As a kid, my next door neighbors would come over and we would spend hours baking together. I wasn't sure what the difference was between tsp and tbsp so I always had overly salty cookies (perhaps why I like salty cookies now...). In high school, I always baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies at the beginning of every break for my family (who does not eat sweets normally) and one at the end of break for my classmates (who suffered from repetitive cafeteria food) when I got back.
Sometime in college, I started fantasizing about opening a bakery. Perhaps because I had spent so many years thinking I was going to be a lawyer, or a psychologist, or something that would make my parents very proud, it never really occurred to me that you can bake for a living. I'm not sure why I didn't think it was feasible as a full time job. I fantasized about having a bakery as a side job. So, I thought my real job would be in PR and I would own this bakery on my days off.
Well, there is one way you can own a bakery as a side job. That is by being an investor and pouring enough money into someone else's business to be able to go in and check on it now and then and pat everyone on the back for the good work. I did not have that kind of money. I don't have that money now. I get excited whenever the lottery is over $150 million because I think that is my only chance of getting money like that. I would be excited to win $600 in the lottery, but that hasn't happened yet.
I went forth with the PR route and sent out dozens of emails before someone finally took me in. One of my internships led to my first real post-college job. After reading "Cheaper by the Dozen" as a kid, I am really into the idea of finding ways to be more efficient. When it comes to Christina time, I am incredibly lazy, but when it comes to work, I sometimes step back and think about a problem for a few minutes to see if there is a better way of tackling it. There usually is. I have taken projects that would normally last 2-3 days down to 20 minutes. But then I would be incredibly bored for the next 3 days while looking for something to do. I would just eat in my cubicle, quietly gain weight and think about what to bake that night. This happened in two jobs over almost 3 years. It wasn't that I was a fantastic worker, it was just that there was such a set way of doing things that no one thought of ways to do it differently. But after a while, I started to feel that I did not belong and perhaps that side job could become a real job.
I couldn't afford pastry school because I couldn't get a loan no matter how many times I applied and I complained about it to everyone for 6 months. I actually applied for a lot of jobs in food with the hope that I could bypass the whole step altogether. I tried to apply to be a server, a cashier, a floor sweeper, a pastry cook, and even a completely free intern and I never heard back from anyone. I applied online to a lot of jobs. I applied in person to some and those were the worst because I would get the most pitying faces from people who knew they wouldn't hire me. I just wanted to get in and try. At this point, I was actually a really good home baker (but terrible cook...and still am). I baked a lot and I tested out recipes. I had taken the 60 hour Intro to Baking class at the Institute of Culinary Education. I had even been to Paris and held my own against professional pastry chefs in the Pierre Herme class. I applied all my ideas about efficiency to baking and with my sister, held a bake sale with literally hundreds of products from cookies, to florentines, to macarons, blondies, and pies. I could bake, and I could write a letter about why I wanted to bake, but no one wanted to take that risk.
I realized that in NY, it would be hard to get a job in food with no school or professional food experience under my belt because there are so many culinary schools and graduates here. So, I decided that I had to go to school. I was aching to get out of my PR career path and get into food. I knew if I was desperate enough to sweep floors, I really wanted to do this.
The funny thing is, I actually got my first job in pastry before going to school. An old roommate of mine had once worked at a cafe and managed to get me an interview to be a server. But once I actually started talking to the manager/pastry chef, I think she realized where I actually belong. She offered me a job as a pastry cook two months later. On the first day, I learned a lot more about how a kitchen runs than I did baking at home. I was just so grateful to get a chance that I worked so hard that I ended up with eczema that lasted for over a year. I went to school anyway because as much as I learned on the job, I felt like I could learn more and after 6 months of trying, I finally got a loan.
I have met a lot of people along the way who have been to school and people who have not gone to pastry/culinary school. A lot of people who have gone to school say it was a waste of money because it is nothing like working, but on the other hand, many people who didn't go to school have a huge chip on their shoulder.
I went to school. I found a loan that I qualified for and I took out one that was almost twice the amount of the loan I had from college. Two years later, I have barely made a dent paying it off and I hope that I don't still have loan debt to pay off by the time my kids go to college, but who knows? I never rose very high on the totem pole at work, so the money I make now is pretty much equivalent to what I made as a lowly PR person, but I work like 20 more hours a week. However, all that aside, I don't regret it at all because I met some really great people along the way. I applied for every scholarship and grant that I could and that introduced me to even more people. I made some good connections at ICE that have been completely invaluable - like being able to work with Pierre Herme at one of his demos and meet Thomas Keller. I think pastry school is just what you make of it - much like any other experience. If you go in hungry, you will learn a lot from it and you can be great. If you think that it will make you the next Food Network star, it won't.
Even though pastry school preps you for the real world, it is just like college - it is nothing like the real world. Doing class for a few hours a day is different from working for 16 hours straight with your only sitting break being when you go to the bathroom. Learning how to make 2 tarts is nothing like having to make dozens of tarts day after day for months, or even years. It really only prepares you by giving you a glimpse of what you may come across in the real world. Pastry people are crazy. We love to do the same repetitive task over and over again, every single day. We are like factory workers, but we love it. I sometimes sleep with a brace at night because my wrist aches so bad, but it doesn't stop me from working.
I don't think you have to go to school to be good. I think you just have to have the right attitude about it. Just because I don't regret school doesn't mean that you have to go. I think there are a lot of really great pastry chefs out there who didn't go to school. They were so hungry that they learned it own their own and I really admire them for that. That hunger and drive is what makes people great, not necessarily education.
And along the way, I have asked a lot of people how they have managed to avoid the hefty tuition bills of going to school. They said that they were just persistent in asking for a job. Sometimes it was at a local cafe where they were regulars and after getting to know the staff better, they just asked. Sometimes, it was by sending a really well crafted letter. Sometimes it was as easy as seeing a "Hiring" sign and going in. I learned from my first pastry boss that someone with a good attitude will be better for you than someone with a lot of experience and a poor attitude. It's true. At Macaron Parlour, we have only ever taken in one intern. I remember the surprise in Simon's voice when I told him that I was letting her come in. I told him that while emailing with her, I saw how smart and thoughtful she was and I could see myself in her words, so I wanted her to come in and see if she liked pastry. She's at school in Paris now. =)
On the other side, now that I have been in this field for enough time and have had to hire/fire people, I do have some thoughts on why no one wanted to hire me back in the day. When you know what you're doing, it's really painful to watch other people fumble around. I have taken many and I still continue to take baking classes that are marketed towards the home baker. A lot of classes are very slow for me, and it is hard to listen to someone say they want to open a bakery when they cannot operate a Kitchenaid or they have only baked with box mixes before. I have spoken to someone who has had some amateur bakers work with her and she said sometimes, they know so little that they slow her down. When you're working and you have a routine, it's hard to take that time out of your own busy schedule for the chance that the person might make it. She said that most people realize that they aren't made for it and leave very quickly. If there are two people with no experience, but one has been to school...at least you know the one who went to school has shown some level of commitment to food and will know the basics.
If you haven't gone to school and are either debating it or trying to skip it altogether, please spend some time in a real kitchen before making any sort of big life commitment. It can be very difficult to get in, but someone will let you, even for just a day or a "trail" as we call it. Be sure to hustle and move fast because kitchens are all about that sense of urgency. If you don't know what's going on, ask. It's always better to ask how to do things properly than get it wrong and if the person training you yells at you or belittles you for not knowing, you don't want to be there anyway. I've worked with a lot of really great people who will always take the time to teach you to do something right. Put thought into what you're doing and appreciate whatever it is that they have you do, even if it's just spraying dozens of muffin tins. Don't complain. One of my first trails, I cut so many fruits that I broke out in hives all over my hands. I said nothing about it until I got home to Simon and he saw my swollen fingers. There really is no glory in food so don't expect to show up and start making cakes and batters immediately. There are lessons to learn every step of the way and a lot of steps to take before you get to the top. It is just unclear to me what the top really is, so I think you'll be learning forever.
We're probably going to be hiring within the next 6 months - after the wedding and the slow season of the summer. Based on the holidays last year, we can't do that mostly alone again. I hope we're able to find a few good thoughtful folk to come join us and learn how to grow a business with us.