Mar 10, 2024 - Food and Drink

Pastry chefs finally get more than sweet nothings

A woman in a blue apron stands in front of a green curtain (left) and another woman in an avocado-print shirt sits at a table of desserts

Moon Rabbit chef Susan Bae (left) and Isabel Coss of Lutèce and Pascual. Photos: Courtesy of Rachel Paraoan and Alex Lau

Pastry chefs finish last — in a meal, and often when it comes to their share of awards, media coverage, and diner's 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: A more inclusive spotlight is emerging from revered industry awards like Food & Wine's "Best New Chefs in America" list. Among the big winners this year: Mexico City-born Isabel Coss of Georgetown's Lutèce and newcomer Pascual, following in the footsteps of D.C.-based Afro-Dominican pastry chef Paola Velez.

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.

Yes, but: The national spotlight is still sweet. Moon Rabbit pastry chef Susan Bae, who's up for a Beard award, tells Axios: "Pastry is still forgotten about, so I hope this is an opportunity to inspire others to press the gas. You can still exercise your creativity and do everything you want, even if it's weird, and people will be open to it."

Dig in: One big dessert trend — which Bae credits for pastry chefs catching more attention — is sweets infused with savory flavors. One of her signatures is a coconut-curry dessert inspired by a Vietnamese fish stew with avocado sorbet and soursop-yogurt foam (no seafood involved).

  • "Ten years ago, pastry was very one-note. Now we're evolving with the culinary scene, incorporating more umami elements and using techniques like fermentation," she says. "That changes more people's perspectives on pastry. It's interesting. It's memorable."

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

White House chefs in toques stand around a table of white cakes
Pastry assistant Ann Amernick with White House chefs and cakes for President Reagan's surprise birthday party in 1981. Photo: courtesy of The White House Historical Association

Flashback: Until recently, women weren't welcome in the savory kitchen brigade. Take legendary D.C. pastry chef Ann Amernick, who was the first female chef in the White House in 1980, working as an assistant. Since then women have climbed the ranks: Cristeta Comerford, a Filipino American chef, has led the White House kitchen since 2005 (and is the first female lead).

  • But in the '70s, Amernick couldn't even get a pastry gig, according to the New York Times. "The chefs would say to me, 'Honey, stay home and take care of your kids,' or they told me I wasn't strong enough to lift pots or that I was overqualified," she told the paper.
  • She didn't get a job until another female phenom, Ann Cashion, hired her. She later opened Amernick bakery.

What they're saying: Philadelphia-based baker Emily Riddell of Machine Shop tells Axios, "Pastry chefs are finally getting a piece of the pie." Which makes sense. "We run our teams, do our budgets, and build businesses — all the same things, just not with the same recognition."

  • "I was trained in France and I always felt there was a real reverence for the art of pastry, it was treated as a special profession," says Riddell. "In the U.S., you were shoved in the back corner of a kitchen and given a warm stainless steel table. They're like, 'You can do everything here, right?'"
Pastry chef Rose Nyugen (left) and ube purple doughnuts with decorative candied citrus and cherries
Rose Ave. Bakery owner Rosie Nguyen and her Filipino-inspired ube doughnuts. Photos: Courtesy of Farrah Skeiky and Rose Ave.

Zoom in: The gender gap persists, but there's a lot more diversity in the pastry world itself. For example, baker Abi Balingit recently published the first-ever cookbook on Filipino American desserts, "Mayumu" — a smash hit and NYT bestseller.

Pastry often suffers in hard times — restaurants make more dough on dinner than dessert. During the pandemic, pastry chefs were often first on the chopping block as dining rooms shuttered. But now they're seeing a post-pandemic pendulum swing of diners wanting more, more, more.

  • "The fun thing now is the major indulgence," Caroline Schiff of NYC's Gage & Tollner and uber-popular Insta account @pastryschiff tells Axios. "Almost every table gets the buttery Parker House rolls. Everyone wants baked Alaska. People just want to live and enjoy."

What's next: A Women's History Month tea and dim sum party hosted by Bae at Moon Rabbit on March 24 with star female pastry chefs from this article and a panel led by Cherry Bombe's Jessie Sheehan of "She's My Cherry Pie."

Editor's note: The photo credit line has been corrected to show that the photo of Susan Bae is courtesy of Rachel Paraoan (not Scott Suchman).

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