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The Most Influential Pastry Chefs in History and Their Contributions to Food Culture

Arts & Entertainment

By Tracy Pham

            Parents often wish wealth and stability upon their children when it comes to choosing a career. Factors such as satisfaction and enjoyment become over shadowed. Those jobs that society labels as unpractical are mostly frowned upon because they have lower educational standards or unpredictable outcomes, regardless of the amount of time or effort that is invested. Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics, bakers are paid an average of $24,170 per year and have an estimated 7% growth rate, which is slightly below average (Bureau of Labor Statistics). These statistics hurt the food industry’s reputation, making those careers less attractive. Although, there are more personal matters and unexpected rewards that drive today’s top pastry chefs. Pastry making attracts special individuals that are detail oriented and scientific in order to measure ingredients, evaluate formulas, and consistently practice to master techniques. The most influential Pâtissiers have their own signature recipes/style, unique personalities, and interpretations to thank for, not only their success, but the growth and development of the culinary world as well.

The progress of culinary professions has been most rapid in the recent years because specializing in cooking overall is still a new concept. In fact, twenty years ago, pastry chefs were often working as assistants in restaurants and the top percentile was only found in major cities (MacLauchlan XI). Consumerism served as the main factor that sparked the turning point in the food industry. As people were inclined to fresher and higher quality pastries that were made in that instant, the professionals had to adapt faster to meet the demands. This opened a variety of opportunities for chefs to turn their hobby into a living. All the excitement has shown a dramatic and noticeable change in attitude and overall skill and requirements as well. The average chef now comes with technical skill, creativity, and responsibilities that are forged by their own personal path. The overall field has become more influential, especially with the growing interest of wealthier businessmen and political powers. MacLauchlan points out, in addition to possessing specialized technical skills and knowledge of food, a pastry chef who wishes to become an owner or partner in a bakery or cooking school, he must have a business acumen, or understanding. Dessert has now earned its place as a leading element in the industry.

            Restaurants became one of the main opportunities that emerged. At first, one head chef was responsible for managing the kitchen and supervising the other chefs and apprentices. During this time, only the French were known to have independent pastry shops because savory was the focus over sweets, so there was no need to hire a specialist or specialize in it. But, as competition increased between high-end restaurants, that need for more detailed and specialized work increased. Thus, the pastry chef was born and the characteristics between a savory chef and patissier became more distinct. Sherry Ford expressed how well a pastry chef fit her personality when she told the author, “I am so accustomed to the a la minute, or at the last minute. Wolfgang [Puck] said he never met a last-minute person worse than my himself until he met me. When they’re putting out the entree for dinner, I know what I’m going to do but there are many times that I say to him, ‘What do you think I should do?’ I love that last minute rush! Sometimes, with people who are new to working with me, it drives them crazy, but that’s when I thrive” (MacLauchlan 154). Claudia Fleming has also described a similar feeling when it comes to baking in a restaurant setting. The pace is faster due to fewer preparation requirements and more freedom, which accents her strength to make quick and efficient scenario-based judgments. Dozens of others can also relate to their similar experiences including Jackie Riley, Emily Luchetti, and Bill Yosses (MacLauchlan 155).

            As restaurants normalized and consumers grew accustomed to dining outside their homes, entertainment was introduced. The present high-class atmosphere encouraged the new jester-like component. Marie-Antoine Carême was a renowned French chef of the post-Renaissance era who was known for introducing the concept of entertainment into food through luxurious structures, garnishes, and sophisticated recipes. He lived on the streets at 10, adopted by a low-class restaurant, and became an apprentice to one of the top tier pastry chefs in Paris at 16. In the 50 years of his professional career, he catered to princes, kings, the British embassy, the Viennese court, and much other nobility. Later, he became so concerned with every aspect of cooking that he designed kitchen equipment and chef uniforms, invented saucepans and molds, and composed formulas and techniques that are still popular today. In addition to all of Carême’s achievements, he also changed the overall dining process. His approach to dining resembled that of medieval banquets – where multiple dishes were presented simultaneously, feasted upon almost sinfully, and cleared for the next course. This reflection of class and gluttony was known as à la française. Even with his death in 1833, Carême’s impact and combination of talents, style, and glamorous presentations are still alive today as the foundation of food culture.

            In contrast to Carême’s extravagant dining, Auguste Escoffier was a simpler chef. But do not underestimate his significance for “his achievements in the annals of cuisine are legendary” (MacLauchlan 16). Escoffier attributed to the “menu”, which permitted guests to choose from a list of options, allowing him to concentrate on the few requested meals. His popularity grew after à la russe, a simpler dining style where meals are served consecutively, was introduced. Escoffier focused on fewer dishes at a time and less complicated flavors. Instead, he leaned more towards simple, balanced flavor. His presentation was also not as flamboyant as Carême’s. Elaborate garnishes were replaced with bright vegetables and flakes of parsley. He encouraged the basics and was an advocate for less is more. He had a vision that everything on the plate should be edible and the visual should look organic, unlike a sculpture or piece of art. This organized and simple characteristic carried over to the kitchen. Escoffier challenged the noisy chef stereotype into a more relaxed image. The previous kitchen was busy with multiple sections performing the same task with multiple ingredients. Concerned with quality, Escoffier designated several chefs to concentrate on specific areas. For example, the Garde Manger was in charge of cold dishes and pâtissiers were responsible for pastries and desserts. His influence behind the doors was more revolutionary than anyone could have predicted.

            As France’s culinary culture was developing, America was being introduced to professionalism in the food world. America’s original tradition is a mix of many cultures due to immigration from France, Italy Germany, Asia, Germany, etc. Mark Farbinger distinguished the most important differences, “In the United States, [baking] is a profession that came out of domestic help, while in Europe, it had always been part of guilds and crafts that are deeply rooted in many centuries past” (MacLauchlan 21). On can interpret his statement in many ways, but there is no argument when he establishes the originality of the European development over the newly adopted concepts of America. Evident to this idea of American adoption, Thomas Jefferson brought back journals from Italy and France on rice-husking machines and using ice and salt to the White House, which eventually spread through all of America. He was a connoisseur, or enthusiast, of fine Bordeaux wine.

            Fannie Merritt Farmer was also a leading influence in the culinary world, specifically dessert, between the nineteenth and twentieth century. She took the guessing out of baking with the standardization of measurements in cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons. In 1896, her book The Boston Cooking School Cookbook quickly earned her recognition all over America. Thousands were attending her lecture, she spoke in over thirty cities, and her book sold over three million copies. She said, “Progress in civilization has been accompanied by progress in cookery” (MacLauchlan 24). She believes that food has a hidden link to something greater.

            Nancy Silverton shares a playful ongoing argument with Mark Miller about what it means to be a good chef. On one hand, Miller believes a chef’s technical skill or what they can do with their ingredients shows true ability. On the other, Silverton insists that it takes a truly talented chef to distinguish if an ingredient is best in it pure form or if it needs to be altered. Even if pastry chefs don’t make as much as doctors, the most influential chefs find themselves immersed in all the aspects of the job, such as business, entertainment, and creative outlets. They all have their individual styles, personalities, and perspectives that contribute to, not only their own success, but the progress of the entire culinary world.


Works Cited

Lebovitz, David. “My paris kitchen recipes and stories.” My paris kitchen recipes and stories. New York : Ten Speed Press , 2014. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. (LIBRARY)

MacLauchlan, Andrew. The making of a pastry chef : recipes and inspiration from America’s best pastry chefs. New York: J. Wiley, 1999. Print. (PHYSICAL)

Mesnier, Roland, and Lauren Chattman. Dessert university: more than 300 spectacular recipes and essential lessons from White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print. (LIBRARY)

Rinsky, Glenn. “The pastry chef’s companion a comprehensive resource guide for the baking and pastry professional.” The pastry chef’s companion a comprehensive resource guide for the baking and pastry professional. Hoboken, N.J. : John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. (LIBRARY)

“51-3011 Bakers.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor

Statistics, May 2015. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.

Header photo from Culinary Arts School


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