Pastry chefs are in demand. Why aren’t wages rising?

CHICAGO — When it comes to hot jobs in today’s economy, software app developer is almost certainly near the top of the list. Robotics and automotive engineers, too. But pastry chef?

In recent years, as fine food has evolved from highbrow preoccupation to a form of mass entertainment, demand for people skilled in the delicate art of dessert-making has soared.

“Many students are getting hired before they even graduate,” said Jacquy Pfeiffer, dean of the French Pastry School here in Chicago, which graduates about 160 full-time students each year. “Restaurants are being built much faster than I can produce professionals.”

It’s not just restaurants that are hiring, but a profusion of pie shops, cupcakeries and cronut-mongers as well. Even grocery stores are snatching up bona fide pastry chefs.

Yet, according to Pfeiffer and 10 other chefs and restaurateurs, the salaries of pastry makers in the Chicago area do not appear to have budged much, if at all. The key to this puzzle tells us a lot about why the U.S. economy isn’t necessarily behaving the way workers have traditionally assumed.

Employers, according to those in the industry, have increasingly turned to less experienced workers to ensure the flow of sweets. In effect, they are creating their own pastry chefs like so many tart shells rather than paying a premium to hire them fully formed.

The strategy isn’t unique to the culinary world. In many booming sectors, employers have an underappreciated capacity to slow the upward march of wages by hiring less credentialed candidates.

A company looking for a web developer — an occupation whose numbers have increased by about one-quarter during the three most recent years for which there are government data — could pay well into the six figures for top talent, or it could pay in the mid-five figures.

“It depends on the needs of the website,” said Boris Epstein, co-founder of the tech recruiting firm Binc. “Coding academies and boot camps” — short courses lasting a few weeks to several months — “graduate people who are perfectly fine.” As a result, wages for web developers nationally increased only modestly during the same period, though the rate of increase was likely higher at more tech-heavy companies, which also frequently offer stock options.

The example of pastry chefs — a field where the artistic and technical requirements may be even more demanding — is no less striking. Tony Galzin, a former pastry chef at the Chicago restaurant MK, cited ice cream making. It can take months to learn how to achieve the correct proportions of fat, sugar, protein, water and stabilizers, all of which are thrown off by the use of different ingredients.

“You’re binding proteins to fat molecules in milk and cream,” said Galzin, who is preparing to open a restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, called Nicky’s Coal Fired. “It’s science. You can’t make it work if it doesn’t bind.”

And ice cream is just one staple of the veteran pastry chef’s repertoire. Dana Cree, now the executive pastry chef at the Publican family of restaurants in Chicago, spent eight years mastering a full complement of desserts before she first oversaw a full-blown pastry department with a sous-chef and two cooks.

“I worked for a European wedding cake maker,” she said, “who was adamant that you didn’t deserve to think of yourself as a pastry chef until you put in 10 years as an apprentice.”

If there were any place where the combination of skill requirements and rising demand should drive up salaries for pastry chefs, it would almost certainly be Chicago. Rahm Emanuel made culinary tourism a major priority after he became mayor in 2011, and the number of visitors to the city spiked to 52 million in 2015 from 39 million the year before he took office.

Emanuel, who previously was President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, helped lure the James Beard Awards, akin to the Oscars for the food industry, to Chicago. Next spring will be the third consecutive year the city has hosted them.

Along the way, said Sam Toia of the Illinois Restaurant Association, there has been a significant increase in chef-driven restaurants, the sort of establishments whose chefs would sooner cut out their tongues than outsource their dessert offerings.

“I don’t think any self-respecting place does that,” said John Shields, the executive chef and, with his wife, proprietor of Smyth and The Loyalist, a pair of restaurants they opened this summer.

And yet Shields’ case illustrates how restaurants have managed to keep salaries in check. Instead of hiring a pastry chef who spent years honing her skills, he chose to hire a pair of sous-chefs in their mid-20s for each restaurant. He pays them about $35,000 a year. Shields, a longtime savory chef who did a tour at the famed Chicago restaurant Alinea, and his wife and business partner Karen Urie Shields, a former executive pastry chef at another noted Chicago eatery, Charlie Trotter’s, conceptualize the desserts. The two younger chefs execute them.

John Shields and other restaurateurs say there is a strong economic imperative at work. In a low-margin service business like food, it is difficult to pay high salaries to a worker who is involved in only a limited aspect of the restaurant’s menu.

“Paying someone $55,000 per year is a big venture,” he said. (For the Shieldses, the rationale is even more creative than it is economic: Their pastry vision could clash with that of a more experienced chef.)

Although both of John Shields’ young pastry chefs have committed to staying for two years, the pay means that the Shieldses may not be able to keep them for much longer.

“Everyone is looking for somebody,” he said. “Someone might say, ‘Why do I want to make $35,000 at this place when I could go make $75,000 working for Whole Foods?'” (A Whole Foods spokeswoman said the company generally paid salaries in that range only for those who oversee desserts across multiple stores.)

Many restaurateurs have adopted some variation of the Shieldses’ strategy, meeting their pastry needs by throwing younger and less experienced people at the job. In an extreme case, they simply pull a cook off the savory line and rechristen them the pastry chef.

For the profession, the downside is that it can be hard to scratch out a middle-class living. Even during the current expansionary frenzy, pay for pastry line-cooks in the Chicago area hovers in the same $10 to $15 an hour that it has for years. Sous-chefs make a bit more, as in John Shields’ operation, while executive pastry chefs typically command $35,000 to $60,000 a year, depending on the restaurant’s size and profitability, versus a salary in the high five figures for a top savory chef.

The upside for young pastry chefs is that rigorous training at a top-flight restaurant like John Shields’ can lead to a position earning considerably more, such as overseeing desserts for a large restaurant group or hotel, where they can typically make $70,000 or $80,000 a year.

And major opportunities for talented chefs can come relatively early in their careers.

This spring, fewer than 2 1/2 years after she began seriously studying the craft, Emily Spurlin was hired to be the executive pastry chef at Bad Hunter, a vegetable-focused restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop, one of the city’s foodie havens. When the restaurant opens this month, Spurlin, 28, will oversee three cooks and supply the baked goods for a Latin-American-inspired cafe and bar owned by the same restaurant group.

On a Wednesday in late September, Spurlin was busy preparing a vegan curry squash tart, whose richness came from a mix of coconut milk and creamed cashews, for a tasting with some of the restaurant’s staff.

The chocolate chip cookies she had been refining for the better part of a month were finally coming along — the breakthrough was caramelizing the butter — but she said she was having trouble finding a spot in the restaurant where her sourdough starter would rise, given its sensitivity to temperature.

At this, she pulled out a plastic bin full of starter labeled “Clint Yeastwood.” “Most bakers name their starters,” she confided.

Pastry traditionalists fret over the willingness of restaurateurs to rely on the young and inexperienced.

Galzin, the Nashville restaurateur, complained that young pastry chefs too often concocted elaborate creations before they had mastered the basics.

“People feel like they can skip some of the fundamentals of pastry,” he said. “Like rosemary caramel — you want to add rosemary but your caramel sucks in the first place.”

Even Grant Achatz, the celebrated chef behind Alinea, who famously did not replace a highly regarded pastry chef after he decamped for another restaurant in 2006, said he was ambivalent about the approach.

On the one hand, he and his fellow practitioners of progressive gastronomy, who blur the lines between sweet and savory dishes, often find the idea of a separate pastry chef restrictive and even contrived.

On the other? “I really love the idea of someone that’s dedicated to their craft, dedicated to the practice of pastry,” he said. “I feel like it’s something that’s going to come back into the fold really soon.”

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