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Layers of Obstruction

In Paris, it was nearly impossible for me to find a pastry stage. Was it because I’m Black?

This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.

My first weekend in Paris, I ate a tart made with slivers of apple cradled by the most delicate phyllo dough, a fig macaron the size of my face, and a croissant that rained flakes onto my lap. In Paris, I had time to stop and smell the pastries, exactly like I did in the visions I had conjured while applying to culinary schools. I could pass by 10 different shops that all excelled in feuilletage, the art of puff pastry. And soon, I would be learning from the greats at Ferrandi, one of the city’s esteemed culinary schools. I would excel too — I had no reason to think otherwise.

About a year before I arrived in Paris, I took my first job in pastry at a busy New York City restaurant. The pressure to keep up was intense. My shifts lasted from 3 p.m. until the last few parties ordered their olive oil cakes around 1 a.m. A coworker, hired alongside me, quickly established himself as third in command (after the executive and sous chef), securing the most coveted shifts. It was clear: A Parisian pastry diploma could get you places.

When I started thinking about attending pastry school for intense technical training, it was never a question of which city. It was just, “where in Paris?” As much as I try to avoid stroking the French ego (I’m Haitian — my country is a former French colony), it is undeniably one of the greatest places to learn about pastry. The schools are top, but even any small corner shop you visit provides a learning experience, as I confirmed within my first week there. And after being accepted to Ferrandi’s intensive international program, my mood shifted from general nervousness around getting in to consuming fear; I wasn’t sure my passion and experience would meet the standards of the stern instructors. That I would also need to contend with racism from the professional world I hoped to enter didn’t cross my mind.

During orientation, I realized I was the only Black student out of almost 40, but I internalized the disparity and moved on — the intensity of the program wouldn’t allow me much time to dwell on this. The school facilities were designed to be cold and intimidating. The pastry kitchens were all windows, to make it easy for any passing chef to watch and, inevitably, judge students. We each had about three feet of space at our stations, which is too little when you’re trying to roll out perfect croissants, but is way too much when it’s exam time and the cleanliness of your station counts toward (usually against) your final grade. Our starched white aprons were to remain just so; a single smudge of chocolate could prompt relentless, albeit good-natured, ridicule from the chefs.

Our uniform also included a toque, or a chef’s hat, and this is where the absence of Black students became impossible to compartmentalize. My toque refused to work with my braids or afro. My classmates would giggle when the chef called me Marge (from The Simpsons), poking fun at how I had to tie up my braids. The joke and the laughs never sat well with me, but I didn’t want to protest too much in the first month. “My hair is not blue” became my standard reply until, later, I had a joke of my own: “The toque is anti-Black,” I would say. I was always met with silence, but discomfort was exactly the reaction I was looking for.

The French pastry world does not account for Black chefs. After two months of training with Ferrandi’s chefs, it came time to start thinking of our stage, or internship. Every part of our schooling came with cautions and advice for our stage. In French classes, we built our vocabulary for the terms and phrases we would hear — “On est dans le jus,” for when the restaurant hit peak service hours and “La ferme,” the phrase that chefs would shout when stagiaires needed to shut up and get back to work.

Students created a list of their top picks and would then interview with their instructor, who generally knew which students would excel where. This procedure was presented as more of a matching process than an official application — barring any extenuating circumstances, students were sure to be accepted somewhere.

I set my sights on George V, Du Pain et des Idées, Le Meurice, and Shangri-La Hotel — the city’s premiere pastry kitchens. After a rigorous series of questions, my instructor informed me he would be recommending me for George V. I had passed the chefs’ test, and that alone bode well. The instructors had spent months lauding the Four Seasons Hotel George V; it was the place they would only send the best in the program, those who met their own high standards.

My interview was scheduled for November 22 at 5:30 p.m. I arrived with 40 minutes to spare, wearing a crisp white shirt tucked into my nice plaid slacks with the perfect crease. I interviewed in a small office, nowhere near the kitchen; I didn’t meet the chef. Fifteen minutes in, I could already see I wouldn’t get the job. With every question, I felt the space between me and the human resources representative, my interviewer, grow bigger. She quickly moved from introductions to probing me with questions about my pastry philosophy and the relevance of my past, non-pastry work experience. Nothing I said seemed to pique her interest. I walked out of the interview, 90 minutes later, rattled. My peers told me their “interviews” were short introductions to their work ahead. Chefs gave tours of the facilities and introduced them to their future coworkers. Thanks to the combination of a chef recommendation and the Ferrandi name, their jobs were secured as soon as they walked into the kitchen.

Weeks went by and I watched as classmates were immediately accepted into stages, set to start work as soon as the program ended. By week three, I had sent two follow-up emails to George V with reminders that I was passionate, ready, and excited at the prospect of joining their team. They responded with lukewarm thanks and told me they would reach out with their decision. They didn’t email again, but my chef informed me, rather casually in late December, that they had moved forward with another candidate. I was their second pick, they said.

My instructor gave me the contact information for the chef at Shangri-La Hotel, and I reached out and shared my CV. The chef responded rather promptly, asking for the date I could start, but about two weeks later, I received an email from the sous chef, informing me that they could not hire me because the position no longer existed. Something felt off; I started to suspect that I was seeing racism at play.

In France, including a photo with a CV was once mandated, and at my French teacher’s insistence, I submitted mine. We polished our CVs during the first month of school, so while my inner voice told me then it was foolish to include a photo, knowing that could discourage potential employers, I deferred to my instructor and included one anyway. Besides, if they didn’t see me on the CV, they’d see me in person, and what was the difference?

When my French cousin learned I had included a photo on my CV, she ridiculed me. Black people didn’t do that there, she said. In all our talks about our countries, she had emphasized the severity of racial bias in the United States while insisting there was no racism in France. In the U.S., I had experienced racism in various stages of the hiring process, if not during my work in pastry. However, as I spoke to my cousin, I was finally forced to decompartmentalize and directly acknowledge that the lack of diversity I noted on my first day at Ferrandi was an indicator of racism to come.

French universalism emphasizes égalité and fraternité (equality and fraternity) at the expense of diversity and despite the prevalence of discrimination. The unspoken rule among Black people to exclude photos on their CVs is a tacit acknowledgment of racist hiring practices and a result of a lack of conversation about French racism. I’m not sure how my cousin reconciles the disconnect, but I resented the amount of thought I had to put toward a process that was a breeze for everyone else in my program.

I tried to shake off my growing suspicions that the rejections were racist, and my instructor directed me to a well-known shop run by two big pastry names. I sent my CV and waited for a response. Two days later, I received an email thanking me for my application, expressing their regret that they wouldn’t be able to hire me. This time, they didn’t even need to talk to me to know they didn’t want me working there. Puzzled, my instructor called them for an explanation. Their response: They didn’t want women working in their kitchen. I thought back to the day they demoed at the school and brought along a white woman to assist. I was floored but amused — they committed to being openly discriminatory with regards to gender just to hide their racism. My pastry school instructor vowed to never send students there again.

I went through three more connections from my instructor, all rejections despite submitting an elaborate 10-page portfolio. In a desperate fury, I applied to at least 20 jobs on my own. I called pastry shops. I emailed every chef who had their contact information anywhere online. I felt helpless. My classmates were already adjusting to their new work hours and creating beautiful pastries. How could I still be searching for an internship — the opportunity to work for barely livable wages?

I finally asked my instructor to send my photo-less CV to employers and told him, “I think I haven’t gotten a stage because I’m Black.” He adamantly denied this could be the case; he knew these chefs and they weren’t... that. I shrugged. (In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Four Seasons claimed its hiring practices do not discriminate, writing: “At the Four Seasons Hotel George V, we are committed to providing every employee with a professional work environment that does not tolerate discrimination of any kind. This extends to our hiring practices, including our internships.”)

In a 2015 study published by Restaurants Opportunities Centers United, researchers found inequity engrained in the hiring process. Pairs of minority and white applicants were sent to interview for server positions at fine dining establishments in New York, Detroit, Chicago, and New Orleans. The study’s findings concluded white applicants were more likely to be interviewed, and twice as likely to get hired as the equally and better qualified minority applicants. This inequity in hiring results in a striking lack of diversity, especially in pastry. The study doesn’t cover Paris, but in my year immersing myself in the French pastry world, I was taught solely by white men (with the exception of my art, French, and wine-tasting teachers, who were white women). I was interviewed at establishments all headed by white executive pastry chefs. I never saw a Black pastry chef in my time there.

At the end of February — one month into my classmates’ internships and five months after I started my search — I got an interview at a small pastry shop specializing in gluten-free and vegan pastries. The owner was the only female chef I had encountered, and she signed the contract immediately. She complimented my French and pronounced her excitement to work with me. The same week, I had a phone interview with a three-Michelin-starred restaurant and was invited to an in-person interview. I felt overwhelmed with joy. I had sent them my CV sans photo and felt my portfolio and pastry experience were finally recognized. Unfortunately, before I could follow through with either opportunity, I had to return home due to COVID-19 — my French pastry career paused.

The problems I faced in Paris manifest here differently. In the U.S., calls for diversity appear frequently in food media, even if little action comes of it. France is not even having the conversation. Yet France continues to be the bastion for pastry for countless aspiring chefs who travel to the country every year for schooling and grueling stages.

I have immense respect for the chefs I learned from and the techniques they taught me, but I’ve come away from Ferrandi thinking the glorified French “standard” for pastry should no longer apply. The lens from which French culinary looks at the rest of the world is overwhelmingly white; I’m reminded of the fact that French pastry has a genre for tropical fruits. The names of recipes calling for mango puree, passionfruit puree, or coconut always include the word “exotique.” The exotique genre diminishes a whole world of flavors and possibilities to one dimension, a homogenous other. Chocolate, vanilla, and coffee, none of which are native to France, never fall into that exotique genre because they are pillars of French pastry flavor profiles, and the French control the narrative. “Exotique” is a mere sliver of deeper issues at play: Just as the current French standard excludes a whole genre of flavor, it excludes people, limiting the diversity of talent that could be a part of the pastry world.

That approach trickles down, not just to the ways chefs in Paris run their kitchens, but to kitchens all over the world where people subscribe to that white lens. In pastry especially, flavors, trends, and what is respected are all dictated by the French. If we are going to continue holding up French pastry as a beacon, the French pastry community and the culinary world at large need to start talking about how to dismantle entrenched racism and revise the French standard to be more inclusive. At the very least, the stage, already rife with controversy and instances of exploitation and verbal abuse, is long overdue for an overhaul.

Stagiaires are paid below minimum wage or nothing, installing yet another barrier to entry for those who depend on livable wages to survive (disproportionately people of color); the physical toll of staging does not allow for a second job. Those who do manage to secure positions remain at the mercy of chefs and the rest of the brigade as establishments continue to exact professionalism at great human cost. And while stages can provide rich learning environments, they typically stand to benefit the establishment more than the stagiaire. A new standard would build a curriculum that honors classical pastry techniques while expanding the definition of modern pastry past the aesthetics. The stage would not be an introduction to the hostility of professional kitchens, but rather a holistic classroom that would instill business acumen, refine techniques, and ground it all in community, benefiting everyone involved. The new system would not allow racism.

In a few months, I will have the option to return to France to complete my own stage, but as time passes, the idea seems silly. Rather than struggling in a system not made for me, my classical French training will be a foundation, not the template for my career. Recently, I reimagined the classic Charlotte entremet to create a dessert themed around a meme, a deeply personal birthday cake for a friend. I’ve made a bowl-shaped tart that’s an ode to the spiciness of ginger; a deconstructed mango tarte tatin with a jalapeno caramel, an attempt to create perfectly balanced bite; and a poached persimmon and aloe dish with the look of a hearty autumn soup and the mouthfeel of a cloud. I’m using the techniques I learned in pastry school, but the pastries I make now reflect my story, not a French ideal designed to shut me out.

Brigitte Malivert is a pastry chef, currently based in New Jersey, who spends her free time plotting her next pastry creations and playing with her dog. Nicole Medina is a Philly-based illustrator who loves capturing adventure through her art using bold colors and patterns.


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