(This article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Chef-Instructor, Pastry & Baking Arts,
Institute of Culinary Education, New York, NY
A desire to spend less time on the road motivated Kathryn Gordon to leave her lucrative career as a management consultant years ago and delve into the more creative world of professional pastry. After working in the pastry departments of three of the busiest – and most famous – restaurants in New York City, where she trained externs on the skills and nuances of crafting a range of high-end desserts, she realized she enjoyed the process of teaching pastry more than the production of pastry. So she switched gears and became a culinary teacher, a job she has been doing for over 20 years, at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, as well as at a luxury hotel in the Loire Valley of France. Here she reflects on her career path, her side business helping entrepreneurs make their dreams come true, and the lessons she hopes to impart to her students before they graduate.
What made you decide to leave a successful position in management consulting to pursue a career in pastry?
I think sometimes the path forward is very planned out. Other times in life, we make impromptu decisions that set us on an arbitrary course for change. For me, I enjoyed consulting but was unhappy from the constant travel as I was away from my home base six nights every week. So, very suddenly, I jumped at a chance to change my life, thoroughly shocking my father, and entered pastry school. The decision to specifically study pastry was also spur of the moment – a friend of a friend had just checked out the options at a local pastry school which turned out to be an excellent foundation in classic French cuisine. I also pursued baking because I had cooked a lot of savory at home, and figured I knew absolutely nothing about baking and would have a lot to learn. Of course, I was right about that one, and it’s a continual process to this day!
How did you get into teaching?
When I was working in New York City at what were at the time the three highest grossing restaurants in the country (the Rainbow Room, Tavern on the Green and Windows on the World), there were many externs from many states. I realized I was already “teaching” in my day-to-day job, and that I really enjoyed it. From that perspective, I spoke to Jacques Torres (my former boss from Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo), about teaching at a culinary school at what was at the time the French Culinary Institute (later ICC), but they did not have any open positions then. So I got the only job I ever got through the newspaper versus the pastry network, teaching at the school that was formerly the New York Restaurant School that later became the Art Institute. I was there for three years, and head of the pastry department for the last two years. I went on to teach at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in the pastry and baking department – and this October, I will have been at ICE for 19 years! So yes, I still like being able to meet people and help students pursue their goals.
The challenge is that everyone comes to the program with very different backgrounds and goals, and yet we try to graduate students with a certain level of essential skills to enter industry jobs and attain their goals. Employers expect a certain level and as chef educators, we have to adapt and customize different teaching methods for different students.
You co-wrote your first cookbook, Les Petits Macarons, back in 2011, when macarons were going mainstream, and it became a best-seller. Macarons are notoriously problematic – what was your strategy for making sure that readers of your book would be able to master making macarons?
The timing of the macaron book was truly being in the right place at the right time! That in itself was the biggest challenge – at the time there was only one macaron book in the world (translated from Japanese) and there was a rush to market – all the recipe testing was concurrent with the writing, and we only had five months to finalize the manuscript (versus two years for the contract on the second book).
I had long realized that everywhere I worked, macarons were made a different way (and a large part of that is the ovens, which are always a variable), but I was literally fascinated by the different methodologies regarding types of meringue (including all the variations within each method), drying methods, baking strategies, etc. A few years before writing the book, when I was teaching a multitude of macaron classes to recreational students because macarons were rapidly rising in popularity, I had started to interview various MOFs I knew from continuing education classes, etc. as to which method they liked to use. I literally wound up taking an average of all weights and cooking times used by the MOFs for the base recipe I teach from.
What was the toughest part of writing the book?
Challenge-wise, we heavily tested everything to make sure it would work and be adaptable for home ovens – and styles of ovens in different countries. The book, after all, is for home bakers, and this later included some adaptations for the Chinese translation of the book because historically most Chinese homes have not had ovens.
Aside from your teaching job at the Institute of Culinary Education, you have a couple of major side gigs. Tell us about Food Startup Help and the classes you teach at Le Moulin Brégeon in the Loire Valley.
My life partner, Jessie Riley, and I formed Food Startup Help (www.foodstartuphelp.com) consulting services over 10 years ago, when she realized that our business partner who I taught with at ICE, Jeff Yoskowitz, and I were always meeting with alumni of ICE who wanted to open a food business or launch a product. Culminating our combined years of experience, we just launched a tool, LaunchAFoodProduct.com, to help global entrepreneurs navigate the world of business plans, MSRP calculations, co-packers, test production manufacturing runs, nutritional labels (and everything else ranging from photo shoots to branding to distribution strategies!). The tool also features our book, Food Business, Idea to Reality. We also work with businesses opening cafes and bakeries, and work on everything from location analysis, financial projections, kitchen design and equipment procurement, menu development, to staffing and training.
Over 20 years ago, the owner of Le Moulin Brégeon, which is a gorgeous country luxury hotel converted from a former wheat mill and monastery in rural France, unexpectedly showed up at school. This encounter led to the development of an annual, hands-on baking and cooking program working with farmers, learning about all types of food at the source, working with a variety of chefs and bakers, and truly having an immersive, farm-to-table experience. Since then, I’ve worked with the chefs at the mill to write their cookbook, and continued to teach two to three programs there every season. Of course, the Loire region is famous for its chateaux, sparkling wine and mushroom caves, and is adjacent to the fleur de sel marshes – and we incorporate all of that in our course, as well as enjoying the mill’s organic gardens, antique French linen on the beds and candelabra. So I think everyone should join us there and enjoy the peaceful countryside and opportunity to cook in France. You can practice your French if you want to, but all the classes are in English to make it easier.
What are some of the most important techniques and ideas that you want your students to learn and retain in preparation for a career in the pastry industry?
After teaching for quite some time, especially when I had to teach a series of classes for a private organization in a challenging environment where I wasn’t even allowed to turn the ovens on by myself – I came to a realization. It’s all about getting the students baking. It’s not about me showing them step-by-step new techniques. For students to truly absorb, my role is to explain, coach and assist. It is the student’s role to learn the theory, practice basic skills, and retain those skills. And ultimately, as they go on to their unique careers in this industry, to begin to think creatively as they understand the key techniques of how the recipes work and interact (emulsions, Maillard reaction, mixing methods, gluten, gelatinization, caramelization, tempering, etc.). Learning techniques comes before flavor, and I think it is a learned through tasting experiences, and the more students can get out there, and travel, taste and evaluate – the more they will learn about what pairs with what, how to season and flavor their pastry, how to work with textures and what their focus in passion and strength should be.
Photo by Anthony Leo