Sweet talkin': is the golden age of pastry behind us?

by Jess Carter

06 August 2018

Dessert: a finishing touch, unnecessary treat or an integral part of the menu? Whatever your preferred way to end a meal, it’s evident that the proportion of restaurants employing dedicated pastry chefs is at a low. So what’s going down in the pastry section?

The encore. The last-minute plot twist. The hidden CD track (remember them?). The sweet course of a meal is surely at home among this list of things worth waiting for; just as set lists, album tracks and storylines are created to be enjoyed as cohesive wholes, so are many great restaurant menus. 

Sure, there are loads of people who will swear to you that they ‘really don’t do desserts,’ but I bet you’ve only heard them say it when they’re sat tucking into one. Am I right? 

Point is: desserts don’t solely exist to be a final flourish to the main meal, or to make sure sweet-toothed punters get their happy ending. A lot of the time, they’re intended to be part of the meal proper, and chefs take them really seriously: “We look at dessert as the last thing people are going to eat here, so it’s incredibly important to us,” says Jim Day, head chef at Casamia

Despite the sweet course being so integral to this famous Michelin-starred restaurant, though, there’s not actually a dedicated pastry chef there. However, as Jim explains, “There are still pastry chef roles out there in the bigger operations; it all just depends on the structure of the kitchen.”

Hotels are among those “bigger operations” that often have chefs dedicated to pastry; there’s often call for baked specialities at all hours there. Abigail Dawson has been a pastry chef for nine years, and now works her sweet magic in the Mount Somerset Hotel’s kitchen. She has plenty to keep her busy on a daily basis. 

“I make bread, scones and cakes for afternoon tea,” she says, “plus desserts for the weekly menu and the al a carte menu, biscuits for the bedrooms, and petit fours.” 

With all that needing to be done every day, it makes sense to have someone dedicated on the job.

Of course, another reason that pastry is a specific speciality is that it’s such a science. Matthew Parsons, pastry chef at Bath hotel No.15 Great Pulteney, says, “Everything is measured, and has to be exact. I really enjoy the often intricate presentation of the dishes too. There’s less room for error, so you need to be on it all of the time.”

To perfect really impressive, technical desserts, then, takes a hella lot of time and practice, meaning there’s an argument that all-rounder chefs might not be able to reach the levels of those who can fully dedicate themselves to pastry all day, every day. 

Todd Francis, executive chef at the Hyde and Co group, would agree with this, and notes how a lack of dedicated pastry chefs can result in a loss of skills. “I know a handful of chefs who could tell me what a Paris-brest is,” he says, “and less who could make it from scratch. Compromise on variety is, to a degree, inevitable.”

Sweet goodbyes?

So, given the above, how come so many local venues don’t seem to have pastry chefs any more? There are a few ideas kicking around. Firstly, might it not be entirely irrelevant that we have so many great artisan producers and bakeries on our doorstep these days?

“I think more and more restaurants are buying in bread, ice creams and things,” says Lauren Deaker, pastry chef at The Wheatsheaf Combe Hay. “But although I believe in supporting local bakeries, I also believe it’s important for us to make everything ourselves.” 

Matthew Peters is at Lucknam Park, having left the main kitchen behind for pastry eight years ago. He agrees that lots of pastry foods are being bought in these days, but also notes a more obvious reason why restaurants might not take on pastry chefs. “Cost is a big factor,” he says, “as an experienced pastry chef can command high wages. Some restaurants or hotels just can’t match their demands.” 

Indeed, it’s no secret how tight restaurant margins are these days; the topic of no-shows is still as relevant as ever, with restaurants having spoken out about how badly they can affect takings,  jeopardising the whole business. With that in mind, are pastry chefs a luxury that not many kitchens can afford?

Ross Gibbens, co-head chef at Wellbourne, comments that it’s certainly not a position all restaurants can rationalise. 

“I think you can only justify the need for a separate pastry team if you have a revenue stream that directly results from that part of the kitchen,” he says. “Super-restaurants, like Hide in London, have an in-house bakery and pastry team, as they produce breakfast goods, afternoon teas and have two restaurants to produce for, seven days a week – and it’s the same with the big hotels. Some of the more high-end fine dining restaurants can still justify it too, as a certain level of detail is expected from them.”

It would be an oversight to not mention the change in our food culture too – Todd makes a good point about this. 

“With cuisine changing to more worldly options,” he says, “the highly specialised French fine dining pastry chef is not necessarily as relevant – a lot of cuisines do not have a dessert tradition. Add to that the influx of excellent bakeries, and restaurants will buy in bread  that would have traditionally been the pastry chef’s job.”

With modern cost issues and contemporary style preferences, it’s unsurprising that kitchen teams look different today. 

Chef Elliott Lidstone owns shipping container restaurant Box E, with wife Tessa. Of course, with space at a minimum, there are only a certain number of bodies that can fit in the kitchen. However, space itself isn’t the only contributing factor in the decision to keep the team small – many bigger kitchens are going the same way. 

“Even in larger restaurants, kitchen brigades are not the size they once were,” says Elliott. “A pastry chef is quite a specific job and these days chefs have more general roles.”

Just like Jim’s kitchen at Casamia, then, more and more teams are doing away with traditional structures and training their chefs in every discipline. And, of course, it makes sense to have a holistic view of the kitchen, whether you’re going to specialise in any one part of it or not. 

“During my time at L’Ortolan,” Elliott says, “my boss, Alan Murchison, could not over-emphasise the importance of spending time in each section of the kitchen. This very much included pastry. I make bread fresh every morning now, and my past experience of working in the pastry section has certainly helped with this.” 

Pud news

One thing we can be sure of, though, is that desserts themselves are still popular – and, even if it does look like there are fewer pastry chefs around, it ain’t ’cause no one’s eating pud.

“Desserts are still very popular at the restaurant,” says Elliott. “The vast majority of our diners will stay for pudding or cheese – or a tea, coffee or disgestif, if not. It’s a nice chance to pause and relax at the end of the meal.”

Ross Gibbens agrees that most people are still tucking into dessert after a meal, estimating that around 70 percent of customers will finish their meal with dessert during the week, with the figure climbing to the high 90s at the weekend.

Chris Peers, pastry chef at The Pony and Trap, points out that it’s sort of unsurprising that desserts are so popular; they have a captive audience, after all.  

“Generally, going out to eat is a complete indulgence, and pudding is the extreme end of it. You wouldn’t always have pudding at home because it is a treat – that’s the best bit about pudding. Pastry is, in one sense, a complete luxury – but, for me, I think it’s a necessary one.”

So the appetite for dessert seems very healthy, then. And that gives even more weight to the opinions of lots of pros who told us that pastry is most certainly not a declining trade. 

“It’s not dying out; it’s coming back, if anything,” says award-winning, Michelin-starred chef-owner of Casamia, Pete Sanchez-Iglesias. “But of course we’re talking about a certain size, scale and type of restaurant.”

Important point there: rules and trends are not consistent across all styles of restaurant. As a pastry chef of 24 years, The Bath Priory’s Jonathan Blair comments that we may just have a skewed vision thanks to the rise of casual dining – especially on our patch.

“It can be misleading to look at the number of pastry chefs in restaurants, as there are more restaurants and food outlets now than there have ever been. (Most of the top ones still have pastry chefs, although sometimes they are unsung heroes!) The rise in popularity of gastropubs, for example, which offer a simpler style of cooking, means pastry can often be attached to another section of the kitchen.  But, when it comes to high end restaurants, I believe that pastry chefs still remain a popular appointment.”

Popular, and often very necessary, thinks Matthew Peters: “I feel very strongly that the pastry trade holds its place among restaurants up and down the country – and worldwide. I believe pastry is a lot more than just sweet desserts now, too – so many pastry practices and techniques make their way into savoury dishes.”

As a patch that’s seen a massive boom in casual dining, then, we may not have the highest proportion of pastry chefs to restaurants. This, coupled with the restructuring and condensing of kitchen teams, may make it seem that pastry pros are a dying breed – but no! The specialism is actually alive and well. And from what we can see, there are fewer excuses than ever for passing up on pud.