(This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Known as one of the finest chocolate artists in the United States today, Vincent Pilon was raised in Paris and began his culinary training at L’école Jean Ferrandi, widely regarded as the leading pastry school in France. He then went on to hone his chocolate skills at L’école de Paris des Métiers de la Table, where he discovered a genuine passion and technical aptitude for chocolate work. He first came to the U.S. after landing a position at G. Joël Bellouet’s Le Palais du Chocolat in Washington, D.C., but for various reasons, didn’t take to his new job and home, and returned to France somewhat despondently. But Chef Bellouet convinced him to give the U.S. another shot, and Pilon returned, this time to work for François Payard at Payard Patisserie & Bistro in New York City. Happily, Pilon adapted well to his new job and life in New York, and he has made his home in the U.S. ever since. Many years later, he is now the Executive Pastry Chef at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, where for the past seven years he has employed his detail-oriented approach to elevate the guest experience and V.I.P program. Chef Pilon connected with us recently to reflect on his background, career and the challenges of being a pastry chef in the age of COVID-19.
How did you first become interested in pastry?
Well, I grew up in Paris and my grandmother used to bake at home a lot around us kids. I remember my sister, my cousins and I fighting just to lick the bowl. Those were always good memories. And then one day when I was seven years old, I announced to my parents, “That’s what I want to do for a living. I want to be a pastry chef.” In France, when you’re 16 you have to make a choice about continuing your studies — if you’re good with history, or mathematics, or writing or whatever, you choose your specialty. I didn’t want to do that – I wanted to go to pastry school. And my teacher called my parents and told them that I should keep going to school because I was doing well. And my dad said, “Well, if he wants to be a pastry chef, that’s what he’ll do, and if he wants to be a garbage man he’ll be a garbage man. Thankfully, he wants to do pastry, so that’s what he’ll do.” And that was it, I was 16, and my choice was made.
Did you do an apprenticeship?
Yes, I studied pastry at L’ecole Jean Ferrandi, and we had a schedule where we studied at school for one week and then worked at a pastry shop for the next two weeks. And this continued – one week at school, two weeks working in a shop; we also worked every holiday and vacation at the shop. We made a little bit of money, but at the same time it was a great experience, because we learned theory and pastry technique from school, and then we got practical, hands-on experience at the shop.
Is that when you realized you loved working with chocolate?
Yes, during my pastry internship we did everything: pastry, chocolate, confectionery, bread, ice cream – everything. But when we did chocolate, I remember it was really hard for everybody else, but for some reason it came easily to me. So, I thought, well, maybe instead of getting a job right after graduation, maybe I can do another year just to learn chocolate only. And I loved this idea, because you know in pastry you have to get up very early in the morning so that everything – the viennoiserie, etc. – is ready for breakfast. So, you work in the middle of the night or very early in the morning and then you have to work on Christmas and all the holidays. Chocolate was much easier; you don’t get up at four o’clock in the morning so that your chocolates are ready when you open the store, right? And then you prep for the Christmas rush around October, so by Christmastime everything is already made. So I was able to have time with my family, I was making the same money as I would have doing pastry, but I had a better schedule and life. So, I decided to study chocolate for a year. And I loved it even more than pastry – I loved it so much that it became my specialty.
And what drew you to chocolate in particular?
It was the technical precision along with the creativity and the artistry. Back in those days – I’m talking about the early 1990s – we didn’t have silicone molds and all these other tools. It was all done by hand, and I was amazed by what some pastry chefs were able to do with chocolate. And then I was working at a chocolate shop and suddenly my boss had to be hospitalized. At that time I was really green and I didn’t know much. And all of a sudden there were all these people looking at me like, “What are we going to do?” And so, I was on the phone with the chef and he was telling me how to temper the chocolate, how to do this, how to do that, how to make the ganache, how to cut it. And he was gone for a month and half, and when he came back I was running the show. It made me grow so fast in such a short period of time.
What was your next big career move?
Well, I never saw myself living anywhere else other than in France, and I never saw myself being a chef actually – I thought I would be a chocolatier. You see, I come from a family where family comes first. I wasn’t ambitious – my only ambition was to get a job and get a paycheck and then enjoy my weekends and my vacations. But when I turned 18 I had to go into the army, because it was mandatory back then.
They sent me to the paratroopers, so then I had to leave my life, the cocoon where I grew up, and all of a sudden I was thrown in the army with people yelling in my face, making me do all kinds of crazy stuff – jumping from airplanes and all that. But going into the army made me go from a boy to a man; I learned a lot about myself, how far I could go. Not just physically, but mentally, especially. And so, when I came back from the army I now was 19, and then my sister moved out of the house, and then it was just me living with my parents and I said, ‘I can’t live here with my parents – I’m going to be a loser.’ So I worked in Paris for a little bit and then I decided I wanted to travel the world. So, I went to an agency that places people all over the world, and they had an opportunity for me to work at a shop in Washington, D.C. And I came home and I said, “All right, I’m leaving.” Because it turned out that I would be working for Joel Bellouet. The shop was Le Palais du Chocolat, but I was going to be doing pastry production, not chocolate. It was tough – I got there and I literally spoke no English and I didn’t even have a visa. After three months, I hated it. I wanted to learn English, but nobody in the kitchen spoke English. I was by myself, it was just a very hard time. So, I moved back to Paris and I worked there, and then after a while I said, “I want to try again…”
And how did you end up in Las Vegas?
I went to see Mr. Bellouet and I told him I was looking for a job, but not in Paris, more in the South of France. And he said, “No, the future in France is not good, you need to go to America.” So he picked up the phone and he called his friend François Payard in New York, and he said, “Hey, how’s everything going?” And François said, “Ok, but I’m looking for a chocolatier.” It was crazy. And that was it, Payard sent me a plane ticket and then I landed in New York and I never went back to France. I worked at Payard for a while and that’s where I met Jean-Philippe Maury. One night Jean-Philippe called me and all the Frenchies over there and he said, “All right guys I just got a job offer in Las Vegas and if you’re interested I’m looking for people, I need all you guys to open the hotel because it’s going to be big.” So, within three weeks we got a visa and opened Bellagio in October ’98. And I remember I hated it because my first day I worked 21 hours straight. And then the very next day I went back for another 18 hours, and then 16 hours every day for three months straight, with no days off. I remember the first day off I had, one day, I said, “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” It’s like vacation you know? I was thinking, okay, I have to do my laundry, and I want to do this, I want to do that. But I just went to bed and when I woke up, it was time to go back to work. It was really tough. It was hard because first, we didn’t speak much English, and second, we’d only been working in small shops, so we didn’t know much about hotels and high-volume production like that. So, all of a sudden you have to produce for room service, and then banquets – I mean a crazy amount of pastries, and we were completely unorganized. So that’s the reason why it was so hard, not because it was crazy, it’s just because we were not organized. So, that’s how it was, but that’s what brought me to Las Vegas.
I’m not looking to hire somebody that’s just looking for a paycheck, I’m looking to hire someone that has passion for what they do.
What was your next move?
In 2003 I went to work for Randy Sebastian at the Rio. And then Randy left and Jim McNamara took his place as Executive Pastry Chef. I felt I still wasn’t ready for that job yet. At the Bellagio I was doing a lot of production and difficult stuff, but I wasn’t a manager – I wasn’t managing people, doing the schedule and ordering and things like that. So Jim was fantastic, and I had a great relationship with him. He was very, very smart, I was good on the floor, and he and I were a great team. Everything was running smoothly, the numbers were perfect, everything was perfect. And the quality was going up and up, and we had a great team for about three and a half years. And then Mandalay Bay called me and they asked me if I was interested in the Executive Pastry Chef job, and that’s when I thought, “Ok, I’m ready.” It’s interesting because at Bellagio it was more about the quality and the artistry, while at the Rio it was more about management. At Mandalay Bay it was about the volume. And I had a great team there, mostly women, including Tina Wilson and Kristina Lawson, and they were super smart, super organized, the volume was massive, yet it was running like a Swiss watch. It was so smooth. But after seven years I was ready to downsize on quantity and focus more on quality, and that’s when the Cosmopolitan called me. And it was just the perfect size hotel, with a focus on quality, it was just ideal for me. And so, I’ve been there now for almost eight years.
I try to do as much customized stuff as I can for our guests because it makes them feel special.
As the Executive Pastry Chef at The Cosmopolitan, you’re known for your detail-oriented approach to guests. Does this mean a lot of customization?
Yes, yes. I customize everything for the guests. Of course, we have our regular stuff that we do all the time, but we are always competing with other hotels in one way or another. Let’s say there’s a group that wants to do a convention, so they’re going to do a tasting at Mandalay Bay, they’re going to a tasting at the Cosmopolitan, they’re going to do a tasting at Bellagio and at the Wynn. And then they’re going to choose which one is the best place, which one has the best price, and which one has the best price for the quality. That’s when they call me and that’s when they ask me to customize stuff for the groups or individuals that are coming. I have a laser engraver and a thermal forming machine, which helps a lot. I customize chocolate bars or I can write a message on the chocolate bar. I can put your logo on the bar. I try to do as much customized stuff as I can for our guests because it makes them feel special. Management usually asks me two or three days ahead of time and they say, “Well, Aaron Rogers from the Green Bay Packers is coming – can you customize an amenity for him?” So, that’s when I start thinking and making some items. And that’s great because it really keeps me on top of my game. It’s funny, because I look at showpieces that I did 10 years ago, even five years ago, and I feel like as I grow older it gets better and better. So, people ask me all the time, “Which one is your favorite showpiece? Which one is your favorite dessert?” And I always say it’s the next one.
What are some of the challenges you face in your job?
Actually, perfect example today: Kristina just sent me an email and she said, “Are you making an amenity today for this person?” They emailed me yesterday and there’s this guy who’s name is Steve Hutchinson and he used to be a guard in the NFL, for the Seahawks, the Vikings and the Titans. And he’s been inducted in the Hall of Fame, so he and his wife are staying in the hotel until Friday, and I have to do an amenity for him on that theme. But it’s also their wedding anniversary, so I also have to do another amenity for them – there are variants there.
It’s not always easy because sometimes they give you two or three days, but sometimes they call you the day before. And that’s not fun.
How many employees do you have in the pastry department?
We have about 35 people in normal times, but because of COVID-19, right now we only have 12.
What do you look for in a potential employee?
First, I’m looking at the demeanor and the passion of the person, especially the passion. I’m not looking to hire somebody that’s just looking for a paycheck, I’m looking to hire someone that has passion for what they do. And it’s not always easy to see, because sometimes you have an interview with someone and they are very well spoken, they tell you everything you want to hear. And you feel like you’ve found a gem, you know? And then you see them on their first day of work and you’re like, “What???”
So, I’m not trying to hire somebody just for a body, I really want that person to tell me what they do best, and I’m trying to let that person do what they like to do best. Because if you’re good at cakes and wedding cakes, I’m not going to ask you to make croissants. But it’s important that everybody cross train, so I want to know what they do best, and then I want to know if they are willing to work in other stations just to learn a little bit of everything. If they are not comfortable with it and if they tell me, “I’d rather not,” then they’ve lost me. But if somebody tells me, “My passion is cakes but yeah, I would love to learn chocolate, I would love to learn dough,” then I’m on board.
How has COVID-19 affected the hotel, your staff and the workplace?
We live in a different world now. It’s affected everybody, because Las Vegas lives because of conventions, and right now there are no conventions. It’s all tourism, so during the week it’s pretty quiet and it picks up on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We’re still doing well, but nowhere near what we used to do. And of course because it’s so much more quiet, the pastry department went from 35 people to 12 people. They’re like family, and then all of a sudden you don’t see them anymore, but they still have their bills to pay. You worry for them, you almost feel guilty to have a job, you know? But at the same time you feel blessed. It’s a very strange feeling to explain, but I miss everybody. I miss the craziness of the kitchen. Now the kitchen is spotless, it’s quiet – it’s depressing, almost.
There are a lot of steps you have to go through jut to walk into the hotel. You have to answer all these questions about COVID, and then if you answer everything correctly, boom – you get a star, walk in, and now they take your temperature, and then you have to wear your mask all day, so working in a kitchen with a mask when it’s hot or right by the oven, for example, it’s a nightmare. I mean it’s necessary, we do what we have to do, but it’s difficult.
I never feel like I made it, or I have arrived. I’m just grateful to be able to do what I love to do after all these years, every day.
You’ve won many chocolate competitions, including the Food Network Challenge ‘Chocolate Series’, which you won in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009. And I think the only reason you didn’t compete in 2007 was because you won first place at the U.S. Chocolate Masters that year. What motivated you to compete, and what do you think are some of the keys to your success?
Originally I was motivated to compete because I was working at the Bellagio back then with Jean-Philippe Maury, and there was a lot of competition within the shop. And back then there was such a gap between Bellagio and the rest of the properties on the Strip. We really thought we were the best, the best of the best. But to say you’re the best that’s one thing, to prove it, that’s another. So, Jean-Philippe competed, and he won the National Pastry Team Championship, and he won the World Pastry Team Championship. So, we worked a lot helping him for the competition and at the same time we were learning a lot. And then when he was done competing, then it was our turn. So, he was coaching us a lot, he was helping us a lot and then because we were at Bellagio, and we’re talking about in the early 2000s, a time when the economy was amazing, the hotel had so much. We had so many resources available to us, just with the engineering department, so we wanted to compete, we competed, and we won these competitions. And then when I left the Bellagio I realized that the brain was really Jean-Philippe and I was the hands. But when I was working without him and without the team, then all of a sudden I had to come up with all these ideas. I had to start doing things myself without somebody designing it for me, and it wasn’t so great at first. And then I took a piece that we did when I was at Bellagio and then the next time I did the base of this one with the top of this one, with the flower of this one and I made it my own. And then slowly I started looking around and getting ideas and doing things on my own, but still with a big influence from Jean-Philippe and everything I learned from him. And then slowly I started becoming my own and having my own style. And then I competed and I started winning all these competitions. So, one of the reasons to compete is to prove myself how good I was. And the other reason was to make my parents proud, because I decided to leave France and to make a career in the U.S., and I wanted to prove to them that I did the right thing. And it brought a lot of joy and pride to them.
Some people say, “These people they do all these competitions but they should be judged on their work every day.” Well, that’s very true, but at the same time I use the skills that I learn by doing the competition in my every day work, also.
Was there a defining moment in your career when it felt like you finally made it?
I’ve never had that feeling, actually. Because as you grow older, there’s a younger generation coming up, and they keep pushing further and they’re doing new things all the time. So, you always have to keep up with the trends. You know it doesn’t matter how good you are, eventually you want to slow down, you want to relax a little bit, and then there is that kid that comes and is hungry and he’s talented, and he’s way cheaper than you, and then all of a sudden you’re not good anymore, and by that I mean because you’re too expensive. You’re expendable. So, no I never feel like I made it, or I have arrived. I’m just grateful to be able to do what I love to do after all these years, every day.
But I’m also able to balance work and my life, which is very important for me. I have surrounded myself with good people at work, and they’re fantastic. I guarantee when I’m on vacation or when I’m on my days off, I know that they take care of the business even better than when I’m there. You know, they don’t want to disappoint me, they don’t want to screw up. It’s a good feeling. And I don’t take credit for anybody, so it’s never about me it’s always about our department, it’s always about the team. So, if the Executive Chef or the CEO wants to reach out to me, sometimes they reach out to me directly, sometimes they reach out to my assistant Kristina, because they know that she’s the one that takes care of this thing. So, some people they like to have hands on everything, they want to know about everything and they want everything to go through them, that’s how they feel like they have a job security. Not me.
Speaking about those young, ambitious chefs who come along, posting their beautiful dessert photos on Instagram and lining up thousands of followers – do you feel pressured to do the same?
No, not at all. I love seeing what other chefs are doing and I am inspired by a lot of things I see on Instagram, but that’s about it. My one goal is that I want the people that employ me to understand and recognize my value. These are the people I work for, and collecting followers or likes on Instagram doesn’t pay my bills. I do post some pictures on Instagram of what I do at work, but I don’t go out of my way to promote myself, it’s not a priority.
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