: I make lists constantly, I’m obsessively organized, I’m always anticipating disasters and coming up with contingency plans, I care a lot about pleasing other people…I also love how the days fly by when you stay busy, stay moving, don’t read Facebook so much. Next time you’re in a restaurant kitchen, look around for a chair. I bet you won’t see one.
I saved up a ton of money in that time, because I still had a real office salary, plus I made tips as a runner for the brunch rush after the morning bake. I saved enough to feel like I could put myself through the pastry program I wanted.
Oh right, then you went to pastry school. Was that a necessary next step?
A lot of people were like, fuck it, just get another kitchen job, and then another. Tons of people do this, and the opinion that you don’t need culinary school is both popular and valid. But for me it was a confidence thing. It also made the decision very final. “I am leaving this old life to become a pastry chef.” I was telling other people as much as I was telling myself.
There are two major programs in New York that allow you to technically keep working full-time and get what’s called a certificate in baking and pastry over the course of about a year. But I moved to Vermont, went to school full-time, and finished the same certificate in about 4 months, for about 1/4 of the cost.
And you came back to New York right after that. But you were still interning, right?
In my program an internship was a requirement. It was part of the appeal of going to culinary school: using it to justify cold-calling pastry chefs and asking if I could work for them. I took an internship in a fine-dining restaurant under a pastry chef I had admired for years. I emailed her personally out of the blue and she was like “yes, let’s do this.” It paid minimum wage, so I also took on a second job as an assistant in a chocolate shop. But eventually she took me on full-time and I worked for about a year in that kitchen. I worked 11 hours a day and was paid for 10, which is not bad compared to many entry-level fine-dining horror stories I hear.
So now you are a food industry worker in New York City. How is that going?
It’s going okay! It’s been a slow process. After that first job I moved on to a smaller bakery, and within a year the pastry chef had left and they’d put me in charge. I negotiated a real salary and real creative control. The job was more difficult than I could have imagined, but also more satisfying. Then it turned out the owners had been hiding a lot of financial issues, and they closed down the kitchen very suddenly. “Pack your knives and go.” I was heartbroken. But I think it was a blessing. I needed (and still need) more time to learn from smarter, more experienced chefs. If only I could have started washing dishes and peeling grapes when I was 14 like they do in France. But I’m 30. I have an expensive bachelor’s degree and six years of non-profit experience. But my alarm still goes off at 2:45 a.m. every day and I do eight hours of manual labor.
The hard part for me is figuring out what a real, viable future looks like. A lot of people I’ve worked with either have financially successful partners, or are supported by their families. It doesn’t mean they’re not as hard-working or talented, but I’m sure there’s less pressure there.
So wait, you’re not supported by like, a cool finance bro? Or by your parents?
Nope. My partner and I met at StoryCorps, and currently he’s a full-time bread baker. He also takes on part-time office work when he can — but we like to sometimes see each other. So finances are tricky. We do a lot with a little. And we’re pretty adamant about staying independent, since we’re the ones who have made these insane, ill-advised financial decisions.
Is that actually how you feel?
I have such mixed feelings. Right now I’m making less than at the publishing job I got when I was 21. I work isolating hours, early mornings and weekends, and I lift heavy shit and climb stairs all day. There are no holidays or vacations, no calling in sort-of-sick to stay home and watch Scandal, no lunch breaks. I’ve worked through horrible food poisoning, with a back injury so bad I could barely stand. But I see a future where I get to do something I legitimately enjoy and am good at, something that I feel very motivated to succeed in.
So that’s enough to go on for now. I’d like to be in charge of my own kitchen. We talk more and more about owning our own business. The bottom line is I only get to choose one path, and this is the one I’m choosing. I do feel like a sucker sometimes, like a glutton for punishment. I’m working on not getting mad at other people’s vacation Instagrams.
Still, though: you worked at StoryCorps and now you make tasty treats for a living. It does kind of seem like you’ve lived a twee millennial’s LSD fantasy. Do you ever get that from people?
Yes, all the time! And it’s actually really nice when people are interested in what you do; it’s gratifying. It’s easy to talk to people at parties. But I do feel like a Debbie Downer when someone who loves baking at home tells me that they want to go to culinary school or work in a kitchen. The quality of life issues are too complex for polite party chat.
And I do feel some responsibility to debunk the myth that everyone should leave their office job and follow their bliss into the woods and make furniture. I think if you enjoy your job you should stay where you are and contribute to that 401(k). Then go home and host an elaborate dinner party or make your friends’ wedding cake. My parents had the same office jobs their whole lives and now they’re the happiest retired people I know. I personally wasn’t going to be able to do that. But most days we feel pretty lucky, and like we’re making the right choices for us.
You and I went to an extraordinarily expensive college together. Does that affect what it’s like to do what you do?
Yes. So much. I feel a lot of guilt about straying so far from the plan. It makes it easy to daydream about going back to an office life, something more predictable that takes up less energy. And I have the luxury of choice. Obviously there’s a reason that kitchen jobs historically are not filled by middle-class college graduates. I did well in high school, got into a good college, got a job before I graduated, supported myself in New York. And the feeling that I then needed to go do something different was unexpected, and sort of unwelcome.
But ultimately, my education brought me to New York, and it made me more curious and creative and aware of the world. It’s a part of how I cook and work just like anything else. I try not to think about it too hard.
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