For the last several years, I’ve noticed a terrifying trend: Major magazines and food publications say that pastry chefs are going extinct. As a pastry chef myself, this is bad news, to say the least.
These articles tell us that as margins shrink due to inflation, pastry chefs are out of a job or left searching for more secure jobs in other industries. But when I look around, it doesn’t take me long to find a plethora of people doing incredible work in the pastry space. Pastry chefs are disappearing — but only from the places we’re accustomed to seeing them. “Every craft has to evolve. It cannot be the same all the time,” says Austin, Texas-based executive pastry chef and restaurant owner Tavel Bristol-Joseph. “We would not be able as humans to survive this long if we didn’t evolve.”
When I began baking professionally, the pastry cook trajectory was rather straightforward — you put in your time working in fine dining and worked your way up to pastry chef. I began my pastry career by walking in the back door of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and asking to intern in the pastry department. I have since worked exclusively in pastry for the last decade in various kitchens throughout Northern California; these kitchens, often run by women or queer people, were very different from savory kitchens.
All of the pastry kitchens I worked in were excellent places to work, with a calmness amidst the rigorous workload. Those of us in the pastry department worked just as hard as our counterparts on the savory side, but you never saw the chefs in charge throw plates against the wall. In the pastry kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant I briefly worked at, cooks from the savory side would come to cry or vent their frustrations in the safe space of the pastry kitchen. They would say things like, “If I can survive here for a year, I can work anywhere.” When I eventually left the restaurant pastry kitchen in 2019, it was its link to the savory side that fueled that desire.
Opportunities for pastry chefs began to change with the advent of cottage laws beginning in the 2010s. A cottage food operation allows people to produce foods in their homes that aren’t seen as hazardous, such as bread, pastry, and jams. While these laws weren’t originally intended for professionals such as myself, they created a pathway to ownership. With cottage food laws, those of us who had left restaurants but didn’t have the wherewithal to open a bakery or pastry shop — which require large amounts of money or a concession of power to investors — were able for the first time to bake on our own terms.
Don Guerra founded the celebrated Barrio Bread in 2009 from his garage, where he made hundreds of loaves a week for his neighbors with locally grown ingredients. In 2015, Bonnie Ohara founded Alchemy Bread in Modesto, California, after experimenting with bread baking at home. I started Desert Bread in Las Vegas in 2018 with my husband Brendon Wilharber, selling bread and pastries at farmers markets. I used Instagram as the main tool for marketing directly to our consumers, posting pictures of weekly specials and telling the story of where our ingredients came from. This allowed Desert Bread to grow by word of mouth as people told their friends and families about us, tagging each other in the comments section of a post, or posting their market hauls on their own pages. Instagram gave us the ability to tell our story on our terms and create a direct dialogue with our customers. As we began to grow we realized that we had become too busy for the farmers market, and so we began to sell directly from our home in January of 2020.
Cottage food has been around for the last decade but has really taken off in the last five years. These laws, coupled with social media becoming a powerful tool for business marketing, helped create a divergent path from the restaurant-to-retail bakery model. And when the pandemic put many pastry chefs out of work, businesses like Barrio Bread and Alchemy Bread provided a road map for the many Instagram pastry pop-ups and apartment-based micro bakeries that sustained customers during lockdowns.
Like many other industries, the pandemic drastically affected the pastry world. People left the industry for good when the difficult circumstances revealed just how small the margins had become even for very successful restaurants. But the pandemic also forced pastry chefs to reflect: Where are we now? Has the restaurant industry returned to business as usual? And then it inspired pastry chefs to find ways to make the industry work for them.
Jennifer Yee, while respected by those she had worked with since 2018 at Konbi in Los Angeles, knew it would be the last job in which she worked for others. So in 2021, Yee opened the vegan-friendly bakery Bakers Bench, not as a home bakery but in a kiosk at a busy shopping center in LA’s Chinatown. She didn’t leave the industry altogether; she pivoted to her solo venture so that she could work for herself. “I don’t have control over the food industry at large but this is something I can control and this is something I want to be part of,” she says. Yee has plans to open the next iteration of Bakers Bench in a historic building that will also feature other small business owners.
“The pandemic has taught us a work-life balance,” says Diane Moua, James Beard Award-nominated pastry chef who made the announcement in October that she was opening her own place next year. Moua is looking forward to opening her cafe and bakery, where she will blend traditional Hmong home cooking with French pastry technique, combining her heritage and her classic training. Moua is using her position as a leader in the industry to change the work schedule of her employees so they have more days off, shifting her staff to four-day work weeks. “My biggest regret was missing out on my kids’ life growing up. I can’t get that back but I can make sure that — moving forward in the industry — that I can try to change that a little bit.” Moua plans to make space for parents who often leave the industry after their children are born by creating flexibility in scheduling and condensing the number of shifts per week.
American pastry chefs aren’t just creating great food, they are living their lives instead of being locked in pastry dungeons working 80-plus-hour workweeks. “There are so many things you can be, there are so many ways you can be, you don’t have to work in a restaurant or bakery. You can do you,” says Rachel Caygill, who now runs Green House Bakery from her home in Oakland while still having time to actively raise her three children.
Even the James Beard Foundation has recognized the shifting landscape. The James Beard Awards, known as the Academy Awards of the American food world, has expanded its requirements for the 2023 award nominations. The foundation added outstanding bakery as a category and states, “Eligible candidates must consistently sell goods directly to the public, but do not need a brick-and-mortar presence.” It also combined the outstanding pastry chef category with outstanding baker, no physical bakery location needed either.
It’s clear the pastry industry is advancing beyond the four walls of the restaurant. If you’re looking for exciting pastry chefs, don’t look at where we’ve been. Look at where we are now, and where we’re going.
Brett Boyer a veteran of Bay Area pastry kitchens is the co-owner of Desert Bread with his husband, a cottage bakery located in Las Vegas that specializes in rustic Italian and French pastry. Joules Garcia is a freelance illustrator based in Burlington, Vermont.