It’s been a year since my first month at pastry school and it seems like it was in another life, not because it was so long ago but because so much has changed since then.Saying goodbye to my closest friends, running back to the safety that is home, starting my own business, getting and leaving my first job… it’s been a whirlwind of emotional challenges for me but I think a few lessons I picked up along the way made a huge difference.
A year ago, I was just diving into the world of desserts, still unsure of what it had to offer me. I spent six months finding out that it wasn’t easy and all fun like I thought it would be (you try standing on your feet for 8 hours a day) but it was very worth it.
Every day was fast paced. There always something that needed to be done and that made it interesting. Every week there was something new and exciting, a topic very different from the week before. I had absolutely no time to feel bored, with the exception of course of the dreaded theory week when we had to be back in the classroom learning about viruses, health risks and that fire is bad, very bad (at least we got to sit down for this important lesson).
Chefs and students would rotate weekly that you were always excited to find out who we’d be paired with, to swap stories about the week before or getting to work with your favorite chef again. I loved every second of it! Well except for the times I got scolded over screwing up a recipe or getting burned so bad by sugar because every good pastry chef needs to know how to cook sugar perfectly and make an incredible sculpture out of it even if it costs you the use of your fingers for a week or two and your creation goes straight into the trash as soon as its done (weirdly this was one of my favorite classes).
With the bad and good sides of it, the academy taught me about more than just baking croissants, tempering chocolate and the consequences of mistakenly putting mousse in the chiller instead of the freezer, Oops. It gave me friends. Friends I can call up five years from now crying about something as silly as ruining a perfectly simple recipe and they would completely understand (AT LEAST I HOPE THEY WOULD). Friends I used to argue with about which of us had the least dirty uniform, because you honestly deserved a freaking trophy if you could get through chocolate class without getting a single dot on your precious white uniform. Those friends and learning how to make gorgeous desserts way too pretty to eat are what I miss the most. These are the lessons I think I already knew before I even got to the academy but seeing them work for the little things showed me how important they are for the big things.
1. Plan, plan, plan
Before starting any class, we plan. We decide what we are going to make, how much, what goes first and last, why it should go before the other one, how long it will take, what could I be doing during this time I’m waiting? Pastry is multitasking. It’s very unlikely that you just work on one thing at a time because usually there are many components that go into it, making it tricky. They require different techniques, rules and time. The worst thing that can happen is realizing you need more time for your dessert to set, or something going wrong and not having extra time to fix it. Always have a contingency as well, a poorly thought out plan equals a poor result and not having a plan at all is complete madness. The same thing goes for reading, knowing and understanding your recipe before even attempting to start or you’ll miss out something. Be prepared, the tiny details matter.
2. It doesn’t have to be chaos
After planning we scale. Scaling is preparing the ingredients; it’s setting aside the exact measurement of sugar, flour, and every single ingredient needed, and making sure they are all ready before you even START. Need to know the temperature of your syrup? Get your thermometer out now and not when your syrup is a few seconds from burning because that’s just setting yourself up for failure. That way you aren’t half way into making a cake before you realize that oops you have no baking powder and have to toss everything out just for one tiny ingredient. It makes the work easier knowing that everything you need is ready for you and it honestly makes the process faster and much tidier. It was always chaos for me baking before the academy, I’d see a recipe I wanted to try and I’d dive right in and end up missing important steps because I was too occupied reaching for stuff and measuring when the mixer was already on full speed. I always ended up with a very messy kitchen afterward that just made baking a lot more stressful than it should be. Anyone who tells you baking very relaxing is lying. DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM.
3. You got this
Being scared to make the wrong move is totally normal. Questioning yourself, very normal. Wanting things to come out perfectly but not knowing how, also normal. The trick is to leave all that in the beginning, decide that this is what you are going to do, this is the best decision you have made, it’s the smartest and stick with it. Even if you aren’t all that confident in your decision be confident in yourself and your reasons. Carrying that uncertainty and fear with you while you are working would make you go back and forth between both decisions and then your outcome won’t be what you aimed for. Apply this to everything you do.
4. Naija time
We are all familiar with Naija time or maybe some of you know it as Filipino time, lol. We decide a few minutes isn’t going to make a difference and most of the time we are right. We come in 30 minutes late and are still able to catch up, but 30 minutes late every day and you begin to miss the foundation of everything. You know this is being done but you don’t know why, something comes out of the chiller and you are like “Where did that come from?” Having just part of the information isn’t enough to fully understand everything and when you are known to never be on time then your important questions aren’t taken seriously. Eventually you aren’t taken seriously.
5. Handle your emotions
On the last week at the academy there is a final assessment for all the students where you work on your own to present some of the things you learnt through out your stay. This is when you show them that you are ready to be sent off into the world as a pastry chef and you try not to screw up every single recipe. I was doing so well the first few days and by that, I mean nothing had gotten burnt so far – that was until the last day when I got overwhelmed. I and my partner had planned our time poorly and were rushing from one dessert to the other, running back and forth between the oven and the classroom. We were caramelizing our puff pastry at a very high temperature so it was very delicate but at the same time we were also trying to fill our chocolate Bon Bons because we were out of time. I stepped away from the oven for a minute or two and by the time I got back the sugar was starting to burn and it didn’t look close to how it was supposed to be. I was mad at myself for not checking it sooner and I projected that towards my partner. By the time I started cutting it up my thoughts were all focused on how I messed up. I was regretting and fuming in anger that I ended up measuring and cutting it wrong, making a bad situation even that much more worse. I had to take a step back and remind myself to let go of what had happened and not let it keep affecting me. Luckily my partner was more composed than I was and helped me fix things despite my attitude towards her. Bless her.
6.Talk it out
This goes without saying that people can’t read your mind. As cool as that would be and actually as terrifying as that would be, it just ain’t so. I can’t count the amount of time things got scaled twice because we weren’t talking to each other as much as should have been. Time got wasted, ingredients got wasted and effort got wasted. Sometimes you’d want to do things on your own figuring it will be less hassle for you and you believe your output can be better. You should learn that one way to build your strengths and get rid of your weaknesses is working with others and being aware of their strengths and weaknesses. That way you can come in where they fall short and vice versa, even learn a thing or two from them. There’ll always be time to work on your own and I’m sure you can handle arguing with yourself just fine.
7. Tough it out
It’s sooooooooo easy to get discouraged. I can’t count the amount of times that I have thought I can’t do this. It seemed like everything I came close to perfecting always ended up in a mess. I made mistakes in countless of recipes that admittedly left me in tears but just like in school when something comes out wrong we don’t just move on to the next or give up, we do it again but more carefully the second time. So, take a break and keep going. It’s also very important to know when to walk away, sometimes it just isn’t worth it.
8. Water, water, water
A friendly reminder to drink lots of water every hour, every day. Water is your friend. How else do you think we survived 8 hours on our feet? Water. Also, we didn’t have a choice.
9. Wing It.
Baking is a science; it’s exact and precise. Things must be done the same way every time to get the same result. You make one wrong move and there goes everything. With something so to the point doesn’t mean there isn’t room for winging it. Yeah, you must do things a certain way but there’s also nothing stopping you from mixing things up and making rules that could still work alongside the pre-existing ones. Want to try a new design that’s never been done? Do all the science and then get down to having fun with it, be as creative as you can. This goes for pretty much anything and there are always going to be rules. But you know what? Don’t limit yourself just because someone else did.