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Part 1: What makes a “professional” baker/pastry chef? Does formal education equate professionalism or technical proficiency?

by Dina Hamed

One of my first questions to Summer was to find out how she personally defined her baking education. I quickly learned that she is self-taught, having mastered her skills from cookbooks and constant experimentation. Yet she made sure to describe her education as, “definitely not professional”(Summer, personal communication, September 28, 2021). I was immediately struck by her phrasing. Not only does it raise big questions like how do we define education or learning? But more specific to our topics at hand: What constitutes a professional baker or pastry chef in a non-regulated trade? Should self-taught bakers, who took their baking and pastry arts be considered “professionals”? Does formal education constitute professionalism and what is the significance of receiving such an education in the current baking and pastry arts industry?

I probed further and asked Summer, now that she is the owner of an established, almost 6-year-old business, does she consider herself a professional of the industry? Her answer was varied. While she attributes her “professional” status to the experience she gained working in a bakery, prior to opening her own business—a job she was able to land through a government subsidized program which incentivizes employers to hire individuals without the technical proficiency required so they can learn those technical skills on-the-job—Summer still hesitates to call herself a pastry chef:

I would, reluctantly, in certain settings…I think to the general public I would very loosely call myself a pastry chef. To people who are [formally] trained in that field I would be more comfortable calling myself a pastry baker or a baker. Only because I think that the ‘chef’ title, when you’re working in a food establishment, is very important and does carry a certain connotation. That being said, as a business owner, I develop my own recipes. If you ask me to make any level of French pastry, I can do it. So as a business owner, yeah, I’m the head chef here. (personal communication, September 28, 2020)

So, which holds more weight, formal education, or technical proficiency? And does formal education equate technical proficiency? In Summer’s personal experience, the answer to the latter question was, not always:

At one point the bakery I was working at was going to offer a program that would subsidize culinary school and so that was something that really appealed to me, and it was one of the reasons I chose that bakery over others. But I was talking to the…[pastry chefs] there in terms of trying to understand, is it worth it for me to go this route because it’s going to take me a couple of years and it’s going to delay the business I was kind of starting at that time. And their feedback was that their experience [in school] didn’t necessarily help with what they were doing now. Because with any kind of [baking] education you get a general knowledge and then the specifics of what you want to do are skills you’re going to have to hone on your own. You’ll have the general know-how of how to do it, but not everybody who goes to culinary school is able to do a 4-tier wedding cake. (personal communication, September 28,2021)

As it stands now, it is up to each employer to decide whether a formal education, in the form of a baking and pastry arts certificate or apprenticeship completion, is required by the job applicant. And for operators of home bakeries, no such education or training is required. So, I asked Summer, point-blank, if she thought the trade should be regulated?:

I think for me, it’s hard to have a business that I’m trying to make my sole source of income, to see it unregulated to the extent where there’s just no consistency in terms of what can be done in that field. Because it is so hard [to regulate], I mean they loosened the restrictions for COVID for what can be a home occupation and so there’s that side of things. Then there are the people who aren’t…[licensed] at all and my only issue with that is it does devalue the market. It’s over saturated and when you are trying to make money and charge a proper living wage, the expectations of what the value of that good should be become very skewed…So, in that sense I do want some regulation, but then I feel guilty because I don’t have the education that most people would think would create an actual legitimate business owner or legitimate chef. So, I’m torn between the two. On the one hand yes, but then I would have had to have chosen a different avenue to start my business. (personal communication, September 28, 2021)

When asked if having that formal education was suddenly made a requirement to own and operate her business, would she go back and get it, Summer (personal communication, September 28, 2021) said yes, but not because it would be mandated. Rather, it would give her the sense of legitimacy she feels is missing to call herself a pastry chef. Summer also made sure to point out that if it was financially viable for her to access that education, she would. But while she might be able to afford such an education, others operating home bakeries, whether they’re licensed or not, may not have the same financial freedoms, time flexibility, or accessibility to that kind of education:

We pigeonhole people into certain positions in life and its really unfair because it shouldn’t be because of someone’s financial freedom that they have access to certain things. There’s a lot of skilled people, a lot of smart people, a lot of talented people who just don’t have the proper avenues to success because they either don’t have the knowledge of how to access those resources or they don’t have the actual physical resources to enter those systems. (Summer, personal communication, September 28, 2021)

In that regard, perhaps it is not a matter of creating strict regulations on the trade. But rather finding creative solutions to make education more widely accessible to our industry players no matter what sector of the industry they’re operating within.