#ChefColumns: Dana Cree, Part 1

Pastry chef Dana Cree on why the only way up in the world of restaurant pastry is often out.

July 21, 2015 ● 4 min read

Restaurants are built on a high-paced, high-stress energy that can be the undoing of most pastry techniques.

Pastry departments are often shoved in a corner, left to fend for themselves, an anomaly of calm and quiet in the roiling sea of line cooking. We spend so much of our time chasing the raucous din of a kitchen out of our tiny sweet embassy, it’s a wonder desserts can be brought to life in a restaurant at all.

There are those of us that love it. We love the pace of a restaurant kitchen, and work to fit our passion for desserts into this disparate environment. The desserts we make are a hybrid of classic patisserie and the kinds of plated appetizers and entrees that precede our course. We love the late nights, the rough and tumble nature of a restaurant, the push, and mostly—being the grand finale.

As a young pastry chef, eyes wide with wonder and feet firmly planted in the restaurant world, I looked up to many of these pastry chefs who were redefining what desserts could be. Molecular gastronomy reimagined the cake-sauce-ice cream-garnish construct I had learned to work in. Desserts became abstract compositions, with never before seen textures that attracted more and more of the spotlight.

Albert Adria, Alex Stupak, Sam Mason, Jordan Kahn, Sherry Yard, Rosio Sanchez, Brooks Headley...all shining examples of the kind of pastry chef I wanted to be. So, it was unnerving, when they all began to leave pastry-cheffing behind to open distinctly non-pastry concepts.

When Sam Mason left to pour whisky at Lady Jay’s instead of miso-butterscotch sauce at his dessert-centric restaurant Tailor, I asked why.  When Alex Stupak left the desserts at wd~50 behind to open the Mexican restaurant Empellón, I was less surprised since I had heard him speak of his plan when I staged in his kitchen, but I still wondered. This time I got an answer: he told me he wanted to run a successful business. The dessert-only restaurants that were popping up in 2008 were not what he saw as the road to a successful business.

He was right. They started closing. The high labor and low ticket price of desserts proved too difficult to maintain a profit. Jordan Kahn, whose way with desserts is on par with the surrealist brilliance of Salvador Dali, opened a Vietnamese restaurant, Red Medicine. Albert Adria, the man who created desserts for the most celebrated restaurant in the world with his brother at El Bulli, opened a tapas restaurant called Tickets. Sherry Yard stepped off the candy throne as the Executive pastry chef for Wolfgang Puck’s empire. She’s now the Executive chef for iPic movie theaters, designing entire restaurants and reimagining how we eat while we watch movies.

And, as of this summer, two more pastry chefs have flown the coop. Rosio Sanchez, the woman who created the ingenious poetic endings for Noma, left to open a taco restaurant in Copenhagen, Hija de Sanchez. Brooks Headley, who only just published his cookbook, Fancy Desserts, right on the heels of winning the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef, left his subterranean pastry department in the bowels of Delposto’s cavernous kitchens to open Superiority Burger, a vegetarian answer to greasy griddled butter burgers.

Eight years ago, I struggled to understand why the giants I admired were leaving our niche profession behind. Today, I get it. The ceiling for a pastry chef in a restaurant is very low. You can grow from pastry cook, to pastry sous chef, to pastry chef, but that’s where it ends. While a savory chef might run the restaurant after climbing this ladder, with a salary to match, a pastry chef has nowhere to go. After long enough, we too have the experience necessary to be running the business, but because the word “pastry” precedes our title, our opportunity to grow as a manager ends. After 15 years, it becomes a struggle to continue to take your cues from chefs who are less experienced.

But more than all of that, we are hungry. Hungry to grow, hungry to influence, hungry to run all three rings of the circus, not just the sideshow. Hungry to shape the entire experience from first bite to last, and quite frankly, hungry for the kind of salary that can support an adult life. As a pastry chef we can find larger ladders in larger restaurants, but in the end, they all lead to the same place. A few restaurant pastry chefs become executive pastry chefs of a restaurant group, managing the successes of multiple properties or departments, but these positions are few and far between. They still struggle with the same lower ceiling of influence, just at a corporate level.

Or, we can leave the restaurant pastry world behind, as I've decided to do. It’s frightening, since working in restaurants is all I’ve ever done. I know if I keep climbing, I can continue to collect accolades and hold out until an executive position opens up somewhere. But I know where that ladder ends, and I want see what’s above it. I’m joining those idols of mine who took a leap of faith. We don't abandon our craft for security by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, like they did, I’m stepping out of the known world of restaurant pastry kitchens to expand my career, pushing the limits of our original positions. 
This won’t be the end of pastry in my life, but an extension of it, a chance to expand in a greater arena.

Outside of a restaurant, I can’t see how far I have to climb, or how far over my head my the ceiling is. Perhaps I’ll find myself back in a tiny sweet embassy in a loud kitchen someday, but for now? Onwards.

Dana Cree
 counts 15 years in the restaurant industry, including three years in savory before making the leap to pastry. Ranging from the simplicity of farm-to-table cuisine to the progressive cuisine of Michelin 3 star restaurants, Dana's vast range of experience led her to her most recent position as the pastry chef of Blackbird restaurant in Chicago, where she was nominated twice for the James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef award. In 2015, Dana makes the leap from restaurants to the world of dairy, taking a position as Culinary Director for 1871 Dairy in Chicago. She is documenting the process in a multi-part series, here on ChefsFeed. | Photo courtesy of Andrew Zimmerman.