Thursday, July 14, 2011

What makes a good pastry chef?

What makes a good pastry chef? No one in particular asked me, but I feel compelled to ask and then answer my own question.
I will tell you what I think it is. And the answer addresses the technical aspect only. The management part and all the other stuff is not relevant to this answer. It comes down to eight techniques. No more, no less. They are pass or fail.
These are the eight techniques, in no particular order:
Lamination. This includes puff pastry and a yeast risen laminated doughs. Can you execute a Napoleon and a croissant? Are the outer layers flaky and crisp and is the crumb structure regular in its irregularity? Is there any damage to the layers? Is it much lighter than it looks? is it buttery on the surface and does it make a beautiful mess when you break through the surface?
Pate a choux. Not the aberrations and monstrosities that we have unfortunately become accustomed to. Amorphous blobs of soft choux coated in dull condensation-pocked glazes. Can you make an eclair that is evenly tubular and completely hollow? A puff that is round, hollow and even?
Pastry cream. No scorch, no lumps, not overcooked, not undercooked. Proteins: yolks and starch coagulated on point). No pastry cream powders. Is it shiny, smooth and supple?
Brioche. Understand that it is an emulsion first and an enriched dough mixed to full gluten development second. Mix it as such without over-heating it. Is it soft, tender, buttery, airy... pillow-like?
Ganache. Speaking of emulsions. Can you formulate and balance a ganache recipe to fill confections and another for a slab to cut and dip? Do you know the difference between these types of ganache and what they are for?
Temper chocolate. So it shines and snaps. Thin shells in confections (throughout the entire shell, including the base... Is it uniformly thin?) Thin sheets for chocolate decor. Can you manipulate it and keep it under working control for long periods of time? Not a speck on your coat. Not under your fingernails. Not on the wall or on your work table. Can you harness it?
Make a macaron. Can you mix it to just the right consistency, pipe it all to exactly the same size, let it dry just long enough, let it bake just long enough?
Spoon a quenelle. Ice cream, sorbet and whipped cream or creme fraiche. Small, medium and large. With any spoon.

If you can execute all of these eight items without mistake, with the true quality aspects they deserve, and with relative ease.... Then you are a good pastry chef. If you do seven of them, you are not quite there yet.
I wonder if we took all of the pastry chefs we admire and respect, or perhaps do not admire or respect but we hear about a lot and give them awards, how would
they fare? How many would pass?
I really, truly want to see any of these techniques be part of the challenges in cooking show competitions. Not who makes the sassiest cupcake. Frankly who gives a shit about cupcakes? Any home cook can make a decent cupcake.

Do these well, and you will succeed, perhaps not financially, but you will know deep down that you are not a hack, and that is one definition of success, which plays into your integrity , self respect and what you are made of There's nothing worse than a hack who doesn't know he (or she) is a hack. Perhaps the only worse thing is a hack who knows he's a hack and does not care he is a hack. God bless P.R. firms, right?


  1. Why'd you have to go on put macarons on this list Chef? I Can do it all very well indeed except those darn macarons...your killing me. I do feel like it is a little too exclusive though. There may be some Chefs out there who can make hundreds of items and do them all wonderfully but they've never made a quenelle in their life. What would this list have been 20 years ago? Perhaps that's where my thinking lies. I'd say this is a list of what makes a very modern pastry chef. No? I also agree with the "no worse thing than a hack who doesn't know they're a hack." They care so little about their craft they don't even know they're terrible at it. The hack who knows at least took the time to figure out what is right and then just ignored it. They're both terrible but I deal more with the former.

  2. Chefjb, I would actually say that this list, if anything, is almost completely old school. The quenelle will always be a display of finesse and motor skills in the craft of scooping ice cream. And at the end this is just my personal opinion, it's not like the ten commandments.

  3. Well of course it's not the ten commandments Chef...there's only 8. Sorry i'm a bit of a smart ass. In any case you got me with the macarons. This was my first post but I've been a big fan of your blog for over a year now. Your a huge source of inspiration for a guy in a place that's ranks pretty low in terms of good pastry. Thanks for all the sharing Chef.

  4. Macarons were specialty items 20 years ago. But I digress. A pastry chef that cannot mix and bake a cake is less than a pastry chef that cannot make a macaron (the new cupcake). As such, it should replace macarons on your list. Otherwise, generally correct.

  5. balancing an ice cream, sorbet & gelato; pulled and blown sugar to complete the ten commandments.

  6. Very well said. I cannot wait to print this out, frame it and hang it in my pastry kitchen.

  7. Remarkable, spot on, post. How I wish the board of my former culinary college would read this!


    When is your forthcoming book coming out?

  8. Glad the truth comes out. May I also add one of the key techniques to posses is humility. Not a lot chefs have that. It is also the ability to admit that you may have trouble with a function such as single spoon quenelling. I learnt this in a chocolate class many years ago, when Ewald Notter admitted he was not good at cutting chocolate fans. Now, I would never discredit him as a great pastry chef, but I have greater admiration for him by him pointing out his shortcomings. I guess thats why I have no problem admitting I still have issues with single spoon quenelling.
    So I suppose I have to admit I am 6/7 of the way to being a good pastry chef. I'll let you know when I'm there!

  9. Can you make an eclair that is evenly tubular and completely hollow? A puff that is round, hollow and even?

    We all know the principles of choux but how do you make a perfect hollow tube?

    Mine have some irregularities to the shape

  10. The eight commandment to be a good pastry chef. Those are wise words Chef Migoya.

  11. I was messing around with some isomalt and agar etc over the last few weeks. Though the results were fun I thought to myself 'these are cool but it's nothing on making croissants'

  12. Can you recommend any books/resources that teach proper techniques for the items in your list?

  13. Well said, its amazing how many pastry chefs i know cannot execute a basic creme anglaise

  14. Do I score bonus points if I can make a difference between creme pat. and creme anglaise?

  15. Nice list. I think all the points you touched on are the key elements of what embodies a good pastry chef. With these basic techniques you can expand and create your own items. I think most of the people coming out of school only see the shiny "pastry chef" title. They need to remember it is "earned" not bought

  16. Totally agree chef ..these are solid skills that make a truly good pastry chef that's able to work in any patisserrie or resturant ..(which in my opinion, is 2 totally different job.) but these 8 skills with get though~ thks for sharing once again

  17. Of the techniques listed, a video demonstrating your point re: brioche (emulsion first, structure second) would be most appreciated Chef.

  18. Hello,

    We bumped into your blog and we really liked it.
    We would like to add it to the

    We would be delighted if you could add your blog to Petitchef so that our users can, as us,
    enjoy your recipes.

    Petitchef is a french based Cooking recipes Portal. Several hundred Blogs are already members
    and benefit from their exposure on

    To add your site to the Petitchef family you can use or just go to and click on "Add your site"

    Best regards,

  19. You're right there should be a competition like that, instead of having showpieces competitions. Pastry chefs should compete in what is there everyday duty and not the extra part.

  20. I totally agree with you chef. I am a fan by the way! but i would also add the skill of writing with a cornet,it's not as easy as it seems

  21. Thank you so much chef migoya!!! Believe me i needed this ��