I was raised in my father’s bakery in a small Alsatian village called Marlenheim. My bed was right above the oven (wonderful in winter but not so great on hot summer nights), and until I was 15, the magical aroma of fresh-baked bread was the only alarm clock I knew.
That all changed when at 15 I became an apprentice to a master pastry chef and bakery owner in Strasbourg, 20 kilometers from my hometown. In France, middle schoolers can make a choice at a young age, 14 or 15, to learn a trade rather than go on to high school and continue with an academic education. There is no stigma in this choice; I myself was doing well in school and could have continued, but I knew that I wanted to learn the art of pastry.
Students leave academia to apprentice
If students make this decision, they must apprentice to a master craftsman for two years minimum, which gives them tremendous hands-on experience, while going to a trade school at the same time to take classes in subjects needed to complete training — in my case, food science, math and French. At the end of the apprenticeship, they take a very rigorous exam they must pass if they are going to practice the trade. If all goes well, by age 17 they’ll be trained professionals, able to live on their own and make a decent salary. This kind of self-sufficiency is very rare in the United States, where apprenticeship programs are not common.
The system is the same for every artisanal profession in France (there are more than 250 of them, from plumber to mason to mechanic to chef) as well as in many other European countries. It allows a young person who knows what he or she wants to do to master a trade at a young age rather than founder in high school or drop out. If he or she works and studies hard, after two years of apprenticeship, he or she will pass the exam.
The exam is crucial, because to pass it you really have to learn your stuff, and if you don’t pass you cannot practice. It’s essentially because of the apprenticeship system that the quality of European craftsmanship is so high; that level of skill can only be achieved by learning from a master and through years of practice.
Skill requires practice
Without the apprenticeship experience, it is difficult to grasp how long it takes to master a craft, especially in our culture of instant gratification. One of the biggest challenges I face with the students at The French Pastry School, the school I founded in Chicago, is getting them to understand this: Pastry demands patience and precision, and acquiring skill requires constant practice. Your hands can only learn to do what you want them to do through repetition; ask any athlete or musician, carpenter or painter. This is so ingrained in the French psyche that our word for “practice” is répétition. I try to get it through my students’ heads that they cannot master pastry skills in a day, or even in six months (the length of our course), but many are reluctant to accept this fact.
Take piping evenly in a straight line: Students watch the chef’s demonstration, then they want to grab the pastry bag and be as good at it or better at it than the chef. They express disappointment with themselves when it doesn’t work out that way. I explain to them that it took me years and years to master this simple task. Doing it at work during my apprenticeship was not enough; at night and on weekends I would practice my piping, using whatever was at hand, including tubes of toothpaste, until I felt confident. Quality takes time.
Technique precedes creativity
The apprenticeship system provided me with a structure within which I could master the many different techniques required of a pastry chef. In pastry, technique is everything, and creativity comes later; that’s another point that I have difficulty getting across to my students. Master technique, dedicate yourself to quality, and you become an artisan; and people love artisans. They love to meet craftsmen or craftswomen who talk about their product with passion. A customer will want to buy from these people. This is a big message that I pass on every time a new class of students comes through the doors of my school.
Students need to take their time learning, and masters need to spend time passing on their craft. I strongly believe that if we had the apprentice system in the United States, we as a country could again learn to make things — all kinds of things — well. We would have much better craftsmen and tradesmen, and many more youths excited about learning skills that will last a lifetime.
Jacquy Pfeiffer is the co-founder of The French Pastry School in Chicago and the academic dean for student affairs. He was featured in the movie “Kings of Pastry” and is a 2011 Pastry Chef Hall of Fame Honoree.
Photo: Jacquy Pfeiffer. Credit: Paul Strabbing