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30 January 2007


Ah, you've come to the crossroad. It would seem it is time to reinvent yourself. How about your own shop? Or shared space? I am sure there's an artisinal chocolatier out there just dying to do something different. Joseph Schmidt sold last year, I am sure there are players there that are singing your same song.

Alas. I can't tell you what to do, I've been there and it's frustrating as hell to have all the training and knowledge, being self taught, and not being able to springboard to somewhere in the industry due to "no degree". I've got 25+ years but it doesn't matter.

You're smarter than me. I see opportunities for you, and I am sure others do to, trust those close to you and listen to your gut. Something will surface.


Welcome back.


That is rather upsetting to hear. I've always thought of people, like you, with such great experience and who have worked at such prestigious retaurants and talented chefs as masters of the culinary buisness. And assumed good salaries came with it.

I'm just starting out in the pastry proffession myself. I'm starting from scratch, no school or training. Do you think all the work and pain are worth it? I love learning and gaining experience. But now I'm curious if it will really lead me to the top.

I guess that we just have to love it so much that the crap and lowly pay don't bring us down.

Ok, so you are over-qualified for restaurant work and you love to teach. Why not apply for a teaching position at CCA or Greystone? You'd be great at it. The pay is at least as good as restaurant work, the hours are as good or better and there must be fringe benefits like health insurance and retirement funds that most other people take for granted, of which we kitchen people only dream. I realize that those positions are very rare, but what do you have to lose by applying? At least they'll know who to call when one becomes available.

It's kind of funny that you mention age and how physically hard kitchen work really is. My cook friends and I always knew we would have to figure out something else to do somewhere between 40 and 50, or whenever we got a carreer ending injury. (Mine happened at 38.) The only way a kitchen person can work in the industry after that is by being the executive chef or the owner. All of the other positions are just too physically taxing.

One thing I did promise myself, even though I never got to do it, was that when I became executive chef that I wouldn't abuse my employees. I once asked a chef who was not my boss why chefs were so nasty to cooks and was told that that is how he was treated when he was an underling, that it is just the way it is.

That answer made me see it much the same as I see child abuse. It was once considered "normal," but someone simply had to break the cycle of abuse to end it. I meant for that chef to be me. Unfortunately, I broke my ankle instead.

By the time my ankle healed I was 39, I couldn't stand for ten hours and I couldn't lift 50 pounds over my head-- the most basic of kitchen requirements.

Que serra.

What next? How so? Who with?

Why not work for yourself? There's a fantastic prix fixe dessert bar called Chikalicious in the East Village, I can't imagine the concept wouldn't work in SF. Alternately, perhaps you can convince restaurants that can't afford pastry chefs to outsource to you; they save money, you make money, customers get delicious things to eat. Win/win!

with such passion and artistry all the world is open to you...

i'd go with the boa. but that's probably just because i'm a classical singer trying to make it in nyc. and, for the record, i think that san francisco has trumped new york as the most expensive city in the u.s.

I know this wasn't where you were going with this, but all of us out here in the peanut gallery are hoping you find a rewarding (in all senses of the word) place to rock our world, even if it takes a while.

And yes, you (along with several harmonious voices) have definitely made me think twice about the true price of my food -- although I wish I could feel that a larger share of my increasingly high dinner tabs was going into checked-pants pockets and not those of the landlords or investors...

It's shameful that you've never made close to $60K -- and I say that, having never tasted your food -- sinply because *any* talented worker-manager in *any* field should make at enough to live without pinching pennies, and we all know what it costs to live here. Arg.

Brilliant suggestions as to how we (as diners) can help correct the imbalance, aside from sending our waiters back to the kitchen with twenty-dollar bills for the crew? :D

Thank you Shuna for such an honest post. As someone who looks ahead down the road you have already traveled, it's nice to know that things aren't always as lovely and self-explanatory as everyone usually leads us to believe. The truth is scary, but at least it feels real. I can deal with a struggle as long as I know that it is coming. Thank you for turning a light on, for letting my wide eyes start to see.

Hilarious, you are.

What about your own shop? What about a collective, a collaborative with other food-minded folks? You'd just have to find backers, that is, $$$$. Have you thought about it? I don't know how financially successful Rm 4 Dessrt or Chikalicious in NYC are--but there are all-dessert places tea and pastry (too namby?), catering, a joining of pastry and cheese/wine/savory? It's so hard to read of your struggles knowing that you are so gifted and just want to learn and teach and feed people....and somehow this is very hard to do in a cohesive way that allows you to make a decent living. How's the book proposal/cookbook? Just another thought.

Cheering for you. Sending hope and encouragement.

did David Lebovitz say that you are gonna have a book out soon?

Can't you go back to Citizen Cake or Citizen Cupcake or something like that?

Now a days cupcakes are $3 each, some cookies too, desserts $8-10. If you ever work for a bakery I'd be so there all the time.

Shuna, I wish I could wave a wand and have good, happy answers for you. My husband's been unemployed for over 4 yrs now, and I'm trying to keep his spirit (and mine) above water, too. Hang in there - we have to believe that some day the clouds will part and a clear path will reveal itself. XOXO

I've been reading your blog quite frequently but without leaving any comments so far. This post was a real eye-opener. I didn't know that you have to work so hard and getting paid so little. (And being a journalist - I know something about a profession that relies heavily on the enthusiasm and self-exploitation of employees.) I wish you all the best for the future - and I still refuse to believe that someone so experienced and passionate won't make it!

You're telling it like it is, which I appreciate deeply. I know from your writing and your integrity and the passion with which you approach your art that you are bound for a far higher calling than "underpaid pastry chef." To me, "chef" implies (or should imply) the self-respect to be properly compensated for your work. I think it's time that all of us-- Chefs, Sous Chefs, Cooks, Dishwashers, and the rest-- work to be compensated adequately.

Me, I'd go with the boa.

"How come when I apply at restaurants the first thing the chef/owner says is, "We can't afford you." Even before the monetary negotiations have been opened? How did I become overqualified before I felt truly learned?"

insecurity and a closed mind on their part. if they say something like this, PROBE them. ask them why they'd say that before even saying "hello, how are you today". don't let them off the hook if you want to work there. how much do you want/need to make/earn?

i can't detect sarcasm on the internet (too much time spent on Fark) and there's nothing wrong with getting paid what you're worth, but there's what one highly experienced pastry chef makes and then there's what Gale Gand and David Leibovitz make. but if either of them fell on hard times (it can happen to anyone) and they needed to "get a job", would that restaurant hire them just to say Gale or David work there? would they work there if it was a really incredible place?

is money your driving need these days?

i had an interview at a place in town doing what i was doing in Austin but for $15/hr instead of $9.50/hr. to me, that seems a bit much (prep cook at a place doing 600 covers a day, which is nothing compared to what i'd been doing for almost 2 years). i wouldn't sneeze at it but it seemed excessive, especially considering the size of the union-protected crew of about 80 cooks. but i wouldn't have taken the job SOLELY for the money, i would have taken it because it was the exact job i wanted to do. it would be hard to move on from a place where i was doing extremely easy work for more money than i should be getting to a place where i'd bust my ass and get paid half. would that $15/hr spoil me too much to where other kitchen jobs were "beneath me" because i wasn't getting that much even though the work would be more fulfilling? i hope i never turn into that kind of person.

/just my 2 cents and my money's no good

You just need your own show on the Fud Network so you can pimp out a cookbook and make your millions.

I loved "There is no there here." How many pastry chefs can paraphrase Gertrude Stein like that? :)

I've noticed that coffee shops around here tend to serve crappy little things they call "cupcakes" or "pastries" that taste like they came out of a box. I'd be among the first customers at Shuna's Patisserie and Coffee Shop.

Echoing Eva's comment above, this post brought out both sympathy and empathy in me. I don't know much about working in a kitchen, but I do know the frustration of trawling through "job ads" that offer you the chance to write for free, or next to nothing. It's disheartening in the extreme -- and *my* pursuit of choice is something you can do sitting on your ass. So I commend you for having stuck it out this long in something as physically, mentally and emotionally demanding as being a pastry chef.

I'm 34 and I've worked in restaurants since I was 16. I've never made more than $20,000 a year. I've never worked at The French Laundry but still.
I'm back to making pannini for $8 an hour while I try to get my preserving business going. It's easier to go out on your own when you've got nothing to lose.

I'm a self-trained baker/pastry chef who's been at that crossroads for a while now. I walked away from kitchens over a year ago because I couldn't find a secure future in them. Yes, that glass ceiling that I was bumping my head against-- making $12-13 an hour, working day and night in a hot and tiny restaurant bakeshop, and wondering where would I be in ten years? Busted knees and back, maybe breaking through to $30,000 a year if I put in enough overtime, still dealing with macho dudes who don't understand pastry. What about in twenty years? Now I miss it, and being away from kitchens was torture. Then again, I went on an interview today. They offered lousy pay and I'm overqualified, but they questioned my abilities because I dared to step outta the kitchen for a year to make real money and give my aching bones a break -- all to make tiramisu and foccocia...
Thanks for your eloquence and honesty. Let me know if you find the answer!

I FEEL your pain. I moved to New York City a few months ago for the Pastry Sous Chef position with a new (English celebrity chef)restaurant in a hotel. I was offered $50,000 a year with benefits. Unfortunatly, I was working (absolutly no exageration) 17 hours a day indefinatly, as the restaurant hadn't any idea when they would be staffed enough to give days off. After a month, the exec chef said I may be getting a half day off within the next weeks.
Fate interviened and I broke my finger at home in the shower during the three hours I had there before returning to work. The hotel hadn't done the insurance program yet, as they were still negotiating our contracts with the union (still unresolved) and I have $15,000 worth of surgery bills to pay now.

When I decided to return to work, I decided to leave the hotel. I previously earned 3 1/2 stars as a pastry chef in Napa, worked at a michelin star restaurant, besides being in the industry for over ten years now. I began trailing in NYC. I've been offered pastry jobs at $8.20/hr, $10/hr, and $11/hr. This is less than I have ever been paid.

Why is the pastry scale going backwards?!?! The job listings are a successful restaurants, asking for at least 3-5 years of pastry experience. They want someone to have 3-5 years of experience and pay them $10/hr! In NYC! They have justified this by saying, "everyone starts at this rate." One restaurant hadn't given raises to the ppastry staff in at least three years.

Someone explain how this makes sense. Or is it just that the restauranteurs are without any morality?

My hotel job is not a challange. I scoop ice cream all day. I worked hard for 11 years to get this job. It pays well thanks to the union; Local 2. My job is so simple. Why do they like it that way? Not sure, do you know?


Sometimes unions dilineate job speciallties to such a point as to deem them boring. This is a kind of "job security" some people are looking for in union work. Or at least restaurant work.

Managers cannot be unionized if they have the ability to hire and/or fire. But if you want a challenge it sounds like you'll have to switch stations or work towards becoming management.

I have such empathy for you. I haven't quite figured out where the concept of working pastry means an easy shift but that truly seems to be the general concept. (Clearly one formulated by people that have never done the job!) I come in before any of the other chefs and am usually the last one to leave.

I am a pastry chef in Chicago and after five years I have finally gotten to a point where I see some daylight-not a lot! I think that this particular part of the industry is dominated by women, not because we can't work the line, but because we choose not to-and isn't choice a marvelous thing!! When people come up from the savory kitchen and work with me, they always comment on how peaceful my environment is. That's because that is how I am. I minimize the drama in ALL aspects of my life and anyone that brings any, has to leave with it, quickly! I also find that most of my male colleagues are less organized,(drama) a concept I have yet to grasp.

I could certainly go elsewhere and work less for more money but I am convinced that I am on the path of what God has meant for me to do and I refuse to let anything or anyone take that joy from me. You know that what you are doing brings you great joy and you have to keep your eyes on that fact. At the risk of sounding sexist, men and women are programmed differently (bet you never would have figured that out on your own,huh! :) ) and we are never going to approach the whole kitchen thing the same way. Don't try to make sense based on someone else's concept of best and worse.

A friend told me recently that she finally had to realize, after being told by her boss that he wouldn't give her more money or staff but was going to double her workload, the problem is that she has made doing her job look too easy. I would have to say that is true for most of the women I have worked with.

Keep you chin up. Take care of yourself. It is going to get better.


Thank you for taking the time to give us so many of your words and offer some up for me and anyone else reading who may be in the indutry or thinking about it.

I recently said yes to a restaurant again and my good friend Noah said, "Well you've been trying to break up with kitchens for a while now but I guess it's not time yet."

I hope you continue to get something from eggbeater and comment some more. Eggbeater loves bakers & their tell-it-like-it-is voices!

thank you again.


I enjoyed reading about your experience in pastry and the low pay involved. I've done a bit of pastry work (and other restaurant work( myself and have been put off by the low wages.

I don't expect to get rich--nor do i feel the need to get rich--in foodservice but it's damn hard to just live off $10-$12 an hour, especially in a town like san francisco!

i've been wanting to switch to pastry full time for years but financially--especially with a student loan (non-culinary degree) to pay off--$25K a year before tax just won't allow for much of a life (let alone buying a house, raising a family, etc). i'd have to leave this town to afford to work in pastry i think!

seems like the only way to make it--still not rich, but not working poor either--is to have your own shop. true, that road is full of risks but at least it's all up to you in the end.

as usual, you have captured where i am professionally to a T. Our lives seem to be running parallel. Thanks for stating the obvious,yet no one wants to admit-the truth!!!!!!!!!!
I struggle with this daily, and today was a bad day for me. Dreams die hard.

Why not work for a hotel? I work for a small hotel with 100 rooms. There are 2 pastry chefs; one in each restaurant. I make 72,000 a year and the other pastry chef makes 175,000. I know a pastry chef in NYC, at a restaurant that makes 200,000 and another that clears 150,000. I have worked in NYC, Chicago, and California too. But I am looking at that glass ceiling a little higher than yours. I have never been to culinary school. I have 5 years in the pastry kitchen, but I have worked in a kitchen since 1996, I was 16. I do not think that I should make as much as an executive chef because I produce less $ in sales than he/she does and have less staff. I hope that everyone who reads you essay doesn't get discouraged, because there are big jobs out there. You just have to strive for perfection, everyday.

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