The Cult of Dessert: Why Toronto is losing its pastry chefs
We delve into the fascinating – but slowly disappearing – art of pastry in Toronto’s restaurants
When the dessert order comes into Richmond Station’s kitchen for one Surf n’ Turf, Louis Lim reaches for his bottle of chocolate tea squid ink gel. Out of the tube squeezes chocolate-accented pu-erh, a fermented style of Chinese green tea which the pastry chef has thickened with gellan and blackened with squid ink.
Squiggling a design on the plate, a pattern inspired by painter Keith Haring, Lim then reaches for a spoon of “pumpernickel soil,” a crumbled mixture of cocoa powder, cornmeal, brown sugar, rye flour and candied with isomalt, a beet-derived sugar substitute.
On top of the dish’s tea-and-toast base flavours, he mounts a couple ragged boulders of chocolate torte and then, perched over the plate with his piping bag, Lim extrudes mushroom pudding, made from steeping dried fungus in cream, the mixture sweetened with white chocolate and thickened with agar (for texture) and egg yolks (for the fat content).
“I normally do about six to eight things on a plate,” says Lim, scooping a quenelle of his toasted barley ice cream and planting a flag atop the mountain of earthy flavours, a dried apple chip infused with squid ink syrup.
In Toronto, $12 is about the most anyone can charge for a dessert
Here’s the problem: the plate sells for $10. In Toronto, $12 is about the most anyone charges for dessert, and Richmond Station’s owners want to keep the menu prices approachable. The low price for this high skill, high labour dish is why hardly any Toronto restaurants can afford to employ a full-time pastry chef anymore.
Compare the price threshold of dessert with what can be charged for an appetizer.
“I order a beet and arugula salad,” says pastry chef Thomas Haas, the owner of two eponymous pastry shops in Vancouver, “and I get one medium sized beet cut in eight pieces, spread over an 18-inch plate with 12 pieces of baby arugula, a couple drops of balsamic and olive oil and it’s $18.”
Haas argues that it’s not feasible to charge as much for dessert.
“If [a restaurant] employs a highly qualified pastry chef who is worth the money and they make an intricate, textured, beautifully plated dessert with chocolate, which is $30 a kilo, and vanilla beans, which are $600 a kilo right now, all the restaurant can charge is $9, or $12 in Toronto.”
Because of that, it’s often hard to justify the salary of a full-time, experienced pastry chef, who must not only be a creative fountain, but a multitasker beyond anyone else in a restaurant’s kitchen.
Every cook has to prep a half-dozen items at once, but a pastry chef’s projects are all sensitive to barely perceptible degrees of temperature and humidity, requiring a constant, cosmic awareness of the room: the expansion of the sourdough starter, the cooling of a blind-baked pie crust and the slowly rising needle of a candy thermometer in a pot of simmering syrup.
If a restaurant does make the investment, the pastry chef has to maximize their output, producing bread while also making attention-grabbing, social-media friendly desserts in a space that usually occupies less than a tenth of the kitchen.
It works at Richmond Station, because Lim avoids costly ingredients and manages to produce all of the restaurant’s house-made breads, plus at least 100 milk buns a day for burgers, during his 12-hour shift.
In-house bread production – if the pastry chef has the talent, and the business is to pay for the hours and the kitchen has the space – can provide restaurants with a better and cheaper product than they could buy.
Mamakas Taverna gets the most out of Cora James and her expertise. Every day, the executive pastry chef proofs dough and cuts, stretches and cooks 180 individual pitas, a centerpiece of the Greek restaurant’s menu. This is in addition to conceiving and preparing every element – cakes, ice creams and garnishes – for desserts.
“Pastry chefs are becoming a rare commodity, as restaurants can no longer afford them,” says James. “Most pastry chefs, like myself, find themselves in merely a production/creative role, not allowed to see things through to the end because we don’t work service or are unable to hire a pastry team to plate at night.”
James also oversees the pastry at Mamakas’s soon-to-open offshoot Agora, and it galls her that she can’t stay for service, that a junior cook will plate all of her creations.
Bob Bermann – former chef/owner of Boba, a landmark 90s Yorkville restaurant – doesn’t see that as such a problem.
“Your ego will be perfectly fine if you have a full house every night,” Bermann says. “You don’t ever hear, ‘I’m craving the avocado mousse with the pumpkin seed brittle.’ It’s, ‘I want Scaramouche’s banana cream pie.’ Satisfy the customers and the humility will feed your ego as well.”
Lately, Bermann has been working as a jack-of-all-trades at Barberian’s Steak House, a special occasion restaurant where owner Arron Barberian describes the traditional desserts (such as cheesecake, banana split and crème caramel) as: “A cheap way to rent the table for another hour.”
Bermann has seen dessert trends come and go and points to a bottom line that supersedes artistic ambitions.
With a historic knowledge of Toronto’s restaurant scene (“You mean I’m old,” he says), Bermann remembers when people drank coffee at night and you could sell two profitable cappuccinos with every dessert. Rather than bemoaning the creative limitations of pastry chefs, he offers a long view of dessert trends.
In the 1960s, the “golden age of emerging North American culinary awareness,” gussied up fruit dishes like peach Melba and pears belle Helene were fashionable. Then in the 1970s, as chain restaurants took over, outsourcing pastry became common.
Hardly anyone in Toronto can afford to employ a full-time pastry chef
“They farmed it out and dessert was no fun,” Bermann says, recounting factory-made mint chocolate After Eight pies. “They came pre-portioned and your waiter Chad would say, ‘How bout some dessert, folks?’
”The 1980s saw the ubiquity of tartufo, two flavours of ice cream rolled in nuts or coconut or cocoa. And then came the flame-torched crème brûlée in the 1990s.
“If you had crème brûlée on the menu, you sold nothing else. It would outsell every other dessert four to one. I remember constantly going to Canadian Tire to get more gas canisters for the torches.” While crème brûlée is still popular, there are restaurants making exceptional desserts, and restaurants breaking the price barrier.
The Ziggy Stardust Disco Egg is probably the city’s most expensive dessert. With the social media presence of a celebrity puppy, the dish, which technically serves four, handily convinces diners to unload $50 for a memorable last course.
It’s a big win for La Banane chef/partner Brandon Olsen, who makes it off-premises at his popular chocolate shop, CXBO. So it supports a secondary business and production doesn’t eat up kitchen space. Also, no one breaks open the truffle-filled chocolate ovoid before Instagramming the dish. So it doubles as a promotional tool.
At Lavelle restaurant, chef Romain Avril has managed to invest in desserts, but only by getting involved in the development stage, insisting that the kitchen be built with space dedicated to a pastry department.
“If I were to buy croissants, I would be paying at least $1.60 to $2. I can make it for 20 cents a piece. Right there is a huge savings.
In Toronto a pastry chef can't apprentice in the same way that a cook can
And it’s the quality too,” says Avril. “But you need an owner who understands the value of the pastry department.”
It’s not just the kitchen real estate that makes Lavelle’s pastry department feasible, but a rooftop patio that triples sales in the summer. Most of the increased revenue is from cocktails, so the demands on the kitchen aren’t tripled, allowing Avril’s winter labour cost of 25 to 30 per cent of revenue to balance out as it drops to as low as four per cent in the summer months.
But while there are still Toronto restaurants with dedicated pastry chefs, fewer businesses want to or can make the investment. Within one upscale Toronto restaurant group, when the executive pastry chef left, the pastry sous chefs were put in charge without promotion or raise. One of them, burned out on 70-hour weeks for $38,000 a year, now works as a barista. A replacement pastry chef, after refusing to work 60-plus hours a week, was fired.
And the rarity of the position creates a vacuum of mentorship. That’s what prompted Stephanie Duong, co-owner of Roselle Desserts, to leave the country.
“When I graduated, I wanted to expand my craft,” she says. “But there was no one to learn from. You can’t apprentice the same way a cook can. Not in Toronto.”
During school at George Brown she worked at Buca and Luma. She loved the experience, but was disappointed that the schedule didn’t afford her much one-on-one learning time with the pastry chefs.
After school, Duong worked at Régis et Jacques Marcon, a three Michelin star restaurant in Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, France. The pastry department had a staff of seven.
“They made dessert into its own experience. You wouldn’t just get a plate of deconstructed lemon tart. It would be petit fours, pre-dessert and then dessert.”
The lack of opportunity and pay for pastry chefs in Toronto has been a big factor in her career shift into retail.
“People may not want to pay for desserts in a restaurant,” she says. “But they’ll pay for a dessert experience if they’re going to a place that specializes in it.”
Duong and her partner/fiancé Bruce Lee also worked in Hong Kong, where she saw a different culture around sweets.
“People go to pastry shops there, to sit down and chill out.”
Torontonians will order desserts, but that doesn’t always translate into profit
Following a shower of media praise for his desserts at Richmond Station, Farzam Fallah was wooed with a job offer to join Hong Kong’s thriving dining scene.
“People who reside in Hong Kong definitely have a sweet tooth,” says Fallah. “It’s easy for dessert restaurants and sweet shops to survive here.”
And the booming economy has provided Fallah with opportunities he didn’t have in Toronto. As the pastry development chef for the Black Sheep Restaurants group – which operates 13 restaurants in a variety of cuisines, such as Thai, Italian, Vietnamese, French, Argentinian and Lebanese – Fallah has a long runway to stretch his wings.
In Toronto, people order dessert about half of the time. Though Fallah says that dessert sales are higher in Hong Kong, diners favour traditional dishes. Torontonians will order more unusual desserts, but that doesn’t always translate into profit.
“Having a pastry chef at a restaurant is a luxury,” says Fallah.