(sung to the tune of “So you wanna be a boxer” from Bugsy Malone)
Start now. For serious. If you spend your spare time making ever-more elaborate cakes, why not get paid for it? Become a pâtissier (pâtissière for girls) and work for a restaurant, pâtisserie, salon de thé, traiteur (caterer) or hotel. If the idea makes you grin like a loon, why not? Take a year and try it out.
Please note: advice is purely subjective and mostly Paris specific. Do correct me if I’m wrong. These were the three options open to me last year, when I was just an English teacher with no professional experience:
- Pay for fancy chef school
For example, the Cordon Bleu has schools in London, Paris, Tokyo. It is particularly prestigious (whatever anyone might say about “standards, not like in my day” etc) and offers a comprehensive course over 9 months, divided into three sections: covering basics, restaurant cooking, chocolate, sugar sculpture… If I had had the money I would have gone like a shot. You get intensive teaching and the safety of a big name to take around the world afterwards.
However it costs 17 900 euros for the whole caboodle, which is a lot, whatever your currency. Other schools, like the Ritz Escoffier, Lenotre, the ENSP at Yssingeaux in central France or more international ones present the same advantages/disadvantages.
(See also: this English girl who went to the Cordon Bleu, London then nabbed a job at the Mandarin Oriental hotel!)
Alternatively, if you are lucky enough to be European and between 16-25, like me, you can do an apprenticeship at a CFA (centre de formation d’apprentissage) paid for by the French state. You divide your time: a week at school, two weeks in a pâtisserie or restaurant. Even better, you get a small salary for your time at work. The course takes a year, with exams to pass in June, both practical and theoretical (science, business, technology and PSE). For those over 25, the same course takes only 4 months (most of which is at school, with only a few weeks at work) but this will cost about 4000 euros.
The giant advantage and disadvantage of this system is the same: you get to work in an acclaimed pâtisserie from the word GO, without necessarily any prior experience. But you have to persuade them to take you on on the basis of your enthusiasm. The school will not necessarily help you with this. If you want to start school in September, start looking for an apprenticeship NOW. I was a little late, still looking in June, and was told that most positions had already been filled for next year. At Angelina, they already had applications for two years hence.
I have learned a huge amount at my pâtisserie. Not just éclairs: how to organise myself in a professional kitchen. My school has a much slower and sometimes very frustrating pace, because the course is for 17-25 year olds, some of which are quite reluctant to learn anything at all. But I will have a CAP (certificat d’aptitude professionnelle) Pâtissier at the end of the year. This is the most basic level: there are many more options after that too. The exams are easy enough, though in French, of course. Uniform obligatory for all classes, even theoretical ones.
The best Parisian CFA is probably Ecole Ferrandi, which is mighty selective. I think applications have to be in before Christmas. After that there is the Ecole de Boulangerie et Patisserie in the centre of Paris, as well as EPMTTH and CEPROC both of which accepted me late in the year without any trouble. (The latter won’t recognise my English school certificates however, it is necessary to resit Maths, History, Geography etc).
Go for a tour of the schools, ask to speak to a teacher or two. The same with the apprenticeship: go for as many trial days as you can and find somewhere that makes you feel both comfortable and challenged.
(See also: this French girl who did her CAP in the south of France)
- Claw your way up as a stagiaire (intern)
School is a good option since the French like things inside the box, within the system. But if you are incredibly keen and work hard, you could learn just as much with a stage (internship) and then a job. The big places like Ladurée have a constant turnover of unpaid stagiaires who just want to learn pâtisserie. Again, of course, you have to persuade someone to take you on. Rack up enough internships, be fiercely convincing and you will pick up the skills. If you can’t quit the day job, work in a bakery on the weekend when they always need more help, or a restaurant a few evening a week.
This takes guts. This also might be my position at the end of the year. It is notoriously hard to get hired in France, leading young people in every sector to work as interns for months hoping desperately that a job opens up. Good luck!
(See also: this determined lady who gives excellent advice for anxious novices.)
*As for languages: yes, you should learn French eventually. Because most cookery language is already peppered with French words. But English is a good second best. Most chefs will speak enough to yell at you. It depends on the place! Where I work, Japanese is almost a pre-requisite.