Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Being a pastry chef: Because it's worth it

Pooja Dhingra on the sweet and the sweat that add up to a great dessert

Published: Dec 12, 2015 06:33:52 AM IST
Updated: Dec 14, 2015 11:45:01 AM IST
Being a pastry chef: Because it's worth it
Image: Corbis
Cherry on the cake: For the French, walking into a pastry shop is no less than walking into a museum full of art

Whenever I tell someone what i do for a living, they respond with a big smile. Their eyes light up and I can tell they’re thinking about the last great dessert they ate. Yes, when I tell people that I’m a pastry chef and I get to make all kinds of delicious goodies all day, everyday, it makes them happy.

This is also, I suspect, because they’re assuming this: As a pastry chef, she must get to eat all the chocolate in the world (the answer is yes, but I really try not to). Also, they’re thinking, working in the kitchen must be like what we see on MasterChef. Let me burst that bubble for you: It isn’t. I’ll explain later. First, let me tell you a bit about myself.

Even as a young girl, I was always fascinated with baking. My first proper kitchen memory is of when I was seven. I clearly remember the day my aunt taught me how to make brownies. I was amazed that simple ingredients like eggs, butter, sugar and flour could create something so delicious and magical. As I grew older, I continued experimenting with dessert. I would take whatever I could lay my hands on and try to make something out of it. I remember being obsessed with crushing biscuits and adding condensed milk and cocoa powder to it. I called it cocoa delight.

My love for chocolate took me to Switzerland where I studied hospitality and business. It was while working at a five-star hotel in Vevey that I realised that the pastry kitchen was my true calling and I moved to Paris to study pastry-making at Le Cordon Bleu.

Living and working in Paris changed everything for me. I walked into some of the world’s best pastry shops and was always in awe. I was amazed by the way pastry was treated in France. Walking into those shops was almost like going to a museum to look at art. That’s exactly how pastry chefs treated their work—like craftsmen.

I still remember the first time I bit into a macaron. I stood in line outside a shop for 20 whole minutes and couldn’t believe that people were actually lining up for pastry. I reached the counter and looked at the beautiful array of colours. I chose a passion fruit macaron and walked out of the store like an excited child. I took my first bite and was amazed at the flavours, the textures and how it all came together. The outside shell looked hard but one bite into it and it just melted in my mouth. The combination of the tart passion fruit and the sweet milk chocolate was just perfect. That day, I realised the potential of what could be achieved with dessert.

Being a pastry chef: Because it's worth it
Images: Ingredients: Getty Images; Macarons and Sakura cake: Corbis
Tasting menu: (From left) Bakers can churn out a wide variety of desserts using simple ingredients like butter, flour, eggs and sugar; passion fruit macarons; sakura cakes

Flavours play on your palate and become memories. You start associating things, time and places with taste. Every time I have a passion fruit macaron now, I am transported to that windy day in Paris, standing outside the pastry shop and biting in to my prized purchase.
I got to witness the way different chefs handle different ingredients: How the same ‘magic ingredients’ can be used to create a huge variety of goodies truly astounds me. When it was time for me to move back to India, I knew exactly what I wanted to do—to put a little bit of Paris on your plate. And that’s how Le15 patisserie was born (Le15 stands for the 15th Arrondisement in Paris).

Having said that, being a pastry chef is not always easy and definitely not glamorous. What keeps me going is the countless possibilities to create wonderful things. I love seeing an idea, which only lived in my head, come to life. My mind tries to imagine what different flavours would taste like if they came together and that moment, when you actually bite into an experiment to see if it matches your imagination, is my favourite. For example, when I moved back to India, I was obsessed with pairing French techniques with Indian flavours. This led to our paan macaron (which is delicious) and white chocolate and green chilli tarts. Of course, some ideas don’t necessarily pan out the way you would like them to (kaala khatta macaron was a definite no-no).

Being a pastry chef: Because it's worth it
Image: Getty Images
Candy crush: A baking class at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, US. Pooja Dhingra had learnt the ropes of pastry-making at LCB’s Paris campus

The fun, however, is in the process.

I’m most inspired when I’m travelling and far away from a routine. I love discovering new cities and finding ways to incorporate experiences from my travels to my menu. A trip to New York last year led to a menu where NYC meets Paris (imagine a cheesecake flavoured macaron). Spending cherry blossom season in Tokyo this year had me inspired to do a Japanese flavour special (green tea macarons and sakura cakes). And that’s the great thing about being a pastry chef—inspiration is everywhere; you just have to keep your eyes open to find it.

There are days when you experiment and try out new recipes but most of the time you work on executing the same thing over and over again. During my internship at a chocolate store in Paris (yes, it was the perfect job and yes, I did gain 6 kilos while working there), I spent all my time making tiny buttons that we stuck on bonbons. I made so many that I started dreaming of these tiny red chocolate buttons—I could make them like a machine. It wasn’t creatively satisfying at all but it taught me one of the most vital skills you need to have in the pastry kitchen: Patience.

Baking is a precise science—something most cooks don’t enjoy at all. My friends who work in hot/savoury kitchens always complain that they find making deserts too restrictive. You need to have specific measurements and can’t wing things the way you can while making a hot meal. But once you have your basics covered, testing out flavours and textures is a limitless process.

Being a pastry chef: Because it's worth it
Like I said, working in a professional kitchen is definitely not like what you see on shows like MasterChef. You don’t get time to focus on creating a single dish. You’re always multi-tasking and doing a hundred things at a time. It’s not glamorous at all. Some days you might just be in charge of chopping onions or peeling potatoes.

Also, as an executive chef, you’ll constantly be thinking of your ingredients and prices. Each day, the cost of your raw ingredients is increasing and you can’t keep changing your prices. So you have to find ways to make your dish work. And there are days when your core ingredient will suddenly be in short supply. You have no control over any of these situations. Also, you work long, long hours (and weekends and public holidays). In fact, you work hardest when everyone else has a holiday (no Diwali, no Christmas and you can forget about New Year’s Eve). Everyone is always tired and egos are always flaring.

But while it has its problems, it’s also the most fulfilling experience. You get to create something wonderful each day. If your job can bring happiness and smiles to faces and be a part of someone’s most cherished moments, then you are as lucky as I am.  

No, the pastry kitchen is definitely not the easiest place to be in, but there’s no place I’d rather be.

The writer is a pastry chef and the owner of Mumbai’s dessert destination, Le15 Patisserie

(This story appears in the Nov-Dec 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)