In the past five years, or so, pastry and chocolate have become very sexy. The public love The Great British Bake Off – which is now syndicated all over the world and there are lovely artisan chocolatiers all across the UK.
So it’s not surprising that many are now considering careers as chocolatiers, pastry chefs and confectioners.
If that’s you – maybe you’re a passionate amateur interested in chocolate or pastry as a career, or a student considering your options – first ask yourself: What’s my passion for this type of work?
Despite its delights, this isn’t an easy profession, and the hours are long and hard, especially when you’re starting out. If you’re unsure whether this is the career for you, or you’ve little professional experience or advice to go on, your best call is to take a short course at a good chocolate school, or approach a professional pastry kitchen to do an internship and get some hands-on experience.
Located in Peebles, Scotland, The Chocolate & Pastry School provides a range of half day classes for enthusiastic beginners, two-day masterclasses and specialist courses by international guest chefs. We cover everything from competition preparation and industry training to everyday delicious recipes that are accessible to anyone.
In the last eight years, we’ve taught chocolate and pastry skills to over 10,000 students and home baking fans from all over the world. For many students, the classes are just for fun – a chance to learn some professional skills and recipes to delight friends and family with. But with others, I can tell that they’re super-passionate, and some leave with a burning ambition to pursue chocolate and pastry as a career.
If you find yourself with that level of hunger to work in the industry (not literally – believe me, don’t go into chocolate and pastry just to eat loads of sweet things!), then your best course of action is to gain some experience at a culinary college, or good hotel or restaurant, ideally one with a good pastry chef. As your confidence grows, aim to work with the very best people. That’s the way to fast-track your skills and your career. To do this in such an international industry, you need to be prepared to travel.
When I was a schoolgirl in South Africa, my parents were surprised when I started calling up top chocolatiers in Europe. They were even more surprised when I packed my bags one summer and announced I was heading to France for some work experience during the holidays.
Working with the best from an early stage helps in two ways: One, you’ll learn professional skills which may eventually lead to a role as Head Pastry Chef in a great hotel, or the foundations for starting your own business. Two, you’ll start building a network of professional contacts who also understand the need for working with the best talent. Bear in mind that your ability to develop great skills is limited by the level of the people you work with. So aim high!
By working hard and developing your professional skills and contacts, you’ll start to make a name for yourself in the industry. After a few years’ solid experience, it may be time to work for a large hotel or restaurant. Again, be prepared to travel. Many smaller hotels and restaurants have limited staff budgets, and can’t afford a dedicated pastry chef.
You may also be considering starting a business. For this, it’s vital to know that this calls for a completely different set of skills, including marketing, financial management, tax, staffing and other demanding areas of expertise. You may spend far more time than you’d like in the office, rather than in your beloved kitchen. When we started Cocoa Black in 2008, we were aware it would be tough, but not that it would take us ten years of seriously hard work – and we’re just getting started! However, we felt the time was right, and that we had the right product, and were prepared to give it all we had.
If you’re planning to start a business, it’s crucial to gain some business experience and take a short business course – this will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls. If you have a strong passion (and great skills!) for pastry and chocolate, you need a sounding board to give you a sense of realism and a clear vision. You may also wish to approach your local business enterprise support for advice, and sometimes free courses.
Chef competitions aren’t for everyone, but I’ve always found them great fun. It’s a chance to test yourself against your professional peers, and to meet the top talent in the industry. Competitions also attract trade exhibitors, buyers and sometimes also the press. It’s a good opportunity to network and raise your profile in the chocolate and pastry world.
During my career, I’ve had the privilege of competing at regional, national and international level, and have met some wonderfully inspiring people. If you want to try a competition, try getting in touch with one of the leading industry associations. They should be able to signpost the best competitions for your level, and any relevant training opportunities.
If you’re willing to work hard and learn the skills, a career as a chocolatier or pastry chef can be incredibly exciting and rewarding. That said, good jobs can be hard to find, and you’ll probably need to travel. But if you’re passionate, determined and prepared to make industry contacts, you’ll get there.
As you build your career, more and doors will open. Then you’ll start to be in the frame for more opportunities, and will begin to have career choices. When that happens, you’re on your way to being a career chocolatier or pastry chef. And with that under your belt, you may want to set you sights on the World Chocolate Masters!
Best of luck,