If you’ve been following my life here on TAIP, you know that I got married last year not once, not twice, but a whopping three times (you can read about the first two times here and here). Yes, all to the same person. Who happens to be French. Who also happens to be a professionally trained pastry chef.
The typical reaction I get when I tell someone what he does is, “Wow! You’re so lucky to get homemade French pastries at home!” I don’t have much of a sweet tooth (pass me a plate of fries over a plate of cookies any day, thank you) but I have to admit I do enjoy having access to homemade croissants, macarons, chouquettes, and more whenever the mood strikes.
The life of a French pastry chef is not for the faint of heart — something I witness on a daily basis because I live with one. What kind of training do you need, you may be wondering? Is it as glamorous as it seems? Is it hard waking up at 1am to go to work every day? Is it worth it?
Let’s find out.
A Baker Does Not A French Pastry Chef Make
I was originally going to call this article The Life of a French Baker but my husband stopped me before I even started. “Je suis pas un boulanger,” he told me. I am not a baker.
In France, a baker and a pastry chef aren’t one and the same. The baker bakes the bread and the pastry chef makes the pastries. There’s even a third person you have likely never heard of who is in charge of viennoiserie — croissants, pain au chocolat, etc. — called a tourier.
Of course, there are bakeries in France that don’t have all three experts on staff. My husband says that lots of bakers and pastry chefs know how to make viennoiserie, and many touriers can bake bread. Are you still with me?
As you’ll discover if you ever learn the French language, this is a country full of contradictions and exceptions.
Training, Degrees, and Certifications
Like all French people our age, my husband had to have an idea of what he wanted to do as a career by age 15. It’s a bit different these days, but at the time, he had to decide whether to continue on to high school or start a trade school.
He decided to go to Centre d’Excellence des Professions Culinaires (CEPROC) in the 19th arrondissement in Paris to study pastry. At the time, he worked toward le Brevet d’études professionnelles (BEP), a three-year diploma that required him to split his time between classes at school and a job in a local bakery.
Today, aspiring French pastry chefs have the choice between a certificat d’aptitude professionnelle (CAP) or a baccalauréat professionnel (BAC pro). The former is a degree program like my husband did — he bypassed high school and went straight into culinary school — but that also means he does not have a high school diploma. You have to go to high school if you hope to be accepted into a BAC pro program.
There are several other certifications you can get as a pastry chef. Le Brevet de Maîtrise Pâtisserie, for example, is the highest diploma a French pastry chef can obtain.
You could also become specialized in different aspects of pastry. Chocolate, ice cream, and 5-star restaurant-quality desserts are just a few areas you could go into.
All of this being said, you don’t technically need a degree, certificate, or special training to be a pastry chef. Many begin at a very young age and learn as they go.
The (not so) Glamorous Lifestyle
You may imagine the life of the French pastry chef to be filled with sweet aromas, sneaky taste tests, and constant praise and accolades. It’s not.
My husband often has to be up at 1am to be out the door at 2am. That means that he has to go to bed around 7pm. Not ideal when you live in a tiny studio in Paris. I don’t have to (or want to) go to bed before the sun goes down so I either need to make myself scarce (and be quiet when I come home) or hunker down in the kitchen so as not to bother my very own sleeping beauty.
Fortunately, we no longer live in such a small space so this is no longer an issue. At the time I couldn’t help but feel a bit grouchy when everyone told me how “lucky” I was to live with a pastry chef. Don’t get me wrong, I feel very lucky to be with my husband, but living on totally opposite schedules does have its challenges.
Another thing to note is that most French pastry chefs work in local bakeries, not five-star restaurants and hotels. Their salaries are average at best, and seeing as though there is a bakery on nearly every street corner in this country, most French people aren’t super impressed.
Conversely, every time my husband meets an American they shower him with compliments. They want — need — to know everything about his job. To the outsider and the foreigner, a French pastry chef must live a glamorous lifestyle. They must!
As you can imagine the hubs would prefer to create pastries for people who appreciate it for the art form that it is. For that reason he once worked in a cooking school that catered to English-speaking tourists who are looking to learn more about French cuisine. It was a breath of fresh air.
So, is it worth it? In true French fashion, my husband says, “mouais” (mmm, yeah). He goes on to say that if you love the craft, then yes it’s worth it. But, there has to be some sort of passion there to make it through all the hard work.
The next time you’re in a bakery in France, take a few extra moments to appreciate the craftsmanship of what you’re about to eat before you gobble it down. Pay a compliment to the chef — you never know just how much they may appreciate it.
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