Unlike most chefs, pastry chefs cannot throw things together at a farmer’s market and expect to have a consistent result. A slight variance in temperature, grams, humidity, or time makes all the difference in the world of pastry.

We look at all of these breads, cakes, and desserts, and appreciate their beauty, but do we stop and think about what goes into making them? What challenges do pastry chefs face? What tricks do they use to make the products look so good? How can they control prices of produce? Can we package custom-made items?

These are some stories from behind the scenes, with some examples of what separates the best from the rest, and the importance of taking time to learn the craft of baking and pastry making. Oh yeah, and mastering the dreaded baking oven.

The case of the overused oven

Our hotel was in charge of supplying cakes and baked products for an airline’s in-flight catering and First Club lounge. It was a business that we were forced to take on but were not always equipped to handle.

Any business opportunity is something to be considered, especially one on this scale. However, like any business, aside from having brilliant people, sufficient and working tools must be provided, too. Our executive pastry chef only wanted another baking oven. Unfortunately, this was not what the owner wanted to hear. So we formulated a plan to ensure that our single five-deck oven could fulfill the orders from both the five-star hotel and the international airline.

We used the oven for 24 hours, baking products for the hotel and in-flight service without resting. For the in-flight and hotel requirements, sheet cakes were the base as it were the only way we could handle the production and ensure that we could produce exact measurements of thousands of slices of cake per day. Using a ruler, knife, and basic tools, we began. So did the emails and phone calls.

Always have backup plans for when your equipment breaks down—even before it breaks down. And in case of equipment failure, make sure your staff knows how to produce things the old-school way.

Each day we would receive photos of sheet cakes that were one tenth of a centimeter higher or shorter than the prescribed eight-centimeter height. We would receive feedback that the color was a shade lighter or darker, which caused us to implement our own photo system in which everything that went out to the airport was photographed before it left and the color measured.

We needed to establish guidelines for acceptable variances in the product, which we agreed to without consulting the pastry chef (big mistake). We had to revise these and reduce our prices to make up for the changes to our agreement.

We had a five-deck oven but no backup. Our chef warned us all that the machine, which was on for 24 hours a day without a break (and only turned off during cleaning) would give up. Unfortunately for executive pastry chefs, not many people understand their expertise or listen to their needs. People forget that their best friends are the ovens.

Just as the pastry chef predicted, the oven broke down and 65 percent of our business stalled. The parts needed to be imported, but we still had to put desserts on hotel guests’ plates and airline passengers’ trays. Our solution was to use another of our hotel chain’s kitchens to bake our products between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Luckily, with an airline as our client, we were able to get the parts and fix the oven within one week. Suddenly, everyone, including the hotel owners, listened to our executive pastry chef, and he was valued more as an asset in the company.

Industry notes

  1. Always have backup plans for when your equipment breaks down— even before it breaks down. And in case of equipment failure, make sure your staff knows how to produce things the old-school way.
  2. If you have contracted business, keep a record of what goes out and collect evidence to protect yourself. Ensure that your clients inspect the products upon delivery and raise any issues on the spot.
  3. We are in the game of saying yes, but sometimes we need to negotiate and reach a happy medium with our customers because they do not understand the limitations of the game.

The case of ingredient cover-up

“Wow, the cakes are beautiful, they must have great strawberries and raspberries to get such a nice red color. They must have great pistachios to get such a green color.”

This is a common phrase that I have heard from many people standing in a deli, supermarket, or bakery in many countries around the world. Little do they realize that the color is from the magic of food coloring. I will upset people by writing this, but the reality is that artificial food coloring is linked with hyperactivity, allergic reactions, and tumor growth. Did you know that European lawmakers now require food with artificial colors to be labeled with a warning stating the food “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children?”

I’ve worked with and spoken to many pastry chefs in world-class establishments. They all refuse to use artificial food coloring and their reason is simple: “If I wouldn’t feed it to my child, I refuse to feed it to other people’s children.”

In three establishments, I conducted a mystery guest test for them to prove my point. Their repeat clientele business was very poor and they wanted to know why. Many customers would walk into their stores and comment on how beautiful the cakes looked, but after they ordered, purchased, and left, they never returned. The reason was that the real product was far from the pictures and displays. The chef was brilliant at sculpting styrofoam and fruits but could not handle a delicate sponge or soft surface. The three cakes (same variety) all looked different, had a different texture under the icing, and the layers were all different heights with some moist and some dry.

Ensure that you know the produce that your team is using. Never substitute your ingredients if they will change the quality of your product. If the quality goes down, so should your price.

Why does my croissant taste different? In one establishment, we had the biggest and best-looking croissants, but our price was the same as our competitors. When I tasted the product, I knew something was not right. Apparently, the baker was using margarine instead of butter. You can get the same look, but the texture inside will not be the same.

There are many more examples of covering things up in the industry. While it may not be necessarily bad, it is sometimes the reality of the game, and the only way establishments can stay in business. Does this mean it is cheating? No, but the key is that the quality of the taste and product should not be damaged or diminished. The best in the game will take the item off the menu rather than diminish their reputation.

Industry notes

  1. Question what is used in your cakes and breads. Be educated. And if the price is too good to be true, there is usually a good reason for it.
  2. Ensure that you know the produce that your team is using. Never substitute your ingredients if they will change the quality of your product. If the quality goes down, so should your price.
  3. Not everything on display is the real thing. Ask to see a real example, and if they do not have one, then taste some of their ready-made products to make sure that they taste as good as they look.

Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 13 No. 3