September 11, 2017

From Over-Caffeinated Amateur To Professional Pastry Cook

By Katie Conklin, Pastry Alumna and Pastry Chef at Altamarea Group

L’Academie de Cuisine may be a place to learn technical skills, but it’s also where I evolved from an over-caffeinated amateur into a steady-handed, professional pastry cook.

Early in my training, I tipped over a tray, knocking both a classmate’s and my cakes to the floor 20 minutes before an exam ended. Fortunately at L’Academie, I only lost 10 points and was allowed to stay and rebuild my cake. In the real world, the consequences would have been severe.

Since then, I have never dropped a full cake on the floor. And while I’ll admit that my apron still gets covered in flour (which would have cost me points on an exam), my ability to move, speak, and react in the kitchen is stronger.

After graduating from L’Academie, I worked my way through many restaurants, from early morning production to late night service shifts. The restaurant route offers constant variety. Today, for example, I’ll make focaccia, pavlovas, and bon bons; tomorrow a wedding cake; and the day after, brunch turnovers, scones, and cinnamon rolls.

At L’Academie, their program encourages the skills and attitudes that differentiate average cooks from the best.

Want to know how to get that extra spark that chefs look for in their most promising cooks?

1. Stage with a variety of chefs. I’m lucky; Altamarea Group has everything from pizzerias to Michelin-rated restaurants. They encourage cross-pollination of knowledge. Staging at Ai Fiori taught me about bon bons and my sous chef expanded her knowledge of bread from Vaucluse.

2. Seize every opportunity to learn and grow. Even if you’re not in a group like Altamarea, don’t discourage. Your coworker’s roommate’s ex worked at the place of your dreams? Use that connection and get in! Don’t know anyone? Ask L’Academie or call the restaurant directly and ask. Knowledge, problem-solving, and understanding how different people and teams work all increase your value and hireability, but only come from experience.

3. Embrace weaknesses. Don’t be afraid of not being the best on a team. It’s easy to feel embarrassed and anxiously avoid a specific project you’ve failed or never tried. The best way to overcome fear: ask for help!

4. Don’t be a superstar. If you’re the only one who can do your job, there’s no motivation to promote you. To be both a good team player and leader, embrace your strengths and weaknesses by balancing them with the team’s.

5. Keep it professional. Anxious or over-confident emotions can cloud your work and impede interactions with teammates. This is a skill that is complex and needs constant awareness.

6. Find joy in your projects, big or small. Don’t be disheartened by making chocolate chip cookies every day. Instead, learn how to become consistent and efficient. Once steady, ask to learn something in addition to your current responsibilities. Creativity and drive are just as important as consistency and efficiency.