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Expectation vs Reality: Working in the Pastry department of a Parisian Palace

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Let’s start by a quick statement: this article will not name the Parisian Palace where i did my internship. First of all because this post only describes my -one month- personal experience, so I can’t pretend giving a fully exhaustive view on what is like to work in « all » Parisian Palaces. Also, because their privacy policy on social networks is very strict (and yes I am coward so I don’t want any trouble). Lastly, because even if this experience was extremely « challenging » (love this diplomatic and so positive English/American word. No equivalent in French, we just say « f… hard ») I know that I have been -rather- decently treated. No Stockholm syndrom here, I know I have ;).

Therefore, considering what I am detailing below, I don’t want to give the false idea that « Parisian Palace X » is Hell on Earth. Because it was not. In the world of Parisian Palaces, I am convinced that everything that happens in Parisian Palace X was just normal. Welcome to Pastry Paradise. 

 N°1 : « It’s going to be really hard, but hey, I’m ready for this »

Feeling like a few months in a Parisian Palace would look good on your resume? Be ready. No, you are not. Be rea-lly ready.

Working in the pastry department of a Parisian Palace is extremely demanding physically and psychologically. Before starting, I was convinced that my trainee status would preserve me from really really hard working and too huge pressure… what an innocent and absolutely stupid credulous girl was I.

To give you an idea, I counted (well, actually my smartphone counted) that I walked approx. 10 km per day. In the laboratory. No kidding. Rushing from the walking fridge to the oven room carrying 12kg pans back and forth 10 times per hour, no, not this pan, I want a larger one run to the dishwashing room and find one, oh and in the meantime, also bring back some clean towels, yes from the laundry at the exact opposite quick quick why are you still here, I want everything right now you are too slow hurry…

That for the physical part. The one that made me lost 2 kg in 4 weeks. The one that made me so tired that once back home I was not able to walk without limping and complaining like an old lady. You think I am too soft? Too gentle and/or naive? Maybe. I admit I clearly underestimated the physical part of the job but when it combines with yelling and shouting all day long, I also admit that I started to feel the experience absolutely suffocating.

Even if you think you can handle this (after all I am forty something and it’s just for a month blablabla…) being yelled at by 19 years old « commis » 10 hours a day can slightly strike on your nerves. Or maybe it’s just me. To be fair, sometimes their « comments » are legitimate (no, there is no way the door of the oven can stay open « just 2 min the time I get another tray of cookies from the fridge »), but sometimes they will only take it out on you. Just because you are here, and because somebody higher in the hierarchy did the same on them 5 min ago. Or because they are not always super happy working like hell 14-15 hours per day for the minimum wage in a Parisian Palace where the simplest fruit plate is charged 12 euros? Such a fulfilling work environment…

So be ready. Working in the pastry business in France can be rewarding (you ll see things you ll never see anywhere else and I am very thanksful for this) but it is truly hard work. And the harder it is, the less compassion you will get.

 N°2 : « I’m going to learn tons of different things, my pastry skills will skyrocket »

Enjoying dishwashing? So definitely apply for an internship in a Parisian Palace.

Ok, I am being a little bit sarcastic here. No, you will not spend 100% of your internship cleaning everybody else mess, scrubbing 138 small pie molds with only burning hot water because a commis accidentally broke the cold water faucet two weeks ago (true story), sorting the freezers, emptying the trash 30 times per day, drying the worktable, no I can still see some imperceptible traces of water do it again, faster, no not that way, faster, take a clean tissue, yes like that and by the way where is the larger pan I asked you for 3 min ago?

Unless you are especially ineffective, normally you will also do things in relation with pastry. Like weighting flour or sugar, dicing apples, zesting oranges and grating vanilla beans (but only at the end of the internship, hey what did you think?).

Or maybe even more. Should you be extremely talented (and let’s be honest, should your internship last a little bit longer than mine), surely you also will be in charge of more interesting things. For example, the last week I had the extreme privilege to apply almond bites around small delicate pies. Yes, it was the finishing touch and yes, I was proud like as a peacock, but speaking frankly this kind of tasks represented max. 20% of my day to day work load.

The rest of the time, trainees are hired to do the dirty work.

N°4 : « If I am working hard, I’ll become Chef’s favourite « 

Forget about it.

Considering the number of trainees hired in Parisian Palace kitchens (and in most of the cases, for free…), their turnover and the amount of work to be done every day, there is more chance to win the lottery (or to be hit by an asteroid, or to be invitated to Prince Harry & Meghan Markle’s wedding) than being noticed by the super star pastry chef.

Unless you are especially stupid or rude (or both of them), the head of your Parisian Palace Pastry department will hardly remember your firstname. Most of the time, he/she has plenty of other things to do before paying attention to an average trainee cleaning the floor where somebody spilled 2 liters of heavy cream.

No disdain here. The chef knows your job is hard (he did it before) and in some way he respects it. But before wondering if you are the next Pierre Hermé or not, he has a full team of experienced pastry employees to manage and more than likely he considers the next pastry star is amongst them, not in the trainees pool.

N°5 : « After all, it’s just about pastries, what can go wrong? »

 

This point is totally related to the 1st one. Sure, you are « only » making cakes, not trying to find a cure for cancer (well in your cases it’s even more harmless as you are spending your days washing dishes). In theory, if something goes wrong, well the cake is burnt, the madeleine is undercooked, the lemon pie is too sweet or the divine buckwheat cream éclair does not look perfect. Minor impacts on the course of the world, we all agree on this. In theory.

In practice, when you work for free 10 hours in a raw, running, rushing, trying to answer orders you don’t understand (bring me the orange Bamix then pour the praliné cream in a white bucket you will find in the little closet hidden behind the staircase next to the Koma, quick quick why are you still here), carrying heavy stuff, sweating like a little pig when it comes to perfectly clean each sides of the flour trolley wheels, etc., etc.,  well few things can go wrong.

Stress, increasing disgust for your supposedly future job, exhaustion, precipitate reassessment of your career plan… you name it. The right attitude of course is to get some distance and keep in mind that you did not quit your former job to work in a Palace but to manage your own pastry business. That the time when you will be your own boss will happen soon (I hope) and that your internship is an investment for the future.

Still, in the moment you need to keep a cool head to cope with stressful (and sometimes vain) tasks. Otherwise unwanted things can happen. And a 4 weeks internship can quickly turn into an interesting challenge with a broken finger and a sliced phalanx. Trust me.

 N°4 : « Whatever happens, I’ll spend the day eating divine pastries for free »

I kept this one for the end on purpose 😉 I wanted to finish on a -very- positive note after  whining compulsively.

The Parisian Palace where I worked is extremely famous and notably for its pastry department (and obviously its Pastry Chef). When I applied for a trainee position, first I was very curious to have a look behind the scenes, then I also had in mind that it was a unique opportunity to try all the beauties produced there. On this point, no deception. In Palace X, the staff make sure that you understand the work that is done in the Pastry department and ultimately the pastries created by this very talented team.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that you will stuff yourself with dozens of luscious Paris Brest every hour (that hazelnut praliné cream…), nor that you are allowed to sneak warm madeleines and lemon cookies when nobody is around (which never happens anyway). But if you ask trying something in order to understand what you are helping to create or by curiosity, or just for the love of good food: from the commis to the Chef, nobody will refuse it.

Fabulous madeleines, exceptional fruit tarts, 3 Michelin stars gourmet restaurant desserts, warm cookies etc., I tried everything and let me tell you the truth: it was a glimpse of Heaven.

 

 

2 réflexions au sujet de “Expectation vs Reality: Working in the Pastry department of a Parisian Palace”

  1. soon, you will have your own patisserie and you will be the one teaching the stagier instead of torturing them. then you will remember your own times in the Parisian Palace 😉

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