The career for tough cookies

Becoming a pastry chef is far from a soft option for women. Indeed, it is where they are increasingly making their mark - and flexing their fingers as solo pâtissiÿres.

It takes a very particular type of woman to become a chef. Even now, after Joyce Moyneaux, Sally Clarke, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, you need steely muscles and an iron will to succeed in a restaurant kitchen. Most importantly, you need dogged determination.

Nearly 30 years ago, Deborah and Carolyn Power were told by their catering college that chef's work was far too hard for girls. Nevertheless, the Power twins ran their own restaurant for 10 years, became joint-head pâtissier at the Connaught, and have opened their own pastry shop in the New Forest.

Ten years later, Claire Clark, now a Master of Culinary Arts, was also warned she was too weak and feeble to succeed professionally. She's just left the coveted job of chef-pâtissier at Claridges to set up her own pastry consultancy.

Roisin Gavin, a 23-year-old chef de partie at Deane's in Belfast, began her career in pastry at the city's other Michelin-starred restaurant, Roscoff, but moved into the main kitchen. "I needed more general experience, especially if I want to run my own restaurant one day." Her efforts have been rewarded - she was the only woman shortlisted this year for the prestigious Roux Scholarship, and even more remarkably, only the third in its 17-year history.

Deborah and Carolyn Power, who have studied and worked together all their lives, also began with the intention of cooking in their own restaurant. By the time they were 21, they had persuaded their parents to buy a small country restaurant where they stayed for 10 years.

"But what we really wanted to do was pâtisserie," states Deborah. "I think a lot of girls opt for pastry because they find it more artistic and enjoy attention to detail."

Their new direction wasn't a soft option. They wrote to chocolatiÿres and pâtissiÿres in Switzerland and France to no avail. Eventually they drove to Switzerland and found positions with a chocolate manufacturer before moving to France six months later to work unpaid at Princes de France's pâtisserie in Lyon. Back home, they persuaded Michel Bourdin to take them on in a junior capacity at the Connaught.

The next eight years were hard graft. After Bourdin persuaded them to study advanced pâtisserie, they spent two years working long shifts, five days a week, followed by a sixth studying at Slough. Duly qualified, they became joint-chef pâtissier at the Connaught in 1993.

The dilemma for any chef is how to balance a social life with work. At 45, the Power twins finally renounced the glamour of the Connaught last year for their own pastry shop in Beaulieu in the New Forest. "We may still work long hours," says Carolyn, "but it gives us a real thrill to look up and see daylight outside."

Their shop, Demoiselles Pâtisserie, is postcard-pretty, with its primrose walls and old-fashioned front window filled with dainty iced cakes, mini treacle tarts and melt-in-the-mouth coffee éclairs. The locals are just beginning to make the most of the experts on their doorstep, commissioning spectacular wedding cakes that show off their sugar work. Recently, an Italian businessman offered them a handful of £50 notes for a chocolate figurine. The twins have the air of two women who have found contentment.

Claire Clark, a pastry supremo who first gained attention for her work at Conran's Bluebird before going on to be chef-pâtissier at Claridges, is also at a critical stage in her career. "I had had enough of long hours and five hours sleep a night," she says, agreeing that pâtisserie is no easier than other areas and that the way to control how she works is to go it alone.

"I originally went into pastry because I felt it was more creative and artistic than other sections. Everything has to be planned ahead, so there is less last-minute pressure, and perhaps women go into it because it is less aggressive than the main kitchen," she says. So passionately does she believe in the work of pastry chefs that she has been campaigning for an Association of Pastry Chefs. Gender is irrelevant; her priority is that these specialist skills are recognised.

Three weeks ago Clark left Claridges to start her own consultancy company while she looks for the right place to open a London restaurant next spring. Her vision is of a pastry chef's heaven, themed around pastries from beef en croûte to dainty puddings and stunning dessert wines. Meanwhile, she will help outside caterers, hotels and restaurateurs design good pastry menus, place highly qualified pastry chefs and retrain staff. Such is her reputation that clients were already knocking on her door before she had left Claridges.

While these women have already tested their mettle in the relative cool of the pastry section, the more women who are prepared to brave the heat of the kitchen, the better.

 

The Demoiselles Pâtisserie, High Street, Beaulieu, Hampshire (01590 612600); and Claire Clark Ltd (01483 458700)

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