It’s no secret that pastry life is not for the faint of heart. Applying to be a pastry chef doesn’t follow your typical interview process because it usually involves a tasting—a trial meal where hopefuls get the chance to show their chops and cook for the restaurant owners. Nicole Sheets, most recently of New York Italian hotspot, Il Buco Alimentari, knows a thing or two about acing these taste tests. Here, Sheets talks us through every stage of her trials, with tips for success along the way.
What happens before the tasting?
It started with a lot of conversations. I first met with the executive chef, and then came back for another meeting with the owner, and once they determined that I could be a good fit, we figured out a day for me to come in and cook.
What kind of guidelines can I expect to be given in terms of what to make?
It really varies depending on the place, but at Il Buco, they told me that they wanted three desserts, and also some chocolate work—beyond that, it was left up to to decide what I wanted to make. It’s hard—I had all these ideas and I really had to narrow it down to just my favorite few things.
When it comes to what to make, what’s your strategy?
You want to show off different techniques and skills—I made a semifreddo because it’s simple but very technical: if you don’t cook your sugar correctly or under whip your cream it will turn out really dense. I made a sorbet because that shows off my ability to balance flavors and get that creamy texture. I also made a flourless chocolate cake that was meringue-based—its soft, fluffy texture is very dependent on how you mix the batter. I am skilled in chocolate, too, so I wanted to make sure I showed that off — I did a mini chocolate bar, which demonstrated that I knew how to temper chocolate and do that delicate hand-dipping.
How do you balance your individual style with the restaurant’s point of view?
The style at Il Buco is very rustic and homey, whereas my background is rooted in modern and fine dining. The key is achieving a balance between those two styles. Remember: desserts are supposed to show off your point of view—at Il Buco, the chefs were excited by my style, and that’s how it should be. It shouldn’t just be about mimicking something existing. For the test, I went for desserts that were rustic but still round and clean-edged.
Does your trial process have time constraints?
For me, they didn’t give a start time. They said: “Come in whenever you want, but we will do the tasting at 1pm.” It was up to me to figure out my own time management. It’s a test of how you work in a day and how many things you can do in a set amount of time. I ended up showing up around 7:30 in the morning and just running the entire time until my tasting. Efficiency is probably 70 percent of the test. You are really dictating the day, so if you took five hours to make three things versus five hours to make eight things, that says a lot about what you are going to be able to do in an average day at the restaurant.
Is there any kind of kitchen orientation?
Don’t expect that. When I went in, there was no orientation for the kitchen, and I had only been there once before for a brief walkthrough. That’s part of the test: to see how you react in a new environment, and to see how quickly you can adjust and find things on your own. It’s a little bit like a scavenger hunt.
Do you bring your own ingredients and tools?
For ingredients, I had a conversation with the chef leading up to the day in terms of what I would need, and the restaurant was accommodating. Most places are like that. That said, a lot of the stuff wasn’t the brand or form that I was used to, but that is part of the challenge. For example, I asked for sesame seeds, and they only had unhulled sesame seeds, and that difference made me have to change up the recipe.
With tools, I brought most of my own. There are a couple of things that I always like to have on hand just in case, like a bowl scraper because it’s very versatile — it can be used as a spatula or cutting tool; and a mini cutter with a removable blade, which can be used to cut parchment paper, acetate paper or even tape.
Did you prep any elements of the dishes in advance?
There was a garnish and a chocolate element that I did in advance, but other than that I did pretty much everything in the kitchen. And I think there is a real benefit to doing that—if you are really trying to get this job, if you don’t feel good while you are in a kitchen, that should give you a good idea of what it would be like to work there. If the vibes of the place don’t mesh with you, it’s a good way of knowing that it’s not for you.
How else can you determine whether or not the culture of the restaurant is a fit for you while test tasting is happening?
With the tasting, chefs and owners act very differently—they are on their best behavior, so you have to take all of that with a grain of salt. But what you can take into account is the other people around you and how they are responding to you. Are they friendly and interested in what they are doing? Are they helpful if you ask them a question? You should also look at the organization of the kitchen in terms of where the equipment is, and if everything is stored properly. Those are all good indications.
Does anyone watch you while you cook?
For me, there was no supervisor or someone directly overseeing me. But there were people in the surrounding areas who were covertly giving feedback—they took note of what I brought in, what I didn’t, how I was working. You’re always being observed.
When do logistical elements like cost analysis and cleanliness figure into the interview process?
Cleanliness is important. I could tell there were people in the kitchen who probably would have said something if I was all over the place, or not cleaning up after myself. Costing, though, I don’t think is really a factor at this stage. They are more looking for what you can do, and then cost efficiency comes afterward.
What about plating?
Yes. It’s difficult because you have to figure out where the restaurant keeps its spoons, napkins, and plates, and then what types of each they have. For plating, you want to make your dish look beautiful and presentable, but it’s not just about what looks good: it’s also how something eats off the plate. If you can’t pick the dessert up or are just pushing it around on a flat plate, maybe it should go in a bowl. Think about how the dish would translate to a guest.
How does the tasting itself go?
I walked over to the table and introduced myself. I described the first dish, went back to the kitchen, plated the next dish in about five minutes or so, and then brought it out. I did that three more times. And then I cleaned up, changed, and returned to chat about everything.
When I sat down with the chef and owner, we went through each dish and what their overall feelings were. They asked me questions like: “Why did you put raw apples on this dish instead of cooking them?” “Did you think something was missing from the sesame semifreddo?” They told me what they thought the dishes could have benefitted from. They really analyzed each component. It took a while—I got to the restaurant at 7:30 am and I didn’t leave until 3:30 pm.
How do you deal with all that criticism?
Just be really open. Everyone has different experiences or ideas of what they think looks and tastes good, and it’s never going to be the same wherever you go. Just be open to hearing feedback and know that you can mesh what you think is right with what they think is right, whether it’s the flavor profile or the plating. You have to be open to compromise. No one will be like, “Yes I accept this exactly as it is. It’s perfect.” Your visions will never be the same as the person next to you.
And don’t take anything personally. It can feel like an attack, but know that the owners are just trying to find the best fit for their restaurant. It’s a business.
Your best tip for success?
Don’t overthink it. If you have an idea, don’t go crazy out-of-the-box with it. Do what you know best.