Text: Lisa Shames
Back in the late 1990s, Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sébastien Canonne (knighted in the Order of the Legion of Honor) were working as executive pastry chefs at two different Chicago hotels. The two had met while participating in pastry competitions. What these two highly acclaimed chefs soon realized was that there was a demand for properly trained professionals in the pastry field in the U.S. and began laying the groundwork for what would become The French Pastry School. “We both led pastry kitchens filled with dedicated cooks and chefs, who, though eager to learn, had never been satisfactorily trained in pastry”, says Pfeiffer. “Chicago, and the U.S. as a whole, lacked the master-apprentice system on which we both had been trained”.
After locating a small loft space, Pfeiffer made a deal with the landlord to freeze the rent for five years. It took a year for Pfeiffer and Cannone to rehab the space, doing much of the work themselves. In 1995, while still maintaining their demanding full-time positions, the two opened the school and began teaching classes on the weekends and evenings.
Initially, they were very strict in their teaching style. But when they found their students weren’t responding as they had hoped, Pfeiffer and Canonne tried a different approach. “We added a bit of humor to our demonstrations and the students opened up and took everything in”, says Pfeiffer. (Pfeiffer and Canonne’s witty banter-filled Saturday afternoon demonstrations at The French Pastry School, which draw a mixed crowd of industry professionals and pastry-lovers, have become legendary.) But that doesn’t mean the students have it easy. “At the end of the day, what has made the school so special is hard work and dedication”, says Canonne.
The two were definitely onto something. In 1999, The French Pastry School moved to its current location that not only allowed them to expand their selection of short-term classes to a full-time course but also included an affiliation with the City of Chicago and accreditation by the Illinois Community College Board. In August 2010, the school added a specialized 16-week L’Art du Gateau program and in June 2011, an eight-week L’Art de la Boulangerie. In addition, The French Pastry School also offers three- and five-day continuing education programs, which have included over the years guest instructors such as Pierre Herme, Oriol Balaguer, Paco Torreblanca, Christine Ferber and Albert Adria.
“Never assume you are the best. It’s important to keep a bit of healthy insecurity that pushes you to be better than your competition. We tell our students they are only as good as their last croissant”
Pfeiffer and Canonne, along with an equally qualified staff of culinary professionals, offer instruction that emphasizes constant exposure and observation of a variety of classic pastry techniques. Students learn the science and chemical reactions behind each recipe, a key component to truly understanding the whole process, says Pfeiffer.
For the 24-week L’Art du Patisserie program, which includes training in chocolate confectionery, breads and breakfast pastries, French cakes and tarts, ice cream and sorbet, and plated desserts among other disciplines, students get plenty of hands-on experience in classes which are limited to 18. “It would be great for us financially to add more students per class, but the quality of the teaching is our first priority”, says Pfeiffer. It’s that attention to detail and high level of standards that has been the signature of The French Pastry School since day one.
And that dedication—both from the staff and the students—has paid off. “Many of our alumni have gone on to work at renowned establishments, and over 100 graduates have started their own businesses in Chicago, the U.S. and around the world”, says Canonne. In addition, once those alumni established themselves in the industry, they often hire fellow graduates of The French Pastry School. “We’ve come full circle”, says Pfeiffer.
To help provide this level of education accessible to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it, The French Pastry School created For the Love of Chocolate Scholarship Foundation, which, since its inception in 2007, has awarded more than $550,000 in scholarships.
So what is the secret to The French Pastry School’s—and its students’—success? “Never assume you are the best. It’s important to keep a bit of healthy insecurity that pushes you to be better than your competition”, says Pfeiffer. “We tell our students they are only as good as their last croissant”.
Alumni & employee quotes
“The passion, integrity and fun of the school all trickles down from the top. Chef Jacquy and Chef Sebastien are so dedicated to making the PFS the very best pastry program in the world, and it shows in every teacher they select, every ingredient they use and every student they send off into the world of pastry”
Sarah Levy Imberman, class of 2003, owner at Sarah’s Pastries & Candies, Chicago, IL
“From the moment I stepped into The French Pastry School for a tour, I knew it was the right place for me. At first, I was impressed by the accolades of the chefs—once there, their genuine love of pastry and of teaching was evident. I remember at the beginning being very intimidated and wanting to make sure I was very serious and made everything correctly. Then I learned how funny the chefs were. They have amazing senses of humor, despite taking the work very seriously. And it surprised me that they didn’t want us to be perfect. They wanted us to be able to learn from our mistakes, with them there to teach and support”
Meg Galus, class of 2005, executive pastry chef, Park Hyatt Chicago
“When I first met Jacquy and Sebastien it was in 1998 at the school on Grand. It was small, but you could tell that the creativity in those walls was immense. By the end of 1999, I was driving a moving truck to its present location. Their presence in the classroom and the creative energy between the two mentors was what created the ‘magic’ in the plan”
John Kraus, class of 2000, owner, Patisserie 46, Minneapolis, MN
“The fact that the program is so specific, not only a pastry-focused curriculum, but French pastry in particular, makes it very intensive in the best way. So many culinary programs try and cover too many variances in product and often as part of a larger savory program, so that you don’t get meaningful exposure to any one aspect”
Scott Green, class of 2001, executive pastry chef, The Langham Hotel Chicago, instructor at The French Pastry School 2010-2013
“I had been in the industry for around six years, and I was looking for a way to create longevity. One night I sat down and watched ‘Kings of Pastry’ documentary. What I saw that night in Chefs Jacquy and Sesabtien was the longevity I had been looking for. The people are what make this school rise above the rest. Though there is a well-founded curriculum, the ability for the students to learn beyond that curriculum and be in a true mentorship-driven environment creates great chefs”
Evan Sheridan, class of 2011, pastry chef, The Unstead Hotel and Spa, Cary, NC
“In the history of the school, the majority of the incoming students have been career changers. Many of these people know in their hearts they love to bake and would like to make it a career, but have doubts when it comes to their personal abilities or financial stability. As a staff person, I am in the unique spot of helping people take that leap of faith and making their pastry dreams a reality”
Elaine Kilby, class of 2005, admissions counselor, employed at The French Pastry School since 2007
“Having this strong focus on pastry and attention to detail allows us to do what we do well. The attention to detail spills over to all aspects of the school and every staff person’s duties in assisting our students. The family environment is what the student feels and the staff does all it can to nurture the student to grow into a pastry professional”
Renee Bohus, class of 2003, student finance director, employed at The French Pastry School since 2003