By Jenny McCoy—Co-Chair, Center for Advanced Pastry Studies
Working your way up the professional ladder in the kitchen is a wonderful experience, filled with constant exposure to new cooking techniques, methods of organizational management and learning how to work with a team to execute the day’s work. It’s the type of work that never gets old, at least not for me.
Once I reached the top of the kitchen hierarchy, I noticed an enormous shift in my focus. While I enjoyed the creative freedom of creating new dishes for the menu and I thoroughly enjoyed teaching my staff new ways to hone their skills, I found my learning curve dropped dramatically. No longer did I have a chef to teach me—I needed to be the chef that taught everyone else. In short, the excitement of my daily work reduced—a lot—and I had to find a way to rekindle the fire.
It’s a funny thing, really. For any driven professional, the end goal always seems to be to get to the top as quickly as possible, believing that is the secret to fulfillment and happiness. And it can be. But there is also something to be said for taking one’s time.
After a few months as a newly-minted executive pastry chef, I started to feel I had used up my bag of tricks and realized that I needed to get some new ones. I began choosing my vacation destinations based on where I could spend a day or two working in kitchens with pastry chefs I admired. I attended pastry conferences and participated in advanced hands-on classes for professionals. During the period when I worked in New Orleans, I organized a monthly gathering of pastry chefs where we’d swap stories and recipes.
Through this continued education, I got out of the kitchen and gained new perspective. I networked with other chefs who were masters of their craft. I learned new techniques to incorporate into my baking repertoire and teach my staff. But most importantly, I felt rejuvenated and happier about my new senior role in the kitchen. In short, continuing education wasn’t a luxury: it was an essential part of my success as a professional chef. Without it, I would have likely burned out.
Today, at ICE, I am the co-chair of CAPS (The Center for Advanced Pastry Studies), along with Pastry Chef Kathryn Gordon. It’s the crème de la crème in continuing pastry education. Not only do I get to participate in 10 to 12 professional pastry courses each year with various masters of cake design, laminate doughs, sugar work, etc., but I also get to help organize these events and network with chefs whom I greatly admire.
It is fascinating work, and it has expanded my knowledge far beyond my imagination. I’ve had the opportunity to learn new techniques like cake painting, which I never considered attempting before. It always seemed too difficult—even for a professional pastry chef! The CAPS classes at ICE are designed to benefit both working pastry chefs and recent graduates of pastry arts programs. All you need is a fundamental understanding of baking and pastry. From there, it’s your individual skills that determine how far you can stretch the limits of any particular technique.
Working at a culinary school obviously has other added benefits— all of my colleagues are excellent teachers! I recently spent 10 consecutive days training with Chef Sim Cass, the director of the professional bread baking program at ICE. In just over a week, I came away with dozens of new tricks and professional tips for bread baking—tips that only someone with over 20 years of bread baking experience could teach me.
In short, the desire—and the need—to learn never goes away for a chef, no matter where you are in your career. This isn’t an easy industry—it requires long hours, intensely demanding work environments and endless creativity. Finding inspiration is essential for professional success, and cookbooks and videos can offer some help. But there’s nothing more fulfilling than spending a day with a group of your peers and training under a highly accomplished master of his or her trade.