Sugar Rush: Confessions of a Wild West Pastry Chef, and the Launch of a New Column
You might know her from her incredible s'mores at Caramelpalooza, or from her blog, Croissant in the City. In any case, you're about to learn a lot more about this pastry chef. Chow Bella is excited to welcome Rachel Miller to our fold.
I am a pastry chef.
When people hear what I do, they freak out. "I love pastry!" "Oh, my God! If I did what you do, I would be 100 million pounds." "I have the best recipe for [fill in the blank]. Seriously, maybe if you're nice to me, I'll give you the recipe."
Um, no thanks.
It often feels like we are the red-headed stepchildren of the culinary world. We work the worst hours, as the first ones into the restaurant in the dark hours of the morning, or the last ones out, depending on if we have to wait on that last table to decide if they would like to order dessert. We love to measure precisely. We huff flour all day long. We are in love with our expensive chocolate, ring molds, and sil pats.
I've been told by a few savory chefs that they can easily do what I do. I bite my tongue, hand them the torch and watch as they frantically wave the flame over a crème brulee topped with sugar. Black bubbles emerge from what could have been a perfect golden top. They can do what I can do, remember?
Pastry paradise isn't large mounds of fluffy frosting, leisurely moments creating pastry perfection, or the shiniest new equipment. It's production-heavy, i.e. making massive amounts of sweet treats the public put down with their morning coffee. It's 3 a.m. It's sweat rolling down the back as you babysit a crème anglaise on the hot, busy line while sidestepping your way out of traffic on the narrow thoroughfare. It's standing in the walk-in for a couple of hours, scooping thousands of little ice cream balls for a plated dinner. It's long hours. It's constant movement and lifting of 50 pound bags of flour and sugar. It's not for everyone.
I had no idea I wanted to become a pastry chef. With a journalism degree from Penn State and an internship at the Pentagon under my belt, I sent out 120 résumés and got 120 rejection letters. I finally got a job working for a PR firm that specialized in nutrition-based campaigns in Alexandria, Virginia. It was a boring job, and as the lone Nutella eater in an office of calorie-counters, I was sick of being judged.
I came west to Phoenix to help my brother with his racing company and to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. A chance reading of Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires started me thinking about food as a subject matter. I decided that I wanted to be a food writer, but I wanted to be well educated about my subject matter, so I enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu.
My first job out of culinary school was at Bouchon in Las Vegas. It was regimented, strict, and challenging, but I loved it. I thrived on the challenge of pushing myself everyday, to produce better food than I did the day before. Cleanliness is next to godliness there, as I learned through a rouge mishap with some cocoa powder and at least 4 times a day vacuuming of the narrow mat we stood on in the tiny pastry room. Thou shalt work cleanly, is still something I strive for daily.
I moved back to Phoenix to be close to my family, and bounced through some local restaurants, until I met Jared Porter. A guy I was working with told me that a new restaurant was hiring and that I should go and submit an application. I zipped over right away and met Jared, leaving with a new job.
Working with Jared at The Parlor was one of my best kitchen experiences. He gave me responsibility and freedom with the pastry program, which allowed me to open up creatively and have a platform to test my skills.
After leaving the The Parlor, I bounced around again, baking freelance, if you will, trying to get together the plans and money to open my own pastry business. I landed in Yuma, to open a small farm bakery, and to be closer to my fiancé. The owner had a flower farm, but also grew vegetables for a u-pick storefront. Her barn housed an antique store/date shake stand/commercial kitchen full of up-cycled bits and bobbles. I filled her restored cold cases, antique 80-year-old plates, and reclaimed wooden shelves with pastries, jams, pickles, caramel, local Arizona coffee, etc.
Running a bakery in a hodge-podge kitchen was an experiment in creative baking. Working in a fully loaded kitchen is amazing, but working in one that has next to nothing, you learn how to be resourceful, and how to create new techniques. Pastry MacGyver-style.