What it’s really like being a pastry chef

Going to culinary school isn’t always sugar coated

Attending college usually means you’re on the track to a traditional career, which may involve seeing patients, fighting in court, writing books, teaching, etc. But there are also colleges for students who want to take a different route. This was the case for Carmen Delgado when she attended The Culinary Institute of America in 2013. The 21-year-old earned her Associates in Occupational Studies in Baking and Pastry Arts.

Currently, Delgado is working as a pastry chef in the French restaurant Gabriel Kreuther, located in Midtown Manhattan. Through attending culinary school, having an externship and gaining job experience, she has learned a lot. We had the opportunity to interview Delgado and discuss with her what it’s like attending CIA, being a pastry chef and working in the restaurant business.

Why did you decide to go to culinary school?

I think I always had a love for food and the art of cooking/baking. However, that passion grew as high school came to an end and the college process began and all my friends seemed to know what school they wanted to attend. I was stuck in between wanting to become a psychologist or a chef. They were two completely different fields. I ended up only applying to two culinary schools in the hope that one would be able to accept me. I really wanted to make this my career. I wanted to become a chef. I dreamt of owning my own restaurant/bakery.

What kind of classes did you take?

One of the major things that made me attend The Culinary Institute of America was because it was like a regular college, except all the classes revolved around or had some sort of connection with the world of food. It wasn’t just a short program where I would simply earn a certificate.

Like any other college I took pretty basic classes during my first year: College Writing and Culinary Math. There were also other classes pertaining to the culinary world: Food Safety, Cost Control, Menu Development, Management, Communication, Finance and Product Knowledge. Of course, there were many hands-on classes where I got to create various specialty breads, pastries, desserts and confections.

 Have you always loved baking?

I remember begging my mom to get me an ‘Easy Bake Oven.’ I’d seen a commercial on TV of girls making mini cakes and decorating sugar cookies with this magical toy oven and I just really wanted to have it. Every time we’d go to the store I’d make my mom go to the toy aisle so she’d look at it and hope that that day she’d actually want to buy it for me. Until one day she grew tired of my insisting and I finally had it in my hands.

I was using lightbulbs one after the other, while experimenting with store bought cake mixes, which let me tell you, needed more cooking power than a 100 W lightbulb.

As I got older, and wanted to use the real oven under my stove, I’d started to get more into the kitchen to help my parents cook but even then my dad would kick me out thinking I’d cut myself if I touched a knife. In a way or another, I always seemed to have had a connection with food even though I had not realized it.

Tell us about your externship. What was the process like to be able to do it? Was it like what you expected?

Externships at the CIA are taken after the first year of college. The classes you take the first year do the best to prepare you for externship. But just like any other field, school is nothing like the real world, everything in school is sugar coated, no pun intended.

I did an 18 week externship at a restaurant in SoHo called David Burke Kitchen. It was my first official, real job in the food industry. I worked many long hours, mornings and nights with very few days off, if any at times. Being my first job, I had mentally prepared myself to be able to work the hours the restaurant needed me to and do what was asked of me without hesitation.

Even though it was a lot of work and long hours, I was able to look past that and I really enjoyed my time there. I had a great mentor who was my chef (now the executive pastry chef of David Burke Kitchen) and she really took the time to teach me everything she could. I was able to learn many desserts and techniques in a course of a few weeks. I was given many responsibilities and privileges which not many with such little experience would get.

Over all, I had a great experience… It really helped me get a grasp of what I wanted to do with my career and where I wanted to head when I was finished with school. I had trialed at other places before I made the decision to go through with my externship at this restaurant and after those 18 weeks I realized that this was the industry I wanted to be in. Restaurants were my thing!

What is a usual work day like?

A typical work day for me starts at 2:30pm where I go in and change into my uniform and get ready to start working. By 3pm, I’m in the kitchen with my teammates preparing and making the necessary product that will be used for that night depending on the amount of people that will dine for that night. Dinner service typically begins at 5:30pm, so all my product should be ready to go if anything even earlier.

This is when the fun starts and since dessert is usually the last course, I get a bit of extra time to set up anything that is missing or get a head start on any type of production I will need for the next day. By 8pm, the whole kitchen is usually in full gear firing dishes one after the other. Right around 11pm the last savory courses make their way out while pastry is yet to get its last orders. Depending on the day and the amount of diners left, food service typically ends by 11:30pm. After the last ticket is sent out, pastry then breaks down the station and cleaning up begins. My night is usually done around 12:30am to 1am

What is your favorite dessert and why?

This is quite a hard question. I can’t really choose a favorite dessert. It’s like having to pick out one and only one pair of shoes, way too many options. But I guess you can say that my latest obsession are donuts, especially from this shop called Dough.

What advice do you have for people thinking of going to culinary school and future pastry chefs? 

I think the food industry is one of the greatest, even though it is very competitive and harsh. If you are someone looking in to becoming a pastry chef or considering attending culinary school, I personally say it’s a great idea. Many great chefs don’t necessarily attend school to become a chef but its always great to have a degree to back up your profession.

School is nothing like the real world, and all the great skills come with time and all the practice. A real kitchen is nothing like its projected on TV where you only make pretty plates. The reality of a kitchen is to possibly never see the daylight because you’re usually working past an 8 hour shift everyday, you’re always standing and in constant movement, you’re usually always sweating, you miss out on many holidays or time with family and friends. But at the end of the day the best reward is seeing how a plate brings a big smile to someone’s face.

What is your favorite part about your job? 

Even though it’s a job that is physically demanding and mentally draining at times, the best part is seeing the smile a plate brings to a costumer. And that makes me feel so great and accomplished.

What are your future plans career wise? 

I am currently a cook, but in a few years I wish to become a pastry sous chef then possibly an executive chef. Or even following through with my original dream of owning a cafe.