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When Skipping Dessert Isn’t an Option — But Neither Is Hiring a Pastry Team

How restaurants make dessert work without an expert on hand

a panna cotta and a pot de creme Lille Allen/Eater

Though putting dessert on the menu might be nonnegotiable for restaurants, who’s in charge of it is a different story. Historically, at a certain kind of establishment, dessert was the job of a designated pastry chef, if not a pastry team. Dessert made by a pastry chef can be an elaborate affair, involving multiple steps or precise processes like pastry or technical work with sugar or chocolate.

Of course, not every restaurant has the resources for that, and restaurants have always devised creative solutions in the absence of specific dessert programs; panna cotta, for example, is a popular choice for restaurants lacking pastry chefs. The pandemic heightened the need for dessert workarounds: Some restaurants, feeling their margins tighten, cut designated pastry-chef jobs. As pastry chef Brett Boyer wrote for Eater earlier this year, this has led to an “evolution” of jobs as pastry chefs increasingly move into home businesses or their own bakeries.

The situation remains, then: Many restaurants don’t have pastry chefs, whether that’s out of financial reasons, space constraints, or menu needs. Still, they serve dessert for all those sweet tooths who need it. So without a pastry chef, how does a restaurant not only make dessert work but also make it shine as something more than an afterthought?

Assemble desserts ahead of time

The desserts that Lexington, Kentucky-based chef Sam Fore plans to serve at her new Tuk Tuk Snack Shop, the counter-service restaurant born out of her Tuk Tuk pop-up series, are “things that we’re able to assemble ahead of time and hold in our walk-in,” she says — things like butter cake and chocolate biscuit pudding. The task of making dessert (and bread) will be distributed across all kitchen staff. “We’ve planned out our schedule so the morning prep has the ability to sandbag and prepare us for those dessert rushes that we’re inevitably going to get,” she says.

That doesn’t mean all the work gets done beforehand, though. “I like to be able to put a touch on [a dessert] before it goes out the door because that makes it special,” Fore says. That might look like adding whipped cream and shaved chocolate on top of the biscuit pudding to order, for example.

Keep the dessert options simple

Because New York City’s Seoul Salon is primarily a drinking spot, dessert isn’t the priority for many diners, according to head chef Byeongsoo Yu. Since some people want something sweet, Yu goes basic with a single dessert option: bingsu. Inspired by the banana milk he drank as a kid in Korea, Yu serves banana-milk shaved ice topped with condensed milk, banana cream, stracciatella, hazelnuts, and orange zest. For the sake of efficiency — the restaurant has 100 seats — chefs grind all the banana-milk ice at the start of service, then make each bingsu to order.

San Francisco chef Adrian Garcia also opts for simplicity with the desserts at his recently opened oyster bar Little Shucker: currently, a chocolate budino (like a pudding) with espresso whipped cream, and a Greek yogurt tart topped with stone fruit. As with Fore’s desserts, only the garnishes need to be added before serving. Accordingly, setting the budino, making the tart dough, and filling the tarts fit into “more of a prep role than a [pastry] station,” Garcia says. Two months into opening, Garcia is handling these tasks, though he hopes to transition them to a sous chef. And despite the simplicity of these desserts, those final touches can offer the restaurant easy variations in the future. “When I can’t get stone fruit anymore, maybe it’ll shift to persimmon or fig,” Garcia says.

Outsource the majority of the dessert-making labor

Without space for a designated pastry station, the San Francisco restaurant Bodega works with San Mateo, California, bakery Simple Delights to develop its desserts (as of this writing, a pandan mochi cake with lychee gelato, and a hojicha panna cotta with chocolate pearls and strawberries). According to owner Matt Ho, he and his team came up with the flavors they wanted on the menu, then batted those ideas around with the bakery, which continues to supply the restaurant’s desserts. Servers at Bodega then assemble the desserts with the different components when an order comes in.

Split the duties

After cutting her pastry programs due to the pandemic, restaurateur Ellen Yin is now rebuilding them, beginning by hiring one pastry chef, Kate Hughes, to tailor and oversee the dessert programs at her Philadelphia establishments Fork and A.Kitchen. The role will include making separate dessert considerations for each restaurant: Fork has no freezer, and A.Kitchen, a bistro, might call for a French vibe. The dessert menu at Fork currently relies on simpler desserts like custard, curd, mousse, and panna cotta, but Yin says plated desserts will be the focus of the role.

In time, “Hopefully, we are so busy that we have pastry cooks at each of the restaurants, and [Hughes is] working with them,” Yin says. “But initially, it may be that maybe there’s one or two people who are really passionate about pastry at each location who want to focus on pastry, and she is helping to grow them, train them, and get those desserts plated and made to her specifications with her vision in mind.” It’s important to have that perspective, Yin says: “Chef-made desserts and pastry-made desserts are two totally different things.”

But when you can’t have a pastry chef, think like one

Although Tuk Tuk Snack Shop didn’t open with a designated pastry chef, Fore is leaning on a culinary director with “significant pastry experience,” which she sees as helping standardize the restaurant’s workflow. To Fore, pastry chefs excel at “identifying efficiencies.” Their “attention to detail is something that we can really work into our workflow, as opposed to going, ‘Okay, now we’re doing a dessert,’ and everything stops,” she says. “We want to make sure that we’re utilizing every square inch as best as we can while also making sure that we have the best final product.”