(This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
For almost 30 years, Indonesian-born Deden Putra has been working in the world of rarefied hotels on both U.S. coasts, leading his staffs to create pastry, bread, confections, amenities and everything else that a hotel’s discerning clientele seeks in their home away from home. “My philosophy over the years has always been to work for the best: the best people, best bosses and best companies. If you work for the best, it will make you the best!” Educated in 1994 at the Indonesia Hotel Institute, Putra graduated top of his class and then pursued his dream of living and working in the U.S.
From his humble beginnings as a pastry cook at the Sofitel Hotel in Los Angeles, where he advanced to pastry chef early on, he moved next to the Beverly Wilshire (a Four Seasons Hotel) and was named the Executive Pastry Chef. It was then onto the East Coast in 2010, where he helmed the pastry department at the Peninsula in New York City. Since 2017 he has been the top toque on the sweet side at the Waldorf-Astoria in Beverly Hills. “We received five stars from Forbes magazine within one year of opening. It was a tremendous honor to be part of this team.”
When asked for the key to his success, Putra smiles and says: “Leading by example is one of the key principles to becoming an effective leader. Keeping my team motivated and challenged every day, and imparting clear and concise communications is how I build trust and rapport.”
Putra likes to be in the trenches alongside his staff. “After finishing all the paperwork that my position entails, I spend 90 percent of my day in the kitchen to guide and teach those who want to expand their knowledge. I conduct a daily pre-shift meeting which includes a look at what’s happening for the day, what needs to be done, things that need special attention and required coverage for all outlets. Given that several members of the pastry kitchen staff come from other operations with different ways of doing things, I do an informal kind of pop quiz on the method and mechanics behind one essential preparation as a way of refreshing the staff’s knowledge. This makes sure that everyone is on the same page. This often leads to a short discussion and gives staff members an opportunity to raise any issues or voice any concerns about this particular method or anything else going on in the kitchen.”
Chef Putra finds that being hands-on is the best way to mentor others. “I am always there to help my team when needed.” This deep involvement in turn leads to a high retention rate, and keeps the quality of production consistently high. It also results in keeping labor costs in check, minimizing the need to hire and train new people, which is costly. Putra finds that “it is essential to influence the personal attitude of my team. I am always sure to stress to my staff that achieving success takes hard work and sacrifice, but it will be worth it at the end. Hospitality is unlike other fields in many ways. Before entering it, candidates need to accept that work comes before social life and family time in many instances. Also, I insist that staff members respect each other. Being humble is key. I wish to make them proud of being a professional chef and keep them excited by empowering them to create or introduce a new dessert or a new method. I am mindful of the need to maintain a positive and encouraging work environment. I enter the pastry kitchen every day with this question: ‘What new thing will I create today?’”
When asked about how he manages to fulfill the often-competing demands at a large hotel, from room service and weekend brunch and special high-profile events, his answer is one word: organization. “Working one task at a time and being conscious of deadlines requires focus and time management skills, something any successful pastry chef needs. I instill these essentials in my staff. I also lead by example, being totally immersed in whatever I am doing at the moment.”
And what is he doing a lot of at the moment? He quickly answers: “Leading the team to make the Chocolate Lava Cake for the Jean-Georges restaurant at the hotel is a given. It’s the single most popular dessert among our guests. Beyond that, I believe that homey and comforting desserts are coming back, and we will focus on those this year. Vegan desserts, too, are going strong and you will see savory and sweet ingredients intermingled, as well.”
When pressed to name his favorite ingredients, his reply is disarmingly simple: “Vanilla pods and salt lead the list,” an answer that belies the complexity of his workday. “The greatest challenge in this profession is to find the proper work-life balance. Knowing that I have a team well-prepared to run the operation effectively without me on my days off, and having a boss who understands the need for me to recharge is a blessing.” Like others at the top of their careers, he’s finding a way, amenity by seasonally changing amenity, bonbon by bonbon.
Robert Wemischner is a longtime professional baking instructor at Los Angeles Trade Technical College and the author of four books, including The Dessert Architect.
*Photos courtesy of Deden Putra