“I was always taught that when people order food it’s because they’re hungry and when people order dessert it’s because they want you to make them happy,” says Renae Connolly, pastry chef at Cafe ArtScience in Cambridge. We’re at the bar of Myers + Chang in the South End to talk about what she thinks the role of a pastry chef is in a professional kitchen.
Pastry chefs, with Christina Tosci of Momofuku Milk Bar as the obvious exception, are infrequently covered in food media. Try to name 5 pastry chefs that you’ve read about in the last year. While magazines, television and radio seem to be obsessed with savory chefs, their pastry counterparts are talked about less often but occupy an important place in terms of dining. We mark nearly every special occasion with something sweet and it is one of the most likely dishes shared at a table. Dessert is the last thing we eat in a restaurant, and has the opportunity to leave us with our final impression of the meal. So, why is it that we don’t talk about the people making desserts as often as we talk about the people making the appetizer and entree?
Renae was a pastry chef at Clio here in Boston and Marea in New York City before joining the opening team at Cafe ArtScience and was just named a Rising Star Chef of 2015 by Star Chefs. When I asked her about the disproportionate amount of articles about savory chefs, she said that she thinks the reason is two-fold. One, we naturally gravitate towards savory things because we eat more savory things. “It’s human nature,” she says. “When you think of food, or what you want for dinner, you think of savory. It’s your immediate thought. Everyone has to eat food to survive and you can’t just eat dessert and survive so I think your initial thought is going to be something you could have for dinner.”
The other part of the equation is much larger; in America our relationship with dessert is very different than it is in other countries. Renae finds that people assume that her job is to make cookies or “big, gooey things, or cakes and pies” she says. “I don’t think people think of dessert as capable of having multiple textures and forms. Most American desserts are a cupcake or a slice of cake. They’re one or two-dimensional.” There’s also a culture of ‘guilt’ around desserts. How many times have we taken part in, or witnessed the anguish that overcomes a table of dinner guests when dessert menus are offered by a server? As children we’re rewarded with ice cream, cookies, candy when we’ve done something good- when we deserve to have something sweet. In other countries dessert is seen as an important and necessary part of a meal. “For Americans, dessert is a brownie or a cookie and there’s not the complexity that you see in a lot of European-style desserts.”
The history of complex European-desserts can be seen when looking at the kitchen brigade system created by Escoffier, the famous French chef who was in charge of esteemed kitchens like The Savoy, in the early 1900’s. The brigade system was a way of delegating the many tasks that are part of running an efficient kitchen.
In those days, the pastry chef or patissier, was the manager of four other positions: the confiseur who made candies, the glacier who handled ice creams, the boulanger in charge of breads, cakes and pastries, and the decorateur who crafted show pieces and specialty cakes.
Today, in independent restaurants, you find one, two, maybe three people as part of the pastry team and they are responsible for the same tasks that Escoffier divided among 5 roles, and often more people.
So, what does a pastry chef of the 21st century look like?
For Renae, one of the most rewarding parts of being a pastry chef is getting to introduce people to desserts with textures and flavors that they don’t expect while still satisfying their sweet tooth. “People have expectations with dessert,” she says. “Some people like to be surprised and some people don’t want to be surprised and that’s kind of a fun line to play with. How far can I push this without really weirding people out while still making sure that it’s good and people like it?”
While managing guests expectations she also has to manage a team just like the chef de cuisine or executive chef. “When I see things that need to be taken care of, I have to make sure they’re taken care of,” she says. “We all take on the responsibility for the entire house, and every part is important. As a manager, if I see something like, ‘oh, the bathrooms need to be cleaned,’ you know what? I’m going to send someone there to clean the bathrooms. That’s part of our restaurant, that’s part of our house and it matters.”
Just as savory items are an essential part of any menu, pastry is just as important; the two work in unison in any successful restaurant meaning the chef de cuisine and the pastry chef must be on the same page. “We work as a team, Patrick and I,” she says of Cafe ArtScience’s chef de cuisine, Patrick Campbell. “There’s just a general respect for everyone in the kitchen. We have a really great environment, a great staff, and everything is treated equally in the restaurant’s eyes. Each table, no matter where they’re at in their meal, has certain expectations for service. All of us have to make sure we’re taking care of everyone’s experience.”
The pastry chef of today may have to wear many hats, but ultimately, just as it is for savory chefs, it comes down to guest experience and taste; sweet or not. Renae and other pastry chefs are artists creating compositions that feature multiple textures, colors and techniques to create interesting desserts to show that there’s a place for dessert in every meal.