Pastry Chef Instructor
A Certified Master Baker, Chef Stephany has worked in the baking industry for 35 years. After gaining experience at some of the top bakeries in Santa Cruz and Capitola, California, she went on to open her own bakery and wedding cake business. Along with her expertise in European-style baking, Chef Stephany also has experience in baking with natural foods. She began teaching in 1989, and has a passion for sharing her years of experience in bread, pastry and cake decorating with others. Chef Stephany has worked at the International Culinary Center in California since it opened in 2010.
ICC: Did you always plan to pursue pastry arts or did you have any other career plans?
Stephany: Early on, I knew how to make a good cake and pie. Having been raised in the 1950’s, my mom had me in the kitchen early on. I participated in the Girl Scouts and the Brownies and I earned my cooking and baking buttons. However, I didn’t recognize baking as my passion until much later in life. In college, I studied the theater arts. Coincidently, throughout school, I was working in a bakery. After graduation, I came to the realization that I really enjoyed it and I was really good at it. This was when I decided that the pastry arts were something I wanted to pursue as a career.
ICC: Can you describe your first work experience?
Stephany: The first bakery I worked at, the Staff of Life Bakery, specialized in natural foods. We did not use butter, white flour or white sugar. We did use whole wheat flour, honey, wheat germ, oats, and soy oil (before the GMO issue). It was here that I learned the basics of baking. Although I appreciated learning to consider healthy alternatives, I have to admit that everything was so heavy and dense. Even our wedding cakes were whole wheat! After working there for eight years, I was ready to learn how to use more traditional ingredients.
ICC: Are there any particular work experiences that helped shape your career?
Stephany: Seeking to broaden my understanding of the pastry industry, I took on positions as pastry chef for small, local fine-dining restaurants that were, at the time, the top of the line in Santa Cruz. Among those were Hillary’s, the Sea Cloud and Ristorante Avanti. For a period of time in 1989, I worked in a hotel environment at the Chaminade Resort. Most notably, when I began at Hillary’s, I had no prior experience working in a restaurant but I wanted to become familiar with that side of the food business. Before I joined, the Chef had been doing both the dinner and the dessert. He was relieved to have me take over the desserts and allowed me to have a lot of freedom. I was no longer stuck to doing the things on a set menu but I had to be more creative and come up with my own ideas. The Chef gave me guidelines – our best sellers were chocolate mousse and cheesecake– but I was able to create my own desserts. It was really fun! This experience pushed me to develop my own style.
ICC: What led you to become an entrepreneur?
Stephany: My family and friends constantly encouraged me to open my own place. In 1985, when I felt that had gained enough skill, I opened my own full-service bakery called Stephany’s Desserts. It was inside the Farmers Exchange, a huge gourmet kitchenware shop that included a small classroom where Martin Yan would teach, a coffee shop that sold imported beans, and my bakery. I had a lot of success and developed many followers! I received great reviews and was even featured in several magazines and newspaper articles. As for the concept of my bakery, I focused on layered entremets, tarts, and wedding cakes. I also had scones, muffins and cookies to go with the coffee counter.
ICC: How did you transition from business owner to becoming a teacher?
Stephany: When I lost my business to the 1989 earthquake, I started looking around for my next career move. I began giving guest-lectures for the pastry department at Cabrillo College. I felt that teaching combined my education in the theater arts and experience in pastry and this was an opportunity to give back. I could mentor people, which I had never done, and teaching felt like was what I was meant to do. For a period of years, I continued to teach part-time and work as a baker full-time.
ICC: After more than 40 in the field, how do you maintain your passion for the industry and teaching?
Stephany: The students are what make it interesting. Everybody has a different need, learning style and reason for being there. On those mornings when it’s hard to get out of bed, what keeps me going is walking into the classroom and hearing my students say enthusiastically, “Hey chef! How are you?” The students are why I am still here – they bring the craft alive to me. Teaching also keeps me current. I have to stay up on the latest techniques and technology because that’s what the students want to learn. People always ask me what school I went to but, I always say, “I’m still here! I am still in school.” I learn something new every day.
ICC: What does it mean to be a certified master baker and why did you pursue this distinction?
Stephany: This certification is determined by an organization called The Retail Bakers of America. To qualify as a CMB, you must first have eight years of work experience and 60 hours of education. Then, you need to pass both a written and a practical exam. This program was developed for professionals, like me, who didn’t go to school. I took the test because, after about 25 years in the field, I felt like I didn’t have anything to give me credibility except for my work experience. I also took this test because in the long run, I wanted to give back by teaching full-time. Interestingly, I was among the first 88 people to ever be certified through this program and one of the first women!
ICC: What is the best advice you can give to your graduating students?
Stephany: When this work gets hard and the days are long, when you feel like you can’t go on another minute because you are inundated with tasks, step away from your work. Look at what you’ve made and think about all the people’s lives you are going to touch with your food. Look at those full cases or boxes of pies you just made – maybe you made 750 pumpkin pies today. Be conscious that you are going to be a part of everybody’s dinner, everybody’s holiday. Food makes people happy and brings so much joy to people’s lives and you get to be a part of it. It is hard work but, it is so rewarding.