Why pastry chefs may be a dying profession in Columbus

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave
Coconut Cake at The Barn at Rocky Fork Creek

The onslaught of bad restaurant desserts has been dubbed the worst food trend of the year as restaurants forgo the expense of trained pastry talent. Columbus is no exception. Is the last great course on its last legs?

Sangeeta Lahkani isn't shy to admit it's tough to find a good restaurant dessert in this town. In her 20-odd years in the Columbus industry, she says she could name two places-the oft-missed Handke's and The Refectory-that consistently do justice to the end of the meal.

This is why the owner of The Table made dessert a priority, employing a full-time pastry chef from the moment she launched the Short North restaurant in 2013. "I didn't want to open a place where we put so much care into everything-local sourcing, a charcutier who makes these amazing meats-but then we get our dessert frozen from Sysco," Lahkani says. "It was really important to have dessert be a part of the story."

Lahkani isn't alone in her desire for better restaurant-worthy desserts in Columbus. Even the best restaurants in the city struggle with the final sweet bite. A few sins eaten this year by the editors of Crave at some of Columbus' best restaurants: a dry orange cake with grainy ice cream, a flourless chocolate cake that also tasted sugarless and far too many deconstructed dishes that were more work than fun to eat. What should have been indulgent, pleasing moments were instead sad.

It's not that Columbus lacks talent-new, quality bakeries are opening at a rapid pace, with a dozen or so opening storefronts in the last few years and more still are on the way. And we're home to confections powerhouses Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams and Pistacia Vera.

But try to name a Columbus pastry chef other than Jeni Britton Bauer or Spencer Boudros. If you're drawing a blank, you're in good company. In most local restaurants, the crafting of sweet offerings is assigned to cooks and chefs.

In no way is this solely a Columbus problem-it's a national epidemic. GQ's Alan Rickman called the death of good desserts "the top terrible trend" of 2015. As our appetites lean toward more casual fare, formal pastry gigs are harder to come by. Restaurants either can't or won't dedicate resources (space, money) for dessert-a truth to which local restaurateurs readily admit.

"It's just not practical to hire a pastry chef," says Jeff Mathes, owner of Due Amici. "Desserts are probably five percent of our total business. You'd be allocating a significant salary for such a small percent of the business."

It comes down to return on investment. No matter the ingredients or talent of the creator, desserts are locked into what the diner views as an acceptable price point, rarely more than $10 in Columbus and more comfortably in the $5 to $8 range.

A pastry chef has never been a necessity at Mathes' Downtown restaurant, he says. Diners don't expect fancy meal-enders at casual Due Amici. "You usually find the pastry chef position in fine-dining restaurants, where the overall price point is higher," he says, adding this can help offset the cost of skilled work.

Space and time constraints are the big reasons The Rossi doesn't employ a pastry chef, says executive chef Andrew Smith. But it's also because of The Rossi's style. Diners aren't coming to this Short North restaurant specifically for dessert, he says. "A lot of times, diners will have cocktails for dessert," Smith says. (Interestingly, sales of desserts did increase slightly when suggested cocktail pairings were added to the dessert menu.)

Cameron Mitchell Restaurants' head of pastry, Summer Schott, says she's one of the lucky ones. She worried about finding a job after graduating from Columbus State Community College's pastry program. "There are not a lot of jobs in the baking industry," Schott says. "Every restaurant I've worked at has had five to 10 line cooks but one baking job."

Before landing at CMR, Schott says she lost what pastry work she did find several times due to restaurant closures and layoffs.

She realized early on if she wanted to bake at a restaurant, she'd have to diversify and be able to handle kitchen prep work. "A lot of jobs require you to do some prep along with baking. So I had to learn how to work the line," Schott says, adding all new bakers at CMR start in the pantry, the cold station in kitchens responsible for prepping chilled appetizers like salads and cheese plates. Before moving to CMR's corporate office, she was the lone baker and day prep cook at Marcella's in the Short North. Meaning, in addition to crafting tiramisu, panna cotta and profiteroles on a daily basis, she'd also prep ingredients for cold dishes.

The shrinking role of the pastry chef could also be chalked up to a cultural divide. Wolf's Ridge Brewing chef Seth Lassak returned from a trip to Belgium in March and recounts how every meal ended with something sweet. And in France, pastry is certainly a bigger deal. "Ninety-five percent or more of the clientele will get dessert," says Refectory chef Richard Blondin, a native of Lyon, France. "It's not the case in the United States, and it's not the same at The Refectory. I'll be excited if half the time people order dessert."

Blondin-a trained pastry chef who, early in his career, considered dropping cooking dinners altogether-was one of a four-person pastry team at Paul Bocuse's famed L'Auberge Du Pont De Collonges near Lyon. They'd serve hundreds of desserts to the 140-seat restaurant every day.

The Refectory is one of few restaurants in the city besides hotel dining rooms or chains with dedicated space for pastry in the kitchen. But Blondin has only recently hired a chef with pastry background to fill the full-time day job. For decades, he took advantage of his experience and trained a cook to execute his dessert recipes. But Blondin would get caught in a revolving pattern-train a chef who would eventually move on and return to square one. The creative side of the menu wasn't a problem-Blondin knows how to craft a solid sweet-it was the execution.

When Jennifer Hanscel applied for a job in 2008, she was the first pastry chef Blondin had hired at The Refectory. "It was easier for me. She had the basis. It was much quicker, and she got all the details," he says. When Hanscel left, Aaron Clouse, another grad from the French Pastry School in Chicago, applied and is now the pastry chef. Blondin still writes the menus, but Clouse has the freedom to craft specials.

Even though Wolf's Ridge doesn't employ a pastry chef-the kitchen is small and impossible to temperature-control-Lassak takes the creation of the dessert menu seriously. He echoes Lakhani's philosophy: If you're taking care to create a seasonal, elevated menu, to ignore dessert or to serve the same concoctions over and over would be a disservice.

So his dessert list changes as seasonally as the dinner and lunch menus with artfully presented sweets as researched, tested and tweaked as any other dish they serve. "It's really a science," says Lassak, who considered switching to pastry while a student at the Culinary Institute of America. ("I thought I could have a more fruitful career being a chef," he admits.)

"It's hard to find really good desserts, refined desserts you're blown away by," Lassak says. "A lot of places are overlooking desserts. Yeah, I do think it is dying."

Lakhani knows she took a risk hiring a pastry chef as a startup restaurant. And she understands the choice she made doesn't apply to every restaurant. "The basic expenses of opening a kitchen are high enough, and hiring an executive chef is a huge expense," she says. "But I just think it's important. There's not a culture in the world that doesn't eat desserts. We've just associated it recently with a guilty pleasure. To me, it's not. There is not a meal I don't end with dessert because it's part of being healthy. It's part of putting yourself in a happier place."