Mar 26, 2024 - Food and Drink

Portland pastry chefs carve out bigger slice of the pie

A photo of two people standing facing the camera and smiling.

Siobhan Speirits of Cafe Olli and Kate McMillen of Lauretta Jean's. Photos: Courtesy of Raeann Serra and Ashley Courter

Pastry chefs finish last — in a meal, and often when it comes to their share of awards, media coverage and diners' attention. But that's changing.

Why it matters: A new generation of pastry talents — historically a women-dominated profession — are pushing boundaries, making headlines with their thought-provoking desserts, and getting the recognition they've long deserved.

State of play: Portland's pastry and bakery scene has a renewed energy. Dessert-focused shops are popping all over town and diners are going out of their way to stand in line for the city's most coveted sweet treats.

What they're saying: "Pastry in a fine dining, or even just a regular restaurant setting, is still an afterthought," Kate McMillen of standout pie shop Lauretta Jean's, tells Axios. "It's always overlooked."

Reality check: Pastry accolades still have a ways to go — take the James Beard Awards, which has only one combo category for "Outstanding Pastry Chef/Baker," two different art forms, out of dozens of others.

  • Jinju Patisserie, which is said to have the best croissant in town, landed on this year's semifinalist list for outstanding bakery, albeit five years after it opened.

Yes, but: The national spotlight is still sweet. Siobhan Speirits, a co-owner and the baker behind Cafe Olli — where the pastries and bread take "a central focus" — tells Axios that when the New York Times named the all-day cafe one of the best restaurants in the country last year the response was overwhelming.

  • "We were up there with some places that have been around for so long and are so well established," she says.
  • The culture's collective sweet tooth has pushed the "pastry as a craft" conversation into the zeitgeist, Speirits adds, but she hopes it'll be given the "proper attention that it deserves."

The big picture: A recent Zippia survey found that 64% of pastry chefs in the U.S. are women, and 34% men, which is part of why chefs in this area may have received less attention — and lower pay. The same survey reports that women pastry chefs earned 88% of what men earned in 2022.

  • "When I was younger and coming up in this industry, people really looked down on pastry and I never understood why because it's so technical and precise," Speirits says.

Zoom in: In Portland, we've seen a vibrant women-led bakery boom that spans the globe: Pastry chef Gabriella Martinez of Libre takes inspiration from Latin-inspired flavors, Lisa Nguyen's mochi doughnuts can be found all over town and Kristen D. Murray of Maurice is unafraid to throw her twist on French classics.

  • "Dessert shops here are feeling more prevalent because we're not taking pastry as an afterthought. It's like, the whole deal," McMillen says.
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