Katie Friedman | Professional Pastry Arts 2016
I have been a pastry enthusiast for as long as I can remember. When I look back at old notebooks and photo albums, nearly every account of trips and vacations was centered on food. I was lucky enough to travel to Europe several times as a teenager, and I have countless photos of Parisian patisserie cases crammed full of cream-filled wonders, stacks of baguettes, éclairs of all colors lined up waiting to be devoured.
Once a year for my birthday growing up, my parents, recognizing this love of mine, would take me to my favorite restaurant. It was called the Bittersweet, and was renowned locally for its creative plating full of colors, shapes, and textures. As sugar fiend to the core, I would wait, fidgeting with anxious anticipation until the dinner plates were finally cleared and it was time for dessert. Somehow, it had become a tradition for me to be allowed to stand inconspicuously in a corner of the impossibly small kitchen and gaze in awe at the pastry chefs as they skillfully constructed works of edible art. I remember being too enthralled to even move as I watched their hands carefully balance a thin arc of an almond cookie on a scoop of gelato or deftly drizzle a bit of raspberry sauce around the rim of a plate.
As sometimes happens with childhood career dreams, while my love of creating (and consuming) dessert never waned, logistics of life crept in and my dream of being a pastry chef took a backseat. Initially, I decided to go the more “practical” route by attending a traditional college. At the time, I was not yet confident enough to do the thing I loved most. After graduating from Scripps College in 2006, I moved to Oakland to join an organization called Teach for America. During the day, I worked with students with special needs and at night I pursued my Masters Degree in Education at San Francisco State. I then moved across the country and continued teaching in Manhattan for several more years. I loved being a teacher–however, while I was comfortable in the classroom, there was something missing, and I looked back to what had always drawn me – Pastry! I realized that every dollar I saved was being spent at new, interesting restaurants. I had also started to obsessively read pastry blogs and binge on chef shows. That was when I started browsing culinary opportunities in upstate New York. Suddenly, a whole different world seemed within my reach.
In 2012, I decided to pursue a career change and jumped headfirst into the hospitality industry. Starting at a family-run dairy and bed and breakfast in Hudson, New York, I quickly adapted to a daily routine of baking for guests. It was a small operation and they felt confident that I could produce high quality food for their establishment; seeing their enthusiasm was extremely rewarding. Equally satisfying was being so closely tied to the ingredients that my hands transformed into steaming plum galettes or scones with fresh cream, berries, and homemade lemon curd. We often received paper bags of freshly milled flour from our neighbors and hastened to turn it into breads and cakes. I was able to see firsthand what “farm to table” really meant; ever since then, this concept became an important aspect of baking for me.
During this time, I flourished doing what has always inspired me. With positive feedback and encouragement from my employers, I was eager to try new dishes, experiment with flavor combinations, and pore over baking blogs and cookbooks in my spare time. I realized that although I had spent most of my professional life as a teacher, I was finally doing something that sustained me on multiple levels.
Knowing I needed to elevate my pastry skills, I returned to California to enroll at ICC. I had looked at other schools, but ICC’s approachable chef instructors, its physical proximity to so many amazing bakeries and restaurants, and it’s gleaming, happily buzzing classrooms convinced me that this was the place I wanted to be. It paid off—attending ICC was one of the best things I’ve ever done. My class of nine women bonded immediately, and despite every class’s ups and downs, we became a cohesive team supporting each other to the finish line.
One of my favorite memories was when my benchmate, who was very known to all of us for being extremely clean and orderly even in the messiest of situations, over enthusiastically stirred her spatula while tempering chocolate and stood there stunned as she realized she too was covered in chocolate like the rest of us. Another favorite time was during the weekends we all trucked in to work on our gingerbread replica of the Winchester Mystery House to display at school over the holidays.
When finals inevitably came and went, it was bittersweet. I graduated with honors while simultaneously working at Fleur de Cocoa, a family-run patisserie in Los Gatos, where I remained for three years. After graduation, I took on a second job as a pastry production team member at Manresa Bread. Working two jobs, often doubling up on 8-hour shifts in the same day, was exhausting and pushed me to the limits. However, the experience, camaraderie, and encouragement I received from my supervisors and co-workers kept me going. Upon reflection, I greatly value Manresa’s dedication to doing everything by hand, using organic produce and dairy from local farmers, and experimenting with different kinds of grains until the perfect product was achieved.
Looking back, I can see that pastry school gave me extremely necessary foundational knowledge, but working in higher volume businesses taught me confidence, efficiency, speed, and understanding of how to be part of a team working towards a common goal. Although I loved working in the professional bakery setting, I jumped at the chance when ICC offered me a position as assistant to the Chef Instructors! It was the perfect opportunity to blend my background in education and passion for pastry arts.
Throughout the duration of this job, I happily spent my days working with students to master the classic French pastry curriculum. It felt really good to be in a position where I was both taking some of the stress off of instructors whom I highly respected from my own schooling, and giving back in some small way towards the school that introduced me to an industry about which I feel so passionately.
Towards the end of my position with ICC, an employer reached out to the school looking for a summer stagiaire in a small southwestern French village. The position entailed getting flour from the local mills, making croissants and baguettes every day by hand, living and working in a village with a population of only 500 people, exploring the local history and architecture on days off, and working in a beautiful building that was constructed in the 1200’s. Reading that job description brought back happy images of patisserie windows from my childhood and, holding my breath, I sent off an application.
I was beyond thrilled when I received a job offer the following week. The process of applying to this job is another reinforcement to me that, if you pursue what you love wholeheartedly, you will create the opportunities you have always dreamed of receiving. I hope to deepen my knowledge of traditional French pastries in the very place they were first tested and developed. In addition, part of the position includes the time and space to do my own recipe development in the patisserie, and I hope to bring ideas of non-traditional flavor combinations or pastry ideas with me that may not otherwise be showcased in the village. In the few months before departure, I plan to study French, compile favorite recipes I have collected along the way, and leave with an open mind to what doors may open next.
Follow me in my adventures in France on Instagram: @katyfree8