(This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Baking and Pastry Arts, The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY
As a Chef Instructor in Baking and Pastry at The Culinary Institute of America, Michael Zebrowski strives to give his students his best every day. His own culinary education, along with rich and varied restaurant and hotel work and prior teaching experience give him the tools he needs to motivate and inspire future pastry professionals. He holds an Associate’s Degree in Baking and Pastry from Portland Community College and a Grand Diploma from the International Culinary Center in New York City (which has since merged with the Institute of Culinary Education), and has taught pastry at ICC, as well. Zebrowski has worked at many high-end locales, including Bouley, Café Boulud, Montrachet and The Pierre hotel in New York City, as well as Le Jardin des Sens in Montpelier, France.
Among Zebrowski’s achievements is co-authoring (with Chef Michael Mignano) The Pastry Chef’s Little Black Book (The Chef’s Connection, 2017), which was followed recently by Volume II of the book. The books are based on the pocket notebooks of recipes, sketches and techniques that Zebrowski collected throughout his restaurant career. Here, Chef Zebrowski discusses his cookbooks, teaching his students during the pandemic, and what industry professionals should consider if they’re thinking about entering the world of culinary education.
Why did you decide to leave the restaurant world for teaching?
I always had it in mind since that I would like to teach one day. I made sure that I paid my dues at a high level, with varied experiences, so I would truly have something substantial to offer my students. It is gratifying to make a positive and meaningful impact on the lives and careers of future industry professionals. Teaching is a highly rewarding profession that affords me the opportunity to change the lives of students and to effectively provide them with the skills and attitudes necessary to build their character and achieve success. Secondly, after toiling away in the business for many years, it’s a nice change of pace to slow it down a bit and delve into the minutiae of technique, theory, and the joys of the craft. Lastly, it’s wonderful to have holidays off and be able to spend that time with my family and loved ones. The main detractor can potentially be that teaching does not pay as well as many executive level chef positions.
How has COVID affected your job?
At the CIA, we take COVID very seriously, so everyone is required to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This comes in the form of masks and face shields in addition to enhanced screening and sanitation. The primary consequence of the PPE is that it can be hard to hear in a kitchen or bake shop environment where everyone is wearing masks and shields. We’ve adapted by introducing microphones and speakers into the classroom to ensure everyone can hear loud and clear. My experience thus far is that students are generally just as excited about their coursework as they were before COVID. It goes to show you that if you get into this business for the right reasons, nothing can extinguish your passion and enthusiasm for it.
What inspired The Pastry Chef’s Little Black Book?
When I was a young pastry cook in New York City back in the 1990s, I found that there were three things that were absolute requirements for all pastry cooks new to the business.The first was a good attitude. Any wise chef will hire based on attitude first and skills second. After all, a chef can teach techniques, but teaching a positive attitude can prove to be futile, at best. The second requirement is a willingness to work hard, and I mean really hard. Cooking professionally in Michelin-starred restaurants requires sacrifice and discipline. Again, not necessarily something that can be taught. It must come from within, stemming from a passion for food and cooking and from a desire to provide genuine hospitality to your guests. Lastly, and most certainly the easiest requirement of them all, was to have a little notebook that should be kept in your pocket at all times. In those little notebooks I would jot down specific directives, sketches of dishes, and, most importantly, recipes and procedures from my chefs.
Over the course of my tenure at any given restaurant, those notebooks would fill up with invaluable little gems that would continue to pay great dividends in my career for many years to come. Over time, I would amass a collection of little notebooks, each one tattered and stained by the daily rigors of life in a professional kitchen. Those little notebooks would become precious to me, for they held the key and building blocks of creation. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I couldn’t stand the thought of these precious recipes that were accumulated and developed over many years (and literally paid for in sweat and blood) sitting idle. As such, I am honored to share this ‘Little Black Book’ with the industry, and it is my hope that people find it to be an invaluable resource that will be reached for time and again.
It is imperative to become as well rounded and knowledgeable as possible in all aspects of the pastry arts. Everyone’s path is different, of course. I spent many years working my way up the ladder in some of New York City’s top restaurants. I spent time in France working in a three- Michelin star restaurant and patisserie. I then moved over to luxury hotels, where I spent many years honing not only my pastry chops, but my management and people skills, as well. One of my mentors, Chef Bill Yosses, said many years ago, “Michael, this business is about people, just as much as it is about technique or ingredients.” Over the years I have since grown to understand what he meant – teaching is definitely a people business.
If someone is trying to decide if getting into education is right for them, I would ask them two important questions: Are you well rounded and knowledgeable in the pastry arts at a high level? Are you able to not only deal with people all day, every day, but engage, motivate, inspire, and teach? If you can definitively answer ‘yes’ to both, then go for it.
How do you balance your work life with your personal life?
Fortunately, working in education by default affords me a higher degree of work-life balance. With that said, it’s important to take stock of one’s self from time to time in an effort to identify what’s important to you. Once your priorities are identified, advocate for yourself by making sure they receive the time and attention they deserve.
About the Author
Genevieve Sawyer is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, a freelance food writer and co-author of The Rookwood Inn’s Guide to Devouring the Berkshires – One Cultural Bite at a Time.