The Sweet Life: What Being a Pastry Chef is Really Like

Pastry chefs hold a sweet place in our hearts always, but especially on Valentine’s Day, an occasion synonymous with decadence. Playing into your palate’s richest desires should be indulged in because, well, we can’t think of a good enough reason not to. An outpouring of press over the past couple of months indicates that pastry chefs are gaining momentum, are back in the game. And, though our sweet tooth tends to get the best of us, let’s be honest: it makes sense. With the economy putting a damper on our spending habits over the past few years, turning the dessert menu away became a thoughtless, repetitive gesture for most of us. So it came as a sigh of relief that more creative, inventive and #foodporn-worthy desserts are making waves on a larger scale again.

This revival, married with a quickly approaching Valentine’s Day, had us craving some insight into what the life of a pastry chef is really like. Audrey Enriquez, Pastry Chef at the beautiful Elements at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort in Phoenix, AZ, gives us the scoop.

Q: What’s a typical day like for you as a pastry chef?

AE: A typical day for me starts at 6 a.m. I bake off all of our delicious breakfast items, like our cinnamon granola coffee cake and lemon sesame muffins. We do a very nice bakery basket here, which gives guests a nice variety of all our continental treats. In the morning before my cooks get in, it’s quiet enough so that I can spend time experimenting with new ideas and concepts that I want to try. It’s my “me” time that I can use to make cool garnishes or new desserts for special events. Once my staff gets in, we start prepping for service. We have five desserts on the menu. I spend most of the evening working with them on their techniques and execution of the recipes and tasting all of our product with them to make sure all of the flavors and textures are on point. Once service starts, I supervise all of the desserts coming off of our line, making sure each one is just as beautiful as the last.

Q: Do you have a signature dish? If so, what is it?

AE: My signature dish is my P.B.C. It’s a peanut butter mousse torte with flourless chocolate cake and it has a lot of beautiful, delicious components such as housemade caramel corn, chocolate peanut butter Rice Krispies, sesame peanut tuile, smoked peanuts, caramelized banana, chocolate sauce and roasted banana gelato. It’s everyone’s favorite and guests keep coming back for it. I’ve tried taking it off of the menu to put something new in its place, but the amount of requests that I got for it forced me to bring it back. Now it’s here to stay.  

Q: What’s your favorite thing to make on (or off) the Element’s dessert menu for guests?

AE: Anytime I tell someone that I’m a pastry chef, that’s the first question I get. “What’s your favorite thing to make?” I don’t think I ever had ONE favorite thing. I’ve always said that my favorite thing to make is something I’ve never made before. I like trying new things – new recipes, new ideas, new designs. I get the most excited when I come up with a new dessert. I formulate and test out new recipes, make all of the components, find the perfect dish and plate it all up. Seeing the final product – something that I took from my head and put onto a plate – is my favorite part of what I do.

Q: Any special sweet treats you’ve got up your sleeve for Valentine’s Day?

AE: For V-Day, I’m doing a spin on strawberry shortcake. I know it’s a very traditional dessert, but Valentine’s Day always makes me think of strawberries, so I jumped at the opportunity to play with them. It’s going to consist of a vanilla bean scone, braised strawberries, St. Germaine gelee, ginger cream and strawberry chips. We will also be doing a chocolate strawberry macaroon as an after-dinner treat for all of our guests.

Audrey's Take on Strawberry Shortcake | Foodable WebTV Network

Audrey's Take on Strawberry Shortcake | Foodable WebTV Network

Audrey's P.B.C. Dessert | Foodable WebTV Network

Audrey's P.B.C. Dessert | Foodable WebTV Network

Q: What are 3 dessert trends you see breaking through or becoming more mainstream in 2014?

AE: The three trends that I see happening now and that I think will continue throughout the year are ones that I am happy to follow. 

  1. Old school desserts. It seems that more and more pastry chefs are tapping into their inner child and taking a more simple approach to dessert, like putting a new spin on an old classic (root beer floats, peanut butter and jelly, carrot cake, puddings, etc). My new menu features coconut cream pie that I have turned into a crème brulee served with shortbread cookies. It’s simple, but a lot of people relate to those flavors and it’s still something new to them. Last year was all about elaborate presentations with ten different components or garnishes. I think this year, for me at least, will be much more simplistic.
  2. Incorporating unexpected savory components. I, for one, like to venture out of the bakeshop and into the rest of the kitchen for ideas for desserts, like using fried fennel fronds with apple pie, miso in my peanut butter panna cotta, micro celery with my carrot cake, or beer with my bread pudding. I think more and more chefs are realizing that savory elements can bring out so much more in a dessert and that those ingredients can really complement whatever sweet flavors are going on.
  3. The macaroon trend. It has been erupting all over the place and I am ecstatic about it. I think the reason they are so popular is because there are so many different flavors and colors you can do with them. They are as delicious as they are adorable. Also, you can use them in many different applications – as a component in a dessert, a garnish, an after-dinner petit four, a dessert amuse, or in a trio of desserts. The possibilities are endless. Recently, I did a s’mores macaroon by making graham cracker macaroons and sandwiching them with dark chocolate ganache and toasted housemade vanilla bean marshmallow. Then I added some crispy bacon. They were insanely good!

Q: What are the biggest misconceptions about pastry chefs?

AE: I think the most common misconception about pastry chefs is that we don’t work as hard or as fast as other chefs. People look at us and tend to think that we work slow or that our job is so much easier than that of a savory chef. The truth is that we tend to be very organized and plan everything in advance so that we can have a lot going on at one time and still be able to work at a steady pace. Most of what we make takes time and precision – scaling, resting, proofing, freezing, baking. We have to coordinate everything perfectly. A lot of the time it does seem like a bit of a waiting game, but we stay very busy. While I think the two sides of a kitchen are very different, I don’t necessarily think one is any easier than the other. Another misconception I’ve come across is that we just eat sweets all day because we are surrounded by them. I think it is true for the first year maybe, or while going through culinary school, but after a while you kind of get sick of all the sugar. While I still love desserts and enjoy trying them, I don’t crave them like I used to. Now, all I crave is something salty!

Q: Quick! You can only eat one pastry or dessert from here on out. What is it?

AE: Bread Pudding. It’s like a dessert AND a comfort food!