HomeGeneralTeacher Feature: Mark Soliday

Teacher Feature: Mark Soliday

Johnson & Wales University

Mark Soliday had the blisters to show for his battle, roughly one blister for each segment of a 15-round championship fight. Was Soliday a paid pugilist? No, he was a pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Va, where the kitchen was his arena. “I was bad at [making pulled sugar flowers],” he says. These days, the technical skills are indisputable for the Associate Instructor at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, and co-owner of the Confectionary Designs bakery in nearby Kingston, RI. But the rigors of creating usable pulled flowers by hand from sugar that was heated, cooled and stretched once left their marks on Soliday’s hands and his time. “I would stay after my shift, clock out and pull sugar flowers through the night,” he recalls, “probably to about three or four in the morning.”

In fact, the flowers were a testament to both hard work and good fortune. Soliday graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1991 and hoped to join the Ritz Carlton sometime after it opened. A little luck followed him. “I always thought desserts were an important part of the dining experience, so I wanted to learn more about them,” he says. “I was hired at the Ritz [as a pastry chef]; when my resume got mixed up with another applicant’s. They were going to hire me three to four months later, but not for the opening team.”

Soliday seized upon the error. “[Since I was] a mistake, they took great joy in razzing me,” he says, “so, I had to prove myself worthy of that mistake.” To that end, Soliday asked Chef Eric Perez, then his supervisor, to put a plated dessert with a pulled sugar flower on the menu. Perez showed Soliday how to create the flowers, which he had never done. Making the sugar look like flowers was another matter.

“Every day when I came back into work, my sugar flowers that I pulled through the night would be in the garbage,” Soliday remembers. “Chef Perez would help me quickly make some more for the day’s service and then the cycle would start over again.” Soliday had a very difficult time meeting the exacting standards of his chef. “I would stay and make more flowers throughout the night and the next day they would be in the garbage again and again and again,” he says. “I was about to give up, but one day I was coming into work and the general manager of the hotel was waiting for me on a loading dock. When I walked by him, he yelled ‘Hey, nice flowers!’” To my surprise, when I got upstairs to the pastry shop, my flowers were not in the trash.” 

Soliday’s determination to succeed served him well; after his triumphant mastery of pulled sugar flowers, he went on to an industry career that included 20 years as an executive pastry chef at renowned high-end hotels and resorts. But in 2002, Soliday found that he had lost the joy and satisfaction that had drawn him to the job in the first place. He was working at one such resort when he realized that his work was no longer feeding him. “I was going from one meeting to another or swamped with paperwork and writing menus,” he says. “I no longer was training staff or touching product and I missed it so!”

It was this recognition that led him to start imparting his knowledge formally. “That’s how I found JWU. I love teaching,” he says . . . “I have 18 students all excited to go make the day’s production and I have to run around and keep them all on task. [It’s] a bit chaotic, like service in a busy restaurant, [but] even though the classroom can be crazy, it is a slower pace than being out in the industry. I think in this quietness that I started to long for the artistic side of being a pastry chef. That’s how Confectionery Designs came about. I needed an artistic outlet, and Newport, Rhode Island is a wedding mecca for New York City brides.” Soliday opened the shop with his wife, Marie. “My wife is my partner in crime,” he explains. “She is the boss and I am okay with that.”

At Johnson and Wales, Soliday is a compassionate educator who understands that students don’t always get it right. He sees failure as part of the learning process and uses stories of his own failures, such as his difficulty creating sugar flowers, to encourage his students without losing sight of his own exacting standards. “I truly love demo-ing the objective of the day,” he says. “It reminds me of when I was their age and I was learning that task for the first time. It is the one time of the day that all is quiet, and you have the complete attention of the young minds. I go table to table seeing who needs more guidance [or I tell them] a story of how long it took me to get it.”

Soliday does not relish criticizing his students’ work. “This is probably the most difficult thing I must do,” he says. “You can see in their eyes that they want you to love it and sometimes I do, but a lot of the time I do not. I tell them stories of my shop and having paying customers.” All is not lost, Soliday tells the students, because their mistakes were once his mistakes, yet he learned and thrived. In 2004, Soliday served as Pastry coach for the American Culinary Federation (ACF) U.S. Student Culinary Olympic Team that won a bronze medal in Germany.

All staff at Confectionary Designs are Johnson & Wales graduates, except for Mark’s wife, Marie, so the chef is familiar with the process of getting students and graduates prepared to handle the real-world professional environment. In his classes at JWU and Confectionery Designs, he makes sure his students and staff understand the difference between preference and marketability. What appeals to students or pastry professionals is not necessarily what appeals to consumers, and a thorough understanding of this concept is critical to anyone hoping to succeed in the industry. “[Students] are not thinking about context . . . they’re hoping to be, training to be, trying to be in the industry,” he says. “Storytelling is one of the biggest things we have to do.”

At his shop, Soliday once had an intern who very much wanted to create and sell a fig balsamic cheesecake. The chef tried to convince the intern that although the flavor profile was intriguing and appealing to her, it would not appeal to customers. She was unconvinced, so the chef allowed her to proceed. After a week, the cake was still in the shop’s pastry case, and this intern learned a painful lesson. “[She] saw it sit there and not be sold,” Soliday recalls.

His dedication to his students’ educational needs and his customers’ satisfaction leave him little time to unwind, but down time isn’t as important to him as it is to some. “Work-life balance…? What is that?” Soliday asks.  “I think I am fortunate to love my industry and love what I do for the industry. I do believe that if you love what you do, then you’ll never work a day in your life.”

(This article appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Genevieve Sawyer
Genevieve Sawyer
Genevieve Sawyer is a freelance food writer who co-wrote a cookbook tied to the Berkshires, Massachusetts art and history scene, with recipes created and inspired by cultural luminaries. Holding a degree in Baking and Pastry Arts from the Culinary Institute of America, Genevieve brings a blend of culinary expertise and artistic flair to her writing.