"There's a shortage of pastry chefs right now. They are in demand," says Weiss, who laments that Chicago's boom in upscale restaurants hasn't helped matters.
In fact, whether crafted by a pastry chef or not, desserts are in high demand in almost every foodservice segment. Chicago-based research and consulting firm, Technomic, Inc., estimates that dessert sales in 2000 totaled $2.3 billion, up four percent from the previous year. Perhaps reflecting the lack of pastry-making talent, the hot dessert growth areas today involve convenience formats: thaw and bake, thaw and serve, par bake and ready-to-serve. Star pastry chefs now get the publicity, but 40 percent of the desserts operators serve are frozen products.
Don’t expect the dessert boom to end anytime soon, says Technomic’s Jackie Dulen. She believes there are two main reasons why pastry chefs and great desserts are on the rise. First, consumers are much more sophisticated and they’re willing to take culinary chances, even with desserts. And, second, the daring of customers has generated a whole new crop of pastry chefs who are challenged by sophisticated diners, she says.
"Some really high profile people like Gale Gand of Tru in Chicago and Claudia Fleming of Gramercy Tavern in New York City have been doing some really interesting and trend-setting work for a decade," Dulen explains. "Right now, up and coming chefs are seeing pastries as a viable career option."
Nevertheless, Weiss believes most culinary school students aspire to be chefs, not pastry chefs, and the demand for pastry people has not kept up with the evolution of the market. But that’s slowly changing, he says. There’s a new crop of kids coming that are focused, dedicated and willing to meet the challenges a pastry chef must meet.
For Weiss, Rachel Moeller fits the bill. The former pastry chef at Cafe Absinthe and Spiaggia has the culinary training to complement Coco Pazzo’s modern Italian cuisine. Weiss expects Moeller to "redefine the restaurant’s standard of pastry excellence," and he recognizes the cost that comes with enticing a high quality pastry chef to new territory.
Not every restaurant can afford to hire a highly paid pastry chef to produce mind-boggling desserts. Luckily, they don’t have to. With today’s convenience products, operators can still serve quality desserts that make them money. Many casual dining operations buy their desserts from companies that have also raised the bar to meet growing sophistication on all levels.
Take, for example, the case of Boston Market, which has implemented a dessert program that has increased check averages. The program awards free desserts to customers if the server fails to ask guests, "Do you want dessert?"
"We’re seeing 10-12% of our guests buying desserts now," says Gerard Lewis, senior vice president of research and development for Boston Market. "We’re always trying to get better, always trying to raise it, but we’re pretty happy with that 12%."
While most Boston Market dessert products are baked on premises, the company does purchase some items under their own brand name that are delivered to the restaurants fully prepared. The bulk of the dessert business is in cookie and brownie sales, which sell for $1-$1.50 each. Other desserts, including cakes, pies and crispy treats, can cost up to $2.
Boston Market Corporation has recently secured agreements with leading brands Nabisco and Nestlé on several new dessert items. Featured desserts include Chocolate Chip Cookies with Nestlé Semi-Sweet Toll House morsels, as well as Oreo Brownies, each served fresh at Boston Market restaurants. The company also sells whole desserts, including whole cheesecakes, in the $20 range.
The 160-unit Marie Callender’s Restaurants recently added cheesecake to its pie-heavy dessert menu. Because of high customer loyalty to the company’s line of pies, it is difficult to get rid of even the slower selling varieties. "Consequently, we are now working with a line of 32 pies," says David Locke, senior vice president for food and beverage at Orange, Cal.-based Marie Callender’s. The pies range from $2-$4 for a slice, and are baked fresh in the bakeries at each location, using no artificial ingredients.
"That’s something we feel very strongly about," says Locke. "A lot of the competitors in our niche, quite frankly, came along to try and duplicate what we do in-house. They never could quite duplicate what we do, because the expense of building and equipping these restaurants to make all of these products in-house is pretty costly. Most use a commissary. We have the quality advantage."
Locke says the company’s "decentralized" organization adds to its profitability. The company is able to trade off personnel between the restaurant and bakery sides of the operation, instead of operating an entirely separate entity like a commissary. "The life of a pie is one or two days at best," explains Locke. "Their biggest cost is transportation, and that has played to our advantage over the years."
Locke estimates that one in three patrons orders dessert in the restaurant, and another one out of three purchases dessert to take home.
At the Cheesecake Factory, cheesecake is naturally a mainstay dessert. Using recipes based on founder/ c.e.o. David Overton’s mother’s recipes, the company produces an average of 18,000 cheesecakes per day in the full-size bakery located at corporate headquarters. Cheesecakes are then shipped to the restaurants.
"Fifteen percent of our sales are in dessert," says Howard Gordon, senior v. p. of the Cheesecake Factory, "so I know we’re doing something right." Gordon says the company is able to profit from desserts by working toward better contract pricing on ingredients that go into desserts. "You can’t just keep raising prices," he says.
Also, the Cheesecake Factory’s repeat customers continue to boost dessert sales. Shared desserts are commonplace, providing guests who might not want a whole dessert the opportunity to partake. Cheesecake Factory desserts range from $5.95 to $7.95.
The company also supplies cheesecakes to individual restaurants and smaller chains that don’t have pastry chefs. "We make sure our desserts are of the highest quality, so no additional garnishes or decoration are needed," Gordon says. "There’s no additional labor cost–all they have to do is plate it."
ack Weiss is breathing a sigh of relief. Make that a big sigh of relief. After a seven-month search, the managing partner of Chicago’s Coco Pazzo has found a new pastry chef. It was just last spring when the Tuscan-inspired Italian restaurant celebrated a new pastry chef who "loved" her job. Weiss was "blown away" by her desserts and said he couldn’t be happier. The honeymoon was short-lived. Within six months, that chef moved on to another kitchen, and Weiss was left holding the pastry bag. Weiss’ staff of four pastry makers helped maintain the dessert menu for Coco Pazzo, but he says the restaurant was at a creative standstill.
The Pastry Chef Perspective
Not every restaurant with a pastry chef is suffering from the high turnover trend. Bill Hallion, pastry chef at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg, has been with the property since it opened in 1992, all but two years of that time as pastry chef.
"Pastry is becoming more of an art, and patrons are paying more attention to desserts," Hallion explains. Where executive chefs once ruled the roost, pastry chefs are increasingly on their own in terms of creativity and direction.
Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder and chef instructor at the French Pastry School in Chicago, is well aware of the disparity between supply and demand for pastry chefs.
"For every 10 positions available, there are only about two pastry chefs in the market right now," Pfeiffer says. "Plus, pastry is exploding in this country, so the demand is going to go on for a few generations."
Don Pintabona, executive chef at New York City’s Tribeca Grill, says the competition will keep upscale restaurant owners on their toes. "There are so many great pastry chefs out there that there is a need for everyone else to step up and serve the best that they can," he says.
Last month, the restaurant hired a new pastry chef, Stephan Motir, who trained at the French Culinary Institute. It was not easy filling the position, says Pintabona, because the pastry chef must not only complement the personality of the head chef, but also the restaurant.
Under Motir, two old favorites from the dessert menu will stay–a chocolate torte and a caramelized banana torte. It’s up to Motir to work with Pintabona to develop new desserts and work in the restaurant’s adjacent bakery.
Pfeiffer points to the escalating number of European-style pastry shops popping up in big cities. It will become a status symbol for upscale restaurants to have their own pastry chef, he says.
"So many (restaurants) now just buy their desserts, and they are realizing that if there is a name of a pastry chef on the menu, then there is a difference on the plate."
But Gand says not every chef wannabe is cut out for pastry. "I literally think it’s right-brain versus left-brain," says the 2001 James Beard Award winner. "I know this from experience. There are very few chefs who are great pastry chefs. It takes a very analytical brain, someone who is very precise, and someone who can tolerate repetition and relinquish themselves to the chemistry and physics of pastry. It’s very intricate. Most chefs don’t have the patience it takes to measure in grams.
"The irony is that when you get to know the language of pastry so well, you can start to do pastry almost like a chef does," Gand continues. "But you have to go through years of reading the sheet music before you can start to improvise."
Gale Gand epitomizes the celebrity status that a pastry chef can achieve in this business. As the pastry chef and co-owner (with Richard Melman and Rick Tramonto) of Chicago’s TRU, she hosts her own Food Network show, "Sweet Dreams," has her own brand of root beer called "Gale’s," and is the author of three cookbooks. Her second cookbook, Butter Sugar Flour Eggs, is in keeping with her philosophy.
"A great dessert can save a mediocre meal, and the ingredients are really cheap," she says. "Generally, our ingredients are shelf-stable and inexpensive, so really the labor is where you incur the cost There’s a lot of money to be made."
Desserts typically have a 20% food cost and help subsidize more costly yet lower-margin items on the menu, like pricey steaks or fish. When you balance it out by the markup on the dessert, says Gand, it’s a great menu mix. "Today’s customer has a greater appreciation for original desserts and has a better palate," Gand explains.
"You can’t buy frozen tiramisu and stick it on your menu anymore," Gand says. "I think (upscale restaurateurs) are finding out that a lot of times, what people eat last is what they remember," pointing out that the pastry chef is responsible for a diner’s first and last impressions from bread to brulee.
It’s a point that is not lost on Coco Pazzo’s Weiss.
"We feel there’s a whole post-entree experience, where we offer not only a wonderful dessert menu, but a variety of specialty dessert wines, cordials, and our cheese plate, which leads into ports," says Weiss. "The finale of the dining experience is just as important as the beginning."
And maybe more profitable.
"Though (profitability) will always depend on food costs," says Dulen, "from the operator’s standpoint, if you can entice them to order dessert as well, it’s just extra money in your pocket"
En-Ming Hsu, executive pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton, Chicago, a Four Seasons Hotel, says the importance of pastry chefs is something hotels have known for years.
"Restaurants have always focused on the food, so the pastry just sort of dwindled," says Hsu, who recently captained the U.S. Team in its first-ever gold medal at the World Pastry Cup 2001 competition. "It’s time that the pastry chef got some recognition," she says. "This is a big deal, especially for the European teams and Asian teams that compete. When they win, it opens doors for them, so I think it might do the same thing for us."
Hsu is the first woman to captain a team in the competition’s 12-year, six-competition history. Through these competitions, pastry chefs are becoming better known, Hsu says, crediting product marketing and the media with the public’s insatiable hunger for all food-related topics.
There’s no denying the power of a good dessert to make a lasting impression, and to leave a good taste in the guest’s mouth. It’s a power that rising chefs may learn to love.
"I used to feel really funny about. . . having my desserts follow (the chef’s) food," Gand says.
Bet more than one Gale Gand dessert has left a guest asking, "What entree?"