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?