I’ve had a lot of people ask me how to become a professional baker. How do you take it from a hobby, to something you get paid for? How do you break into the restaurant, catering, or private baking scene? I think it’s important to ask yourself a few questions before you proceed.
First, how do you feel about mornings? It is not uncommon for a baker’s day to start at 3am. If your customers expect freshly baked breads by 7am, somebody has to be in there proofing the yeast and kneading the dough several hours before. Personally, I love that I get into the kitchen three hours before anybody else. That means I get to choose the radio station, collect all of my favorite mixing bowls, and have as much of the coffee as I want before anybody else arrives.
It’s also a physically demanding job. I work with a stand mixer that I could actually sit inside of, if I so chose. I’ve also got 50lb bags of sugar to haul around, and 26 pounds of cake flour to sift every day. I’d start working on your arm and back muscles if you’re serious about baking professionally.
Still with me? Now you need to decide what kind of baking you want to do. Do you find kneading bread to be therapeutic? Or perhaps you are more interested in decorating high end wedding cakes? Or maybe you’d rather work for a place that caters to individuals with special diets?
No matter what your passion is, you then need to find out what the experience and education expectations are for that field. Typically, this means either completing a pastry degree at a college or gaining experience through volunteering or paid work. The degree route is a pretty straight forward option. If you have just graduated from high school or have the time and disposable income to start later in life, a pastry degree can provide you with the knowledge and experience to break into the baking world. For many people though, this may not be a viable option. I was one of those people. For me, it was just being in the right place at the right time. I knew somebody, who knew somebody who needed some help at her catering company. It doesn’t sound very romantic, but that’s how it happened. I met with Izzy Wieck, of Izzy’s Catering, in Bangor and convinced her that my combination of experience with baking at home, my willingness to learn, and my passion for food would make me a good addition to her company. And bless the woman for believing in me. With a little guidance from Izzy, I was soon producing baked goods that I have never even heard of before. One day we would make Paris Brest for a private client and the next we would be trying out a new gluten free cupcake recipe to sell at the local farmer’s market. It was a fantastic way for me to gain experience. From there, I just started reading everything. Baking cook books, blogs, biographies and more have made it into my hands. I’m currently half way through a 600 page book about pie. Being able to secure a baking job is much easier if you’re able to talk the talk. Even if you don’t have a pastry degree, knowing that all you really need for bread is water, yeast and flour or that cold butter or lard is what gives pie crust its signature flakiness shows that you’ve done your research. If you’re not going to go the degree route, you need to ask yourself if you’re willing to dedicate the time to learning about baking on your own. Find classes in your city, ask local bakers if you can shadow them in their kitchens, or start your own baking enthusiast group!
One year later and I am working for an amazing restaurant in Portland and still learning new things every day. In my current job, I have to produce new and interesting pies every week. Some of them are from recipes from other bakers and some of them are my own ideas. To me, this is how you know that you are a baker. You may have never attempted this triple chocolate pie and you have no recipe for it. But you know the basic ingredients and properties of chocolate, condensed milk and pie crust, so you will succeed. You will produce something that leaves people speechless or has them giving their compliments to the baker. And that’s you. That’s when you know you are a baker. No matter how you got there, how long it took, or how many failed attempts there may have been along the way. You’re there now. You are a baker.