An in-depth interview that may help you decide whether you'd like to become a pastry chef.
In her nine years as a professional chef, Marliese McGee worked in twenty different kitchens across Canada. To achieve her longtime goal of becoming a full-time pastry chef, she gave up holidays, lazy mornings, and her home in Prince Edward Island for a new start in Vancouver. As she climbed the culinary ladder through the good, the bad, and the just plain terrible, she helped prepare countless lobsters, thousands of macarons, and exactly one Betty Crocker wedding cake.
But after all her hard work, Marliese came to realize that being a chef wasn’t everything she wanted after all. “For me, seeing someone loving the food would have made everything else worth it,” she tells me with a sigh. “When I realized that you never get to see that? It defeated the purpose for me.” She quit the industry the very next day and hasn’t looked back.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How old are you?
I’m from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. I’m twenty-seven this year, and I've worked in kitchens for nine years.
How did you start working in the culinary industry?
I've always wanted to be a pastry chef, but I had to start in savoury because there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities for full-time work in pastry back in PEI. It was very touristy there; people wanted to have fish and chips, sandwiches, lobster, stuff like that, and dessert was kind of an afterthought. It was really hard for me to break into it. So when I was offered a job where I could do pastry for eight hours a week and savoury the other seventy hours, I was so hungry to do it that I said, “Okay, sure.”
Did you ever manage to break into pastry?
Full-time? Not until I moved out to Vancouver, almost two years ago. I was offered a job with a high end French bakery. It was really beneath my skill level, but because I’d never done pastry full-time before, I said, “Okay, I’ll take it.” I wanted to stay out here really badly, so I took it. I was finally working in high end bakeries, finally getting to do that thing that I really, really wanted to do. And I thought it would be really, really different.
But you’re now no longer working as a chef. What happened?
When I started at the French bakery, I realized that the level of expected perfection was so immensely high that I don’t think a normal human being could achieve that level of perfection. The bakery had hired me under the assumption that I’d never done the work full-time before, but they were pushing for perfection on the third or fourth day. I stayed there and I kept pushing, but the day before my probationary period was over, they fired me because they didn’t have enough money to keep me on staff.
I started applying for jobs like crazy, and I found a job as an Executive Pastry Sous Chef at a company that supplied local hotels. I remember getting there. I was probably the most intimidated but the most excited I’ve ever been to work in a kitchen. Their production volumes were in the thousands, and their kitchen was about a million square feet in size. They had a separate area for bread, a separate area for cake decorating—they even had a conveyor belt! The only way to do that many plates in an hour was with a conveyor belt. We would put plates down and then do it in steps: Sauce. Decoration. Whipped cream. We would do thousands of them that way. And the chef there! I’ve never seen someone so detail-oriented in my life. She would have rulers out for measuring where each cake was on the plate. One thing people don’t realize about the job is that when you really get into the high end stuff, it becomes less about taste and more about presentation.
When you really get into the high end stuff, it becomes less about taste and more about presentation.
But eventually, they decided to cut my hours back. My skill level wasn’t where they wanted it to be, so my boss cut my pay to minimum. I had a flashback to one of the first sous chefs I ever worked for. His name was Mark, he was about 35 yrs old, and he looked so tired all the time. I remember asking him, “You work with food all day. How can you not be happy?” And he said, “I’m not happy because I spend my entire life at work—every night, every weekend. I never see my family and I never see my friends.” I realized that was what it was starting to feel like for me at that point. I realized at that point that I could keep going down the path I was on and completely burn out, or I could decide to do something else. I quit the next day.
I didn’t know the schedule was so crazy in the industry. What kind of hours do chefs usually work?
Between 60 to 80 hours a week is very normal. I would get to work at three in the morning and I’d get off at noon or 2pm sometimes, depending. There’s always something to do in a kitchen. You’re never done.
There’s always something to do in a kitchen. You’re never done.
Do a lot of people end up leaving the industry because of burn out?
I would say there are two reasons for turnovers in kitchens. The first reason people jump from kitchen to kitchen is to get experience. As soon as they know how to make everything on the menu really well, they’ll jump kitchens. Kitchen turnover is very common; if you’re there for a year, you’ve been there for a long time. Unless they have some sort of creative role, that is, though that’s very rare. The chef will never relinquish their creative control, because they’ve worked so hard to get that position—30 years, maybe.
The second reason people leave is that the yelling and the screaming and the heat and the intensity of the kitchen can really get to you if you don’t have a thick skin. I don’t know why kitchens foster that sort of behaviour in people. There’s this belief that you will get someone to do what you want them to do if you yell at them. But when it comes to people who are willing to put in that many hours into their work, they have such a connection to what they’re doing. So it’s hard not to take it personally. You’re putting your soul on that plate, every single time. And when somebody yells at you because it’s not perfect? I don’t know how people take it. I never really could.
You’re putting your soul on that plate, every single time. And when somebody yells at you because it’s not perfect? I don’t know how people take it. I never really could.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about your career?
Cost. Especially wedding cakes. I did wedding cakes for a few years, and people would come in and say, “I have $100 to spend on a wedding cake, and I want a two tier cake.” I guess that because it’s food and they’re going to eat it, people don’t look at it as art. They don’t look at it as an artist actually having to have the skill required to do that level of work while also keeping the product at a certain standard. As soon as someone says they want a really cool cake with all this stuff coming out of it, you, as the chef, have to logistically think about how to do all that and still make it edible.
Because it’s food and they’re going to eat it, people don’t look at it as art. They don’t look at it as an artist actually having to have the skill required to do that level of work.
So how much does a wedding cake like that actually cost?
Well, it depends on a lot of factors—what kind and stuff like that. But for a cake like that—your basic pound cake, three tier, ten inch base, and paying me $25 an hour plus the cost of ingredients—I would say you’re looking at around $600 or $700 dollars. But people don’t want to spend that, in which case Betty Crocker cake it is!
Betty Crocker wedding cake? I’m intrigued.
I’ve done it before. A family friend came to me with a budget of $80. So I got Betty Crocker and did the whole thing with it. And they loved it! Because people eat with their eyes. They assume that because it looks like a three tier wedding cake, it must be delicious.
What drew you to this career?
I think it was my dad. On Saturdays, we would turn on PBS and watch cooking shows together all afternoon. Every Saturday. I can’t remember a time when we didn’t do this. He was the first person who said to me, “Hey, do you want to make this stuff?” My family was slightly low income, so I wasn’t used to being able to just make a full cheesecake. I mean, that’s expensive for something that’s not really necessary. But then he started to come into some better money, he got a better job, and we could make all that stuff. And it was amazing. I realized that I wanted to cook for people, because I really loved how happy they were. You could look at somebody’s face and they could be having the worst day ever, but as soon as they’d taste what you made, they'd be happy for a second. My dad really pushed me to follow that passion.
I realized that I wanted to cook for people, because I really loved how happy they were. You could look at somebody’s face and they could be having the worst day ever, but as soon as they’d taste what you made, they'd be happy for a second.
Is that pretty typical? To enter the industry because of a lifelong passion?
A lot of the chefs I know came to it from travelling. They went to different countries, did the whole backpacking thing, and broadened their horizons that way. Then they realized, “Okay, how can I incorporate this into my life? I’ll just cook.” I never actually heard of another person who watched cooking shows and decided to do this for the rest of their life.
Is it difficult to find work as a chef? What’s the job market like?
It’s pretty competitive. But I never found it difficult to get work, because I had a (culinary) degree, so people assumed that I must have a certain level of skill. Getting degrees in the culinary world is a very rare thing.
You don't need a degree to find work as a chef?
No. I would say that you need a very thick skin and the capacity to put in everything you’ve got.
So what kind of training and education do people need to enter the career?
I would recommend the way that I did it: experience first, then education. I’ve seen people start with school and then jump into the industry, and it’s such a jarring experience. Because school is very easy, compared to the industry. It gets you 5000 of your 10,000 required hours of experience in a very short time, but it’s so slow. If you start in school and then get into the industry, you might realize that the work is not what you thought it was. And then you’re already $10,000 in.
So I would definitely recommend getting some experience under your belt before you decide to invest the large chunk of change, even just asking to do a stage somewhere for a day. It’s a very common thing in kitchens. If you ask, most kitchens will say yes. As long as you have a minimal level of experience, most places will say, “Yeah, okay.” That’ll give you a feeling for what it’s like to work, one day, at that kitchen.
What’s a typical day like?
When I worked in the savoury kitchen, there were two shifts. You would work the breakfast and lunch rush or the supper/appetizer rush and close down. For breakfast and lunch, you’d start at 5 am and work till whenever they needed you—usually about 5 pm. For the lunch and supper shift, you would start at 2 in the afternoon and work until they stopped serving food, usually about 2 or 3 am.
If I worked the morning shift, I’d come in, and since I did pastry also, do all the pastry work: bake all of the cookies, the biscuits, that sort of thing. Then I’d go upstairs to what is called “the line,” which is basically where all the food is made, and make sure that my station was full of everything I needed. That would take me up until we opened.
It’s usually lunch rush from between about 10 am until 1 pm or so, and then we would start prepping for dinner service between 1 and 4 pm. As the lunch rush died down you would continue to cook lunch and prep for dinner at the same time. In kitchens you’re always doing at least two things at once. So the morning and evening shifts would often meld together; tasks were often being done by the same person across multiple service times. Sometimes it would work out that the evening staff would come in just as the morning staff were finishing theirs. However, sometimes (and very often) the evening staff would come in to work on dinner service prep, while the morning staff finished up lunch service. Then the morning people would also help out with dinner service prep, until dinner service started.
Dinner service would start anywhere between 4 and 5 pm, and would go until about 9 pm, when people would start ordering appetizers—fries and tea and stuff like that. That after service or “appetizer service” was from 9 pm pretty much until we’d close down at 2 am. We’d close and clear everything down, which would take about an hour. At the end of the night, something I really pushed all of my staff to do was to help the dishwasher. It would help that person a lot—and they would like you a lot—if you just took that half an hour more and helped them clear everything down. So that was savoury. You’d usually finish around 3 in the morning.
As a pastry chef, what was a typical day like?
When I worked pastry, there were certain days that I would work at the store and certain days that I would work at the factory. People think everything’s made in-house, and it is, but not always at that location. There’s just more space at the factories, so you can use big rollers to roll out the dough for croissants and everything.
If you worked at the store, you were lucky, because you wouldn’t have to start until 7 am. You would come in and take all of the macarons, all the cakes out of the freezer. We’d open at 8 am. At that point, I would just start working on the cake orders that would come in throughout the day. We also actually had a small bakery there, inside, where we would bake macarons. It was all open, with the seating area right beside it, so people could actually see us making macarons, and they really liked that. That would take maybe three hours. Then the rest of the day was just anything that was needed: cleaning, reorganizing fridges, dating things, that kind of thing.
If you worked at the factory, you would come in at 2 am and you would work until noon. Basically, the first thing out of your mouth would be, “What can I do, chef?” Not “Hello” or “How are you?” but “What can I do for you right now?” Because to them, you are a body; you are there to perform a function. Due to the stressful nature of the industry, they literally don’t have time to care about you. Every moment of their focus, every second, they’re using to make sure things are perfect. People say a lot of chefs seem really stoic or really cold, but it’s actually just that they can’t focus on anything else. Because it’s make or break. Every single day.
A lot of chefs seem really stoic or really cold, but it’s actually just that they can’t focus on anything else. Because it’s make or break. Every single day.
So you would ask, and they would have certain orders that you’d have to do: this many macarons, that many croissants, some pie order they wanted that week, that sort of thing. They would have a huge list with how long it should take to do each thing and then you would just do it.
What’s the social culture of the kitchen like? Did you make friends with your coworkers?
You make friends within your skill level, rather than across skill levels. So I would never be friends with my chef, because his skill level is so immensely different than mine, so much higher. I wouldn’t be able to communicate with him in a way that would feel comfortable. Friendships are really established through talking to the people you’re working next to on the line. You might tell them, “Ooh! Really cool technique,” or “Really cool knife cut,” and then grab a drink after your shift and reminisce and tell stories.
What was the best thing about being a chef?
When it’s really busy—we call it a rush—and there’s a moment when everything is working so perfectly. In that moment, you feel so happy to be part of this well-oiled machine. Especially because a lot of the restaurants I worked in were startups. Going from the bare bones—from moving the equipment in and everything—to that moment when things are just working and people are communicating, it’s the most amazing thing. Because we finally got there, and we got there together.
What was the worst thing about it?
If you can get over the long hours and the hard work, people might be under the impression that you’ll make money—or a good amount of money—based on skill level. But that’s something that shocked me; in any other trade, you’ll make more money as your skill level improves, but in cooking, you don’t. In nine years, I never made more than $15 an hour—even with my degree and everything. That’s not necessarily the worst thing, but it is the hardest pill to swallow. Because you have to sacrifice everything for this work. You might see your family and friends sometimes, but you’re going to be working every Easter, every Christmas, every Mother’s Day. And you have to accept that while making very little money. And no benefits, not a thing. That’s the sacrifice.
You have to sacrifice everything for this work. You might see your family and friends sometimes, but you’re going to be working every Easter, every Christmas, every Mother’s Day.
What’s the work life balance like?
There are people that do it well, so it can be done. A lot of the time when chefs get to a certain age, they’ll only work days. They have kids, they have a family, so they’ll say, “I can’t do that anymore.” So it can be done. But more often, to make a living, you have to be willing to take every shift that they can give you. Because when you say, “Oh, I can’t work Saturday,” a lot of the time they’ll say, “Okay, well you’re not going to get any Saturdays.” It’s a really big struggle, and a lot of the time it comes down to a trade off: “I can see my friends right now, or I can sleep.” So you just don’t sleep, or you lie to your boss. So it can be really, really difficult.
What kind of person tends to succeed in your line of work?
This is going to sound weird, but a lot of people who thrive in the industry have moved out of substance abuse problems. They really succeed because it’s an obsession, something they can channel their energy into. There isn't time to be distracted by life, relaxing, stuff like that; they don't have to worry about life outside the kitchen. But it’s not just people with substance abuse problems who succeed, it's the people who are just really obsessive—people who want to cling onto something and do it perfectly. And they don’t care about the cost.
At some point, you realize that work is your life so much of the time that it just becomes your life. The people who succeed, they’ll just do this one thing. That will be the one thing they’re really good at in life, and that’s enough for them.
At some point, you realize that work is your life so much of the time that it just becomes your life.
What made a career as a chef a good fit for you? What made you good at your job?
I would say my willingness to be a sponge—to acquire knowledge, to be open to everything, to engage.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who was considering a career as a chef?
Just try it. Try it on, and if it doesn’t work out at the first place, try somewhere else. It’s not always easy to find the right fit, especially in a kitchen. You could love the food, you could love the style, but if the chef is running things in a way that you don't necessarily agree with, you won’t be happy. So rather than searching for a particular style of food, try searching for a chef whose personality goes with yours. I went through twenty kitchens over my career. Twenty! So don’t get discouraged if you go through five kitchens and it doesn't work—it doesn't mean that you’re not good at your job. Learn to say, “This didn’t work for me.”
The second piece of advice I would give is: don’t take it personally. Don't take it personally when someone says, “Hey, do that again.” Chefs are notorious for being very stern, obsessive, and focused, because this is their life. When you do something the wrong way, they’ve probably been doing it a certain way for ten years. They’re holding themselves to a standard, and they’re holding you to the same standard.
Are there a lot of opportunities to move up in the industry?
I definitely wouldn’t say it’s easy, but there are a lot of people who start as a dishwasher, then move up to a line cook. Dishwashers are often required to do some prep—prepping the vegetables, cutting cherry tomatoes, celery, things like that. And if the chef sees that they’re doing a good job, and balancing it well with their other duties, then they might start to add things on. Within a year, it’s definitely possible to go from dishwasher to grill station or just under sous chef—if you can keep up with the workload, that is. If you can stick it out, and they value you, then you’re golden.
Within a year, it’s definitely possible to go from dishwasher to grill station or just under sous chef—if you can keep up with the workload, that is. If you can stick it out, and they value you, then you’re golden.
But after that point, unless the chef leaves, you probably won’t move any higher. The sous chef and chef positions are pretty solid.
What do you wish you’d known before entering the industry?
The reason I went into this career was so that I could see how happy I was making people. I wish I’d understood that you never get to see that. When you work in kitchens, you’re always behind the curtain; unless you’re a private chef or something, it’s very rare to really see the reaction of the person you’re cooking for. For me, seeing someone loving the food would have made everything else worth it—the fact that we don’t make a lot of money, that we have to spend all those hours. But when I realized that you never get to see that? It defeated the purpose for me.
Any last advice or commentary you’d like to add?
Make sure that you really bring excitement to your work. I might have not had the best experience, but I know so many people who fall in love with this industry. Just try it on.