MATC instructor Tom LaPierre joined an elite group of baking and pastry arts experts in June, becoming one of only four people in Wisconsin who currently hold the American Culinary Federation's designation as a certified executive pastry chef. Fewer than 350 people in the United States have this distinction.
Earning the certification includes a written test and a four-hour practical exam before a panel of judges. Candidates must hold other certifications and have professional experience in the field. The practical exam includes making four identical plates of two types of desserts; two cakes – one decorated with Italian buttercream frosting and another glazed with chocolate ganache; and 24 dinner rolls made with the same dough, finished in three different ways.
"During the practical test, candidates are judged on organization, sanitation, final presentation and taste," LaPierre explained. "Getting this certification is definitely one of the highlights of my career. It took a lifetime of training and study to qualify."
From Board of Trade to the Kitchen
LaPierre took an unconventional path to becoming a pastry chef. He had considered becoming a chef, but also was intrigued by a career as a commodities trader. He attended night classes at Northeastern Illinois University while working days as a runner for the Chicago Board of Trade. Eventually, he decided he didn't enjoy working in the financial world, left his job and attended day classes, graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science.
After graduation, he experimented with jobs in collections, customer service and automobile credit. "But every desk, phone and computer was the same in those jobs," he said. "They felt like stale, lifeless environments to me. I couldn't see myself staying in those situations."
LaPierre returned to school to train to become a savory (hot food) chef. "I had made baked goods and homemade pizza with my grandmother when I was younger," he said. "I also worked in a pizzeria. I enjoyed that and was motivated to become a chef in part because I wanted to travel and I knew that I could take those skills anywhere."
He earned an associate degree in culinary arts from Kendall College in Chicago, while working in a small restaurant's in-house bakery. "There were no baking and pastry arts schools or programs at that time," he said. "But I took every baking course I could as a part of culinary school without realizing that was what I really wanted to do."
Interest in Baking "Clicked"
LaPierre held jobs as a line cook, a banquet chef and eventually a kitchen manager at a microbrewery. When his wife landed a job in Wyoming, LaPierre found a job as the bakery manager at the University of Wyoming. "Once I started working full time in a bakery, it clicked," he said. "I knew that was what I really loved."
Baking is very different from being a savory chef, LaPierre explained. "There's a difference in the pace of production. In baking, you can begin preparing things two to four days ahead of time. I love the science of mixing the ingredients, the chemistry, the exactness and the precision of baking. I really enjoy working that way. Some chefs hate the exactness. You can make adjustments as you cook. But if you make a loaf of bread and you've done something wrong, it doesn't come out right."