From high heels to rubber shoes : a crash-course into the professional word of baking

Going from Pastry School into a professional pastry shop happened much faster than I anticipated and could have hoped for. I was mentally prepared for the work, but not for other things. Some months ago, I wrote that I had exciting news to share. I never got to share them, cause it just did not seem fitting any longer. But I can still tell a bit of my story and how it felt for me.

At the beginning of November, I started work in one of the top patisseries in Bucharest, so I just want to share a bit of my daily schedule and one difficult aspect I found hard to cope with. Due to confidentiality reasons, I shall keep some details private.

Then and Now

Working in a professional patisserie is both as hard as it’s rewarding. And one thing corporation’s got right lately ( or so promoted at least ), unlike the HoReCa industry, is that people are your best resource. But not everyone has the skills to recognize that.

Coming from the business multinational environment, I was accustomed to certain comforts and benefits. A flexible schedule, ergonomic working space, coffee breaks and a long lunch break, a separate room where you could rest for a few minutes, always dressed up and looking sharp. Even those casual Fridays now seem smart compared to today’s jeans and hoodies. Make-up free is now the rule of thumb.

But most of all,  I was used to people’s awareness. The awareness of their own behavior, how to react in certain situations, how to maintain a positive atmosphere within the team and interaction with others, how to communicate effectively with the various personalities that made for a colorful environment. The lack of these soft skills in those around me had such a devastating impact on me, that it seriously made me question myself: Do I actually have what it takes to make it in this “sweet” world ? Let’s see how most days looked like.

My typical day as a junior pastry chef

My alarm goes off at 5 am. For good measure, I have one at 5.05 as well. My cats sense my awakening and they start their scratching at the door. I get up immediately and – still in darkness – make the bed. I go straight to the kitchen to start the boiling water for the coffee. The coffee beans have been ground the night before. While the water boils, I go to the bathroom where I have to provide the mandatory petting for Misha. In the bathtub. It’s his thing.

She stole my spot!

I have a bowl of cornflakes ( sugar free ) or overnight oats for breakfast, with a serving of fruits.

While the cereals soak some of the milk, I pack my lunch and a snack. I almost never leave without it as it’s really easy to have an unhealthy diet when you work too much. I care too much for my own health and nutrition.

Typical lunch pack

The hot coffee wakes me up a bit more. Half of it goes in a thermos to have during the day. I feed the cats then quickly put on a comfy pair of jeans and an oversized sweater or hoodie. No make up. It’s too early in the morning and can get too hot from the ovens. No perfume either. It can easily be absorbed by the products we prepare. I take off my engagement ring and leave it by the mirror for the evenings. Jewelry and accessories are a source of possible contamination. They are not allowed.

The bus station is really close and at this hour of the morning, few minutes before 6, I can even grab an empty seat. I take my place, isolate myself from the noises of the bus with earphones and close my eyes. It takes about 20 minutes before I need to change buses. It’s the start of the line for this one so I can get a good seat. I continue to rest my eyes. On the mornings when I feel more rested, I read a book or write to people, in an effort to stay in touch. Between pastry school and 8-10-12 hours of work, this is the time I get to reply or ask people how they’re doing.

Current bus reading

Once at the pastry lab, I quickly change in the locker room in some comfy sweatpants and a t-shirt. I wash my hands, lift my hair in a ponytail, which I then cover with a hairnet. Very appealing! There’s an apron as well, but most days I get covered in cream head to toes. This outfit seems to be so out of this world , my own boyfriend didn’t recognize me as I ran out once to get one last  thing from the storeroom, before leaving home. He said: I saw one of your colleagues running….yeah, that was me.

Once equipped and sanitized, I get to work. Once I start the morning process, I can’t stop until the products leave for the shop and I clean the tables and put everything back in order. Sometimes that means 9:30 am, other times 11. That’s when I take a 10-15 min break to eat second breakfast. Usually a banana and some yogurt. I try to be quick and sometimes I can sit on that one small chair, squeezed between the back door and some shelves overcrowded with ingredients. We jokingly named it the shame corner, as if you did something wrong. But you got to sit for a couple of minutes.

Sometimes we eat standing, but you kind of get use to it, especially when you have the responsibility of the next task waiting for you. You don’t want to lose to much time. Or get too comfortable and look as if you’re slacking off.

There’s more ?!

Then you start the next thing on the long list of todo things , usually in preparation for the next day and maybe a bit for the one after. You try as much as possible not to run out of the semi prepared product. This means always having enough creams for the filling, daily checks of the chocolate décor cause you don’t want to temper chocolate last minute. There needs to be enough of the caramel that goes into the products, but also enough of the other caramel that goes into the cream. And have enough meringues to decorate the cakes. On that topic, do we still have the 22 cm cake? Not that one, the one with berries and white mousse.

After I keep postponing lunch to just get this one last thing done and my hunger gets the best of me, I grab lunch. It’s usually a bit on the colder side or a bit too hot, cause I’m rushing too much to get the perfect temperature.

On really busy day, I eat sitting next to the stove and I shove food with one hand while I stir the cream with the other. Or I add egg to the dough mixture. If the oven starts to beep, I put down my lunch box, take the trays out, reheat the oven, load it with a new batch of doughy things then I get back to finishing lunch. Usually it take me 5 minute, maybe 10 if I grab a fruit after. Sometimes longer, if I need to put lunch on hold. Had a few days when there wasn’t even enough time for that.

I ate standing more times than I can remember. When more of us eat in a group, any surface makes for a good chair, even sack of flour. I don’t smoke, so there goes 10-20 minutes extra minutes I don’t get to have. 

Last task of the day is the clean-up. Everything needs to scrubbed, wiped, swept, disinfected. It’s a legal requirement to have the kitchen spotless, but above that, you don’t want to risk any food contamination and ruin the image that you have worked so hard to build.

On some days, work would finish after 8 hours, on others a bit later. On some days, much later. I would get home tired and it sometimes took me at least an hour to recover and gather the mental and physical energy to cook, do some things around the house or workout. Yes, workout. As I said, I want to have a strong healthy body and this means being active either by working out at home or running, on warmer days.

Since I could no longer go to the gym due to the pandemic, I bought weights and created the habit of working out at home. There are a few video’s on YT that I’ve probably done dozens of times, to the point I know every joke and line. But this keeps me in shape, helps with anxiety and proves I can adapt in any situation. Apart from baking and cooking, I love to workout and develop myself in this area. I really miss the gym, the intense classes and the awesome atmosphere the instructors created.

Most days went like this and then on the busiest ones, I would go to classes straight after work, until around 21:00. Exhausted, but fulfilled.

This, I did not see it coming

There needs to be a lot of communication and mental check lists in this industry. The second you take a bag of chocolate or cornstarch or pistachio paste off the rack, your mind should immediately calculate if you still have enough for the coming days. Report if you think not. Also, someone needs to temper more of the pink and coffee chocolate. ASAP! And we’re down to 2 bottles of whiskey cream. What do we mean we are out of butter?! No no, it’s in the other fridge. Guys, we can’t make the any cream until the delivery’s here. They were late. For 4 hours. That’s a lot of time in this sugary world.

Anyone can be a boss. Not everyone can be an inspiring one

Yes, it’s a lot of hard work, physically and mentally, if you want to achieve more and grow to the level of a good pastry chef, at least the level possible in Romania. I was prepared for the long hours. I was not prepared for the people. My enthusiasm and curiosity had been my fuel for all this years, the thing that kept me going until I could change careers.

But it’s a handful of people like that. I’ve noticed it both at the pastry school, with some coming on a mere whim, I’ve seen in at work where people just want to get the job done as fast as possible, with less concern for the details. Everything seemed fine in the beginning and people were helpful. For more than two months, I honestly believed that they can see I’m doing my best to learn, be responsible, on time, do as much as I can, ask what I can help with.

But people can easily put you down and find your energy,  passion and hunger for knowledge annoying. Even to the point of complaining to your boss that you want to know too much or reporting absurd irrelevant things. Trust me, truly flabbergasted on how ridiculous some things sounded or exaggerated, taken out of context. The fear that you don’t know how someone would react if you did something: would it be ok or you would get fired based on some subjective opinions? Above all, I’ve never heard of a negative review for wanting to know more.

Keep moving forward…you deserve it

But you need to stay the course, don’t derail too much from what you know you want and deserve. Make a stop if you need too, think of how to adapt, but keep moving forward. That one single feedback, after giving it my all for two months, after 16 hours working days over the holidays, after coming earlier to work just so I could learn more…crushed me for days. I can handle constructive criticism, but not unfair remarks. It broke my spirit and cried for 2 days straight. But I kept going. I kept showing up every day with a smile and positive attitude, tried harder, showed I am reliable when crisis hit and proved what I am capable of, now and in the future.

And that was only for a brief moment. Cause I think I might have found my people, but I’m still a little bit guarded. Like someone out of a bad relationship, with a broken heart, thinking it was their fault. You can see from my social media posts, I am quite excited, so I’ll write about that as well soon. As always, while riding  the bus, towards my pastry job. No longer a hobby, but a passion turned career.

Thank you for reading thus far, for  giving me a little of your precious time. Wish you a day just right for you ^_^ !

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