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A master pastry chef is a sugar alchemist, crafting intricate, eye-catching creations and turning chocolate into sculptures and meringue into clouds. Though their desserts are still satisfying local diners, the future of the pastry chef in the contemporary restaurant world is not clear. The question of whether a restaurant should invest in a pastry program, separate from its savory operation, has more layers than an opera cake.
When restaurants struggled in the aftermath of the financial collapse, many in the industry predicted the death of dessert, claiming that the profit margins were too narrow and establishments simply didn’t care about a sweet finish anymore. Now, top-notch dessert offerings are coming back, but the landscape looks a bit different.
A quick survey of pastry programs in D.C. reveals a variety of circumstances. Some restaurants keep a full-time dedicated pastry chef on the payroll, while others saddle savory chefs with handling the sweet side of the menu too. Then there are restaurant groups who ask a single executive pastry chef to oversee dessert at multiple properties. Each of these models has its pros and cons, but yields the same result—a satisfying, sugary end to your meal.
There’s a lot to be said for formally trained pastry chefs who specialize in the art of dessert. Mirabelle’s Aggie Chin, a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, says the extra touches from a specialist make a difference for guests, whether it’s petit four service or a parting gift. The actual dessert menu may also be more extensive.
“You might have only two or three or maybe even four items from an executive chef who’s playing the dual role, versus six, seven, eight different items from a place that has a pastry chef,” Chin says. During lunch, diners point and choose from fine pastries on Mirabelle’s dessert cart such as a matcha yuzu mille crêpe or a dark chocolate crémeux.
Dedicated professionals are also likely to have more time and resources to build complex desserts. “It’s not just one item on a plate with maybe a sauce,” Chin continues. “The details come through a lot more…the garnishes, the décor, all those things that you might not have time for or the desire to invest the time into, you see more with pastry chefs.”
“It’s important that you finish off an experience correctly,” says Amy Brandwein, chef and owner of Centrolina in CityCenterDC. That’s why her team includes Caitlin Dysart, who studied at The French Pastry School in Chicago. “Caitlin to me is not just my pastry chef. She’s also part of my management team and she helps keep a lot of balls rolling when I’m not here.”
In restaurant-market hybrids like Centrolina, a pastry chef has responsibilities in addition to the dessert menu. “A lot of times they’ll be doing value-added things that increase your margins,” Brandwein says. “We have a whole breakfast program. We have a whole pastry department. I mean, it’s basically like a small pastry shop in the front,” she says. Custom cake orders also fall under Dysart’s purview.
These additional roles can help to justify the salaries professional pastry chefs command. The figures vary wildly based on experience, scope of responsibilities, and size of the restaurant, but according to Alex Levin, the executive pastry chef for Schlow Restaurant Group, pastry chefs can earn anywhere from $40,000 (a green chef at a small restaurant) to $150,000 (a veteran at a high-end hotel) annually.
Based on Levin and Chin’s impressions of the industry, on average, an executive pastry chef managing a team of pastry cooks earns between $50,000 and $75,000.
Max Kuller, president of Fat Baby Inc. restaurant group, says his pastry chef at Estadio on 14th Street NW more than earns his salary. “Estadio to me is just a great model of how to use a pastry chef effectively and smartly,” he says. “Without crunching the numbers, I can tell you it pays for itself. If I was worried about it, I probably would have crunched the numbers.”
Chef René Abarca manages the entire baking operation at Estadio, which includes everything from bread for bocadillos to pastries at brunch. “Even though the restaurant only has 80 seats in the dining room, there’s enough that keeps it so that René is a viable presence,” Kuller explains. Abarca also handles custom cake orders for the entire restaurant group, which also includes Proof and Doi Moi.
For others, cost is a limiting factor. “There’s really no world where a restaurant my size has the budget for a salaried pastry chef,” says Espita Mezcaleria general manager Josh Phillips. “I think a chef that can do pastry is worth more, so I’d rather spend more on a chef so you get one unified menu.”
That’s what Espita did when they appointed Chef Robert Aikens as executive chef. He has years of experience doing double duty, so even though he only has a handful of desserts on the menu, they’re ambitious for a savory chef. “What we do is quite detail-oriented,” he says. “But we do have a couple of people here that I’ve sort of taken under my wing, and shown them how to go through the steps.”
Take Espita’s popular chocolate tostada—a cocoa and almond tortilla topped with candied cocoa nibs, chocolate peanut ganache, dark chocolate crémeaux, chocolate sorbet, and vanilla crema. “Our menu is cohesive right now,” Phillips says. “It’s one mind behind the whole thing.”
Chef Johnny Spero also appreciates the continuity that comes from one chef handling both menus. “When you have a pastry chef and a savory chef both working a kitchen, sometimes there’s a slight disconnect between those menus,” he explains. Spero plans to be a double agent when he opens Reverie early next year. “I’m a little bit of a control freak, so having my hands in everything makes it a little bit easier.”
The streamlined pastry program he has planned makes that possible. “We’re not going to have a huge crazy bread program and petit four service and all that, so it’s a much smaller tighter kind of program, so I’ll be able to keep control of it,” he says. When it comes to meal finales, Spero likes to surprise his guests: He once made a dessert with seaweed granita.
At District Winery’s restaurant, Ana, Chef de Cuisine Benjamin Lambert also leads the pastry program because he has a personal interest in the field. “It breaks up some of the day-to-day. It helps in a way to be creative on both sides.”
Ana’s general manager, Sean Alves, had left room in the budget to hire a pastry chef before he met Lambert. “I always want to jump at the opportunity to work with talented people, and if I need to make sacrifices somewhere else in order to bring another talented mind onto the team, I’ll do that,” he says. Thanks to Lambert’s knack for pastry, he didn’t have to. “That obviously allowed us to do different things and reallocate that budget money into the production team, with him overseeing it.”
Alves says their situation is a perfect fit for the restaurant. “The pastry menu’s exactly where we want it to be. Four or five desserts, keeping them seasonal,” he says.
Schlow Restaurant Group’s Alex Levin bridges the gap between these two situations. Though he’s based in D.C., he travels to kitchens in New England and Los Angeles developing desserts and training staff. “I kind of actually think of myself as a bit of a nomad,” he says. A few of the far-flung restaurants within the group have salaried pastry chefs who execute Levin’s vision, while others in the District have pastry production cooks or sous chefs.
Sounding the alarm about the death of pastry seems melodramatic, but it’s clear the role of the pastry chef is changing. “It’s definitely not going anywhere,” Spero says. “It’s just finding a way to make sure that those pastry chefs have a place and they’re able to actually get paid what they’re worth.”
Chin says it’s all situational. “With fine dining, it’s really difficult to have one person focus on both…but in a lot of casual settings, I think it works fine because a lot of the dishes can be a little more rustic and easier to execute.”
Meanwhile, more and more bakeries, sweet shops, and ice cream stores are opening in D.C. This fact, combined with the evolving millennial dining style of hitting three bars or restaurants in one night makes Kuller understand the reluctance some operators feel about investing heavily in pastry. “You gotta look past that first level of just selling your five, six desserts at a time at the restaurant and say, ‘What other kind of value can we add,’” he says.
Dysart sees diners’ fascination with restaurants as a boon for pastry chefs. “The public is more interested in what goes into a restaurant: the products, the people, the chef, the story,” she says. “Having a pastry chef or a pastry program is part of that as well. People expect a better cocktail program from restaurants. I think they also expect more from desserts.”
Levin agrees. “D.C. I think is leading right now in the trend of resurging pastry chefs and pastry programs,” he says. “There’s a lot of really great places to go see pastry chefs doing their thing.”
He’s also pleased to eat great dessert. “Every time I go out to dinner somewhere and I see a really great dessert, whether it’s an executive chef who makes it or whether it’s an executive pastry chef who makes it, or anyone for that matter, I’m not surprised anymore.”