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October 14, 2022

When Kristin Colazas Rodriguez, the former pastry chef at Dominique Crenn’s restaurant Petit Crenn in San Francisco, moved home to Long Beach, California, in 2018, it seemed like there wasn’t a single restaurant hiring a pastry chef. Most places where she considered working didn’t even have a pastry department.

Colazas Rodriguez, now the owner of Colossus Bread in Long Beach, shared her frustrations in a series of Instagram Stories in July. “I literally started Colossus because there was no where [sic] to work as a pastry cook or chef in this town and I didn’t want to commute over an hour to LA,” she wrote.

To her surprise, pastry chefs from all over the country messaged to tell her they felt the same way. Many were in similar situations: in search of a job but unable to find one. 

This dwindling number of designated pastry chefs has translated to a monotony of desserts on restaurant menus: a blur of made-ahead dishes like panna cotta, ice cream sundaes, crème brûlée, and other offerings that can be prepared in large quantities by someone with little to no pastry experience. Behind the scenes, pastry chefs express feeling overworked, and that they’re being pushed out of the restaurant industry.

“When budget cuts are made and you have to cut labor, it’s one of the first departments to go,” says Kim Conroy, the former pastry chef of the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Lazy Bear in San Francisco. “In many cases the pastry team has [been] widely viewed as nonessential.”

Caroline Schiff, who runs the pastry program at Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, says that restaurants have always operated on such a tight margin that it’s not unusual for pastry teams to be let go as a way to save money. And when cash-strapped restaurants reopened after pandemic-forced closures, she noticed that many of them “didn’t hire back their pastry chefs and their pastry teams.” Brenda Villacorta, the owner of Sucré Table in Tampa, shares a similar sentiment: “We’re always put on the back burner,” she says. “Now, many places are getting rid of pastry chefs.”

Rising costs “have made restaurants’ margins punishing in the best of times, even less accommodating to the pastry chef,” Rebecca Flint Marx wrote for T Magazine back in 2018. Now, in the midst of soaring inflation and ongoing staffing challenges for restaurants, the margins Marx wrote about are often even thinner, and the challenges of the pastry chef greater.

At Superkhana International, an Indian restaurant in Chicago, the dessert menu is filled with approachable sweets that can be prepared ahead of time, like a saffron-cardamom ice cream sandwich. “The menu is not necessarily informed by the labor shortage,” co-owner Zeeshan Shah says, “but we do keep in mind that there could be a shortage any second.”

For many restaurants, dessert simply isn’t enough of a moneymaker to justify investing in a full pastry team or providing pastry chefs with the resources they need. As a result, even pastry chefs who remain employed often lack support and become burned-out.

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