Sweet Heartbreak: Texas’ pastry problem leaves chefs unsatisfied

Claudia Treviño practices piping in her cake decorating class. - ESSENTIALS210
Claudia Treviño practices piping in her cake decorating class.

Several days a week, Claudia Treviño makes her way to Schakolad Chocolate Factory from her Northwest Side home. As both a part-time employee and an intern, Treviño is getting a unique look at what it takes to make it in the pastry world. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, the 20-year-old will see more than her fair share of chocolate as the shop goes through several thousand pounds of chocolate-covered strawberries for the upcoming holiday.

Her days will include dipping truffles into chocolate ganache, stocking shelves, readying confections for dipping, making truffle fillings and packaging products. This could mean anything from packaging the store’s signature edible chocolate boxes with assorted candies or assembling large orders. She recently put together such an order for the St. Anthony Hotel, which included individually wrapping 750 mini chocolate tool sets, 750 tiny chocolate saws and 750 wee chocolate hammers, all while checking for consistency in the product and ridding the candies of excess pieces left over from the mold the chocolate is initially poured into.

As it turns out, making and delivering sweet treats is back-breaking work, and local students are learning that the pastry field isn’t as glamorous IRL as the Food Network might lead them to believe. Even as all three culinary schools in San Antonio crank out skilled pastry workers by the dozens, the jobs available to them are either monotonous, low-paying or nonexistent in restaurants across the city. Fanciful plated desserts and quality baked goods are luxury items and usually one of the first areas where chefs or owners cut their losses.


Sugar School

Treviño, who graduates from St. Philip’s College this May with an associate in applied science degree, is one of the 93 students currently enrolled in the school’s baking and pastry arts program. From 2009 to 2012, 40 students graduated from the program, which has undergone certain tweaks since its inception.

Baking instructor Cynthia De La Fuente mentions professors have had to instill a different mentality in students going through the curriculum.

“When we first started the program, we had a lot of misunderstandings from the students. I think a lot of it had to do with what TV and the media was showing them,” De La Fuente said while adding that TV producers for shows like Cake Boss and Ace of Cakes made baking and pastry arts look easy. “What students didn’t understand is that they hone their skills over many, many, many years,” she said.

De La Fuente went on to mention students’ disappointment after leaving the school and not landing their dream job.

“They’re earning the right to the position … when students start the program now, we’re telling them they’re not super stars,” De La Fuente added.

The motives for why students join the program varies widely—De La Fuente often teaches retirees, restaurant owners, industry workers and fresh-faced students coming straight out of high school like Treviño, all of whom have to be accepted into the program via application.

The St. Philip’s curriculum includes 60 hours of courses that don’t always involve being elbow-deep in buttercream frosting. The two-year program is broken down into five semesters, which include include sanitation and safety (the course clues students in to the permitting and licensing process for opening their own shop), nutrition and cost control. Specialized courses for baking include fundamentals; breads and rolls; pies, tarts, teacakes and cookies; chocolates and confections; laminated dough (croissants and such), pate a choux and donuts; plated desserts; cake decorating and wedding cakes.

In her cake decorating class, which runs from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. two days a week, De La Fuente pushes students to reach beyond their personal best. The class is broken into a series of labs and lectures where students practice the foundation of frosting cakes for hours on end before working on piping and other sugary creations. Luckily, there’s a 30-minute break in the five-hour class.

“A good foundation is ... going to help [the graduates] keep their jobs: skill and a higher level of expertise,” she said, “that, and an impeccably frosted cake.”

To further ensure student success, the program mirrors the culinary arts curriculum by requiring a student practicum or internship. Students are asked to develop objectives that will help them get more out of their internships. For instance, Treviño hopes to learn efficient ways to do things in a small shop and how to maintain inventory.

“I wasn’t looking to do chocolate, it’s so temperamental, but I thought it’d be good if I learned more about it,” Treviño said.

Of course, St. Philip’s isn’t the only way for students to dive into the world of sweets. The Art Institute of San Antonio offers a baking and pastry arts program at its campus off I-10, and, as of August 2013, the Culinary Institute of America-San Antonio also added an associate degree in baking and pastry arts with an inaugural batch of 20 students.

Chef Alain Dubernard, department chair for the CIA-SA program, described the 21-month process of earning said degree as part of long-term education. Individuals hoping to attend the school must have a high school diploma or GED credential, a recommendation from a food service employer and either six months of non-fast food service experience or past culinary training at the high school or college level.

Admittedly, the program does have its perks when compared to St. Philip’s much more cost-friendly program. The four-semester curriculum requires the completion of 69 credits with classes ranging from baking and pastry techniques and gastronomy, to mathematics and food science and wine studies.

But the same workhorse mentality applies.

“You need to love this profession. Bread bakers get in very early, they work on days when people relax, they stand on their feet a long time … but we make people happy with pastries,” Dubernard said.





Piping Dreams?

Educating students on what flour to use for baking a cake is one thing. Guaranteeing students will find the jobs they want once the degree is completed is a whole other story.

Even as the CIA Café & Bakery, which employed students and baking professionals, closed its doors in mid-December to clear space for incoming students, Dubernard still expounded on the lack of real pastry chefs and bakers in San Antonio. “That’s why we’re trying to educate these people to be real professionals and know what they’re doing. Our core matter of business is to teach, and since we have no room to grow for the moment, we had to make a tough decision.”

He agreed that doing away with the beloved shop was sending a mixed message—but now the 18 baking and pastry art students have full run of the 2,300 square-foot kitchen located on the second floor of the building. A great kitchen for teaching purposes, to be sure, but students won’t usually run into such massive workspaces after graduating.

“It was a good decision because now students are doing a great job and if I bring in someone from Hyde Park to teach them, we’ll have the space,” Dubernard said.

Good decision or not, pastry professionals such as Jessica Perez, former overnight lead baker at the CIA Bakery, were left out in the cold when the café closed its doors. Perez, a San Antonio native, received her associate of applied science in culinary arts from St. Philip’s in 2004. She went on to work at Francesca’s at Sunset inside the La Cantera Hill Country Resort under Jesse Perez (no relation; he’s since founded Arcade Midtown Kitchen) before trying her luck in Chicago. There, she attended the French Pastry School and completed a 24-week baking and pastry certificate program. Next stop: California.

Initially, Los Angeles was far more welcoming than her hometown. There, Perez made her way through kitchens, first as a lead pastry cook in Santa Monica, then as pastry chef for Akasha in Culver City, later as lead pastry cook for Providence (a two-star Michelin eatery previously nominated as best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation) and finally at Lukshon as pastry sous chef where she garnered mentions by LA Weekly and Eater LA.

“Food is life over there—people aren’t afraid to try things,” Perez said of her time in California.

After landing, and later losing, her job at the CIA Bakery (workers received a month’s notice of the café’s closing), she reached out to Tim McDiarmid of Special Projects Social fame to hop on board her pop-up dinners.

“I asked if she showcased artists, and if she’d showcase pastry chefs,” Perez said. McDiarmid invited Perez to join the cast of artists for December’s “Soup Night” where Perez went on to create a spiced bread pudding with chestnut cream, apple cider caramel and gingerbread crunch. McDiarmid later introduced Perez to Anne Ng and Jeremy Mandrell of Bakery Lorraine, where Perez recently completed a two-week trial period and has been hired on a part-time basis.

Perez’s story isn’t unique. If anything, her experience in much bigger markets should make her a hot commodity in SA, but it hasn’t. Instructor De La Fuente shed some light on why landing a pastry gig isn’t a piece of cake.

“In Texas, there was never the availability of this workforce that knew how to do scratch work (or products made from scratch) for chefs to employ. Major institutions, such as hotels—which tend to be higher paying jobs—got used to flying in frozen (goods),” De La Fuente said, “You crack it open, thaw it, bake it and you’re done.”

As pastry arts programs continue to churn out students, De La Fuente hopes that the media attention and a public ravenous for fresh artisan products will help create restaurant jobs for pastry chefs and bakers.

“We’re flooding the industry with skilled workers, but for the first few years, I think that most of them are going to have to go outside of Texas or work for themselves until the boat turns around,” De La Fuente added.

For chef-owners such as Restaurant Gwendolyn and Kimura’s Michael Sohocki, the issue isn’t just finding the right applicant. “The available applicant pool is pretty shallow compared to New York or San Francisco or Chicago, so the people that really know what they’re doing are few and far between. … At the same time, the [clientele] we’ve been given to work with are still looking for queso on the menu; apple pie and vanilla ice cream is very welcome … but serving a dessert entirely comprised of tomato … these ideas are unwelcome in a lot of San Antonio,” Sohocki said.

Sohocki circumvents lackluster dessert sales by having multi-course dinners where diners know delicious tarts are part of the deal; this also means usually hiring on a pastry chef to create what he calls “the weird shit,” like a beet-centered dessert with seven separate components, for example.

Gwendolyn’s previous pastry chefs include Asheley Draffan, who left the restaurant for Blue Star Brewing Company, and, most recently, Kat Sees, who’s currently making fabulous pastries at Steve McHugh’s Cured. Sohocki takes over pastry duties in the interim, and he’s currently training dishwasher Jake Mango to help alleviate the workload.

Over at Kimura, the availability of any sweet finale is touch-and-go and often up to bartender Steve Gonzalez to dish out. Sohocki admits he can’t afford to have the position at the noodle shop.

Solo Sweets

So what’s an impending graduate like Treviño supposed to do as she prepares to leave St. Philip’s? Treviño hopes to take an entrepreneurial route in years to come. She’ll follow the lead of several pastry chefs that took matters into their own hands such as Ng and Mandrell of Bakery Lorraine, who began their baking adventure in Yountville, Calif., at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery. After relocating to San Antonio for jobs with Rackspace, the couple’s passion for baking classic French pastries reasserted itself. Their delicious booth at the Quarry Farmers and Ranchers Market on Sundays snowballed into a small but mighty shop that’s quickly outgrowing its 500 square-foot kitchen where they produce sweets for the bakery, all of the Local Coffee locations, Uncommon Fare and Halcyon in Southtown, and pizza dough for Barbaro. They’re currently searching for location to build a larger kitchen.

“I tried looking for a pastry position here in town, no one really had a dedicated pastry chef or cook, so I tried to pitch myself to these restaurants, but that’s difficult in this town,” Ng said while adding that pastry cooks are often asked to jump on the line or garde manger and prepare salads.

“The scene has changed since we first started the farmers market. … It’s paid off balking against the … people suggesting we do Mexican pastries,” Ng said.

Although Treviño’s San Antonio ties are strong (she teaches flamenco five days a week at the Lou Hamilton Community Center and the Berta Almaguer Dance Studio), she could follow the path of fellow pastry lover Elise Broz. As owner of her own event-planning company, Inspired Occasions, and pastry chef for Biga on the Banks, Broz’s resume is riddled with internships and jobs along the East Coast and abroad in London and Switzerland.

“There’s not a lot of good pastry jobs available (here),” Broz said, “but it’s so exciting to be here right now. It’s an exciting time in San Antonio’s food scene.”

If the familiar pulls of San Antonio can’t be quieted, Treviño could stick with chocolate and follow the path set out by Janie Romo, owner of Ms. Chocolatier, who made it to the Culinary Institute of America-Hyde Park at the age of 45. And yes, she spent a year living in dorm rooms. Ms. Chocolatier supplies chocolate goods to Hotel Valencia and Hotel Havana out of a rented commercial kitchen, along with cranking out a slew of toffees and barks for individual clients. Although the shop closed its brick-and-mortar location on Main in August, Romo and son Jason can still be found on Saturdays at the Pearl Farmers Market.

“Since my parents are small business owners, I feel like that’s a good fit for me,” Treviño said while adding that she’d love to open her own ice cream parlor or donut shop at some point. “I don’t want to do that right away because I don’t have that much experience working for somebody else yet.”

Beyond Mi Tierra

Even as the pastry scene in the city continues to evolve, we can’t forget about the conchas. One of San Anto’s selling points is the abundance of Mexican bakeries offering favorites like pan dulce and empanadas. These bakeries, such as the storied Mi Tierra Bakery (recently visited by Kanye West), offer traditional delicacies that go beyond the customary gingerbread pigs, all for eye-poppingly low price points. Here’s three to try:

Bedoy’s Bakery (803 W Hildebrand, (210) 736-2253, bedoysbakery.net) has operated for 50 years, offering multigenerational patrons authentic cakes, cookies and specialty items like their famous pan de muerto for Dia de los Muertos. While their blink-and-you’ll-miss-it location in a strip center leaves a lot to be desired, their uber-fresh baked goods have a worldwide following.

La Panadería, currently found at the Quarry Farmers and Ranch Market (255 E Basse, (210) 624-9986, lapanaderia.com), is a concept by the Cacéres brothers who worked in their mother’s bakery as children. Inspired by the traditions learned from mama, the two initially started their bakery in Mexico City. Now they bring natural ingredients in their flaky sweet almond croissants, pan de agua and baguettes to San Antonio. A permanent location at 8305 Broadway should open in early spring.

Panifico Bake Shop (602 NW 24th, (210) 434-9290, panifico.com) started more than 40 years ago as a small panadería on the corner of 24th and Morales and has grown into a business able to cater to large business events. The shop, now owned by Edna Miggins, combines traditional and contemporary breads, cakes, pies and tarts that taste as good as they look—and they look damned good, just take a gander at their beautiful specialty cakes for weddings, quinceañeras and Día de los Muertos. Panifico’s large selection of daily breads like pan de huevo, doughnuts, campechanas and pan fino keeps regulars coming back. –Janae Rice