A pastry chef on the conflation of health and career choice
My days are surrounded by excessive and shocking amounts of butter, sugar, and chocolate. The bakery I started 13 years ago with my partner Stan has grown from a small at-home operation to a business with three storefront locations, multiple accounts across the country, and a robust online presence. We make hundreds of products that range from cakes and petits fours to luscious, buttery pies, and handmade chocolates. My first meeting of the day might consist of tasting five different chocolates for a new truffle, followed by a sesame seed shortbread comparison, before moving on to massive cauldrons of molten, gently burnt caramel. Like most “food personalities” of today, I also participate in many food and wine festivals and cooking demonstrations. Over the years, I have noted one question is posed at every appearance I do, something along the lines of "How are you so thin?!” The question is inevitable, and curiously personal, comparable to asking someone’s age or annual earnings upon first meeting. But a career in desserts doesn’t equate to an unhealthy lifestyle. On the contrary, I find most pastry chefs are uniquely healthy.
A couple years ago, I joined a few friends in a challenge to see if we could take 10,000 steps a day for 30 days straight. The other participants held desk jobs of various forms, and each night we texted each other our step count. We were unanimously surprised by our results, but for different reasons. While my friend the executive was hitting an average of 900 steps per day, my numbers were consistently surpassing the goal. Kitchen work is physically intense with long hours; we are constantly on our feet moving around our kitchen or restaurants. And when we aren’t bustling from the mixer to the sheeter, we are frosting cakes (which takes a surprising amount of upper arm strength), prepping fruit, and carrying trays of heavy desserts. It's unusual to have long breaks or linger over multi-course lunches.
The pastry chefs I know are also exercisers. We have to maintain our physical strength and agility to do our jobs. As a mother and business owner, I also find the stress release of a good workout is indispensable to my sanity and productivity. Classes are my favorite way to clear my head—a solid hour without the phone ringing and beeping feels like a necessary break. From work to home, I am constantly in demand and required to make multiple decisions, so there is something refreshing, even liberating, about listening to an instructor and following someone else’s directions for that sacred hour.
Of course the activity isn’t the only way to balance the persistent absorption of chocolates and cookies. My home diet is extremely clean. It’s the glory of virtue and vice each day, as I methodically measure powdered protein and almond milk with chlorella and cordyceps (a mushroom supplement) into the well-worn blender for my morning smoothie. Lunch is always light, something that doesn’t fatigue or weigh me down, like soba noodles with salmon, or a chopped salad. Keeping simple carbohydrates to a minimum with meals allows for the necessary tasting I do in my work kitchens every day. Dinner is family-focused and market driven, meaning we get the most nutrients from fresh, seasonal produce. And if the kids are having roast chicken with pasta and a side of peaches, I’ll have the chicken over spinach, arugula, and herbs with a simple vinaigrette.
I try to answer the question about my waistline with humor and honestly, but really, it’s the same as it is for anyone—a matter of balance.
Valerie Gordon is a Los Angeles-based pastry chef and owner of Valerie Confections.