08 Dec עופר איתן Affirm: Chef’s Table: The creation of a pastry chef from scratch
Traditionally, male kitchen chefs have viewed the bakery as a dead-end career. For years, it was not considered a real chef’s job. But for award-winning pastry chef Brittany Allen it’s become a place of opportunity, the first step to creating her business.
Allen, alongside co-owner fiancé Jarrett Delaney, operate Confections Cake Co., a distinctive bakery-café hybrid located on downtown Perron St. that opened in 2018.
“It’s my own twist on things,” says the slender five-foot Allen, flashing a high-wattage Julia Roberts-type smile.
For a decade, the pastry world has offered Allen an opportunity to hone her creativity. Combining those creative juices with ideas borrowed from travelling across Italy, France, Belgium, the Caribbean, Mexico and London, England, the diminutive chef is taking advantage of world trends to create edible art.
Unlike the noise of slamming pots in a restaurant, Allen’s kitchen is populated by a couple of bakers who work quietly baking and sculpting. Everyone appears to share the same skill set: attention to detail, mastery of precise techniques and talent for last-minute design changes.
Her preference for the pastry kitchen is partly built on the pride of working with a small, close-knit staff that reduces the competitive hierarchy found in restaurants.
“I worked a lot of chef’s jobs, and in my experience I worked with a lot of grumpy people who don’t want to work there. So why stay there?” she asks.
Unlike many professional chefs who were inspired by family members’ culinary skills, Allen states her mother was “a terrible cook.”
“She cooked the crap out of everything. She got better over the years, but I would have never learned to cook if I hadn’t gone to cooking school.”
Allen’s father, Mark, was in the Canadian military’s transport division. The family of four was posted across Canada with major moves that included a stop at Morinville before their final destination at Comox, B.C.
As a shy kid, Allen despised each move. It meant trying to make new friends once again.
“When we moved to Comox in Grade 7, everybody already had friends they’d known for years. And it was hard getting to make new friends.”
However, she focused on competitive gymnastics, eventually rising to provincial level competitions.
Her original career choice was veterinary school, but was quickly discarded.
“I didn’t have good grades and I sucked at biology. Then I looked into being a vet tech. They’re the ones who put the animals down and I didn’t think I could do it. I want to love animals,” says Allen, the proud owner of Willow, a half bull mastiff/half boxer dog, as well as two cats – Rusty, an orange tabby, and Zen, a calico Persian.
Her final choice was a three-year culinary arts program at North Island College. While studying at college, she gained real-life business experience with a friend creating recipes and designing an entire menu for The Gatehouse Bistro.
“It was very disorganized. The lady who owned it wouldn’t hire people. We were cooking food in the kitchen and then we’d take off our uniform and run food to the table.”
A soft blush creeps into Allen’s cheeks when asked what prompted the shift to consider pastry cheffing.
“A friend asked me to make a crazy cake for her sister’s bachelorette party, and I discovered I was good at sculpting.”
Allen refuses to describe the cake shape. Flashing another bright smile, she adds a description is unsuitable for the paper.
After spending a year in Vancouver Island University’s pastry arts program, she moved to Edmonton for an eight-month apprenticeship at Duchess Bake Shop, where mass production was critical to the business.
“I almost died the first week I was there. I was on the tart station and I had to make 60 shells, and finish them and package them, and then make macarons. It took me an hour to do three tarts. But I learned how to work efficiently. I definitely learned to do fast-paced quality work. I knew I wanted to do cakes when I was there. I was obsessed with cake shows and making 3D cakes.”
Further refining her skills, Allen baked, iced, sculpted and painted cakes at St. Albert’s Over the Top Cakes for five years.
Currently, her artistry lends itself to baking and sculpting a cake as simple as a tiered hamburger or a sleek car to a complicated unicorn or Game of Thrones scene complete with a throne and scaly dragon.
Just this year, Allen and her team built a metre-high evergreen tree with seven Disney dwarves climbing a ladder for St. Albert’s Snowflake Festival.
Her pastry prowess was also in full view at the 2019 Festival of Trees where she constructed a Marvel Avengers Christmas gingerbread house that grabbed silver. In 2018, she built a royal themed gingerbread castle that was awarded gold.
“Travelling around Italy inspired the idea of a dessert bar. When Jarrett decided we should do it, it took me a lot of convincing. This is a lot more work than a bakery. It’s more money, more staff. It’s basically a restaurant. But Jarrett always believed in me. He not only pushed me to follow my dreams, but jumped right in.”
The idea of modelling a European dessert bar was not simply a nice idea. It also stemmed from fond family memories.
“When Dad was away, my mom and I would go to fancy places and eat desserts. My favourite thing to do is sit at a café, eat food and people watch. And when I travel, I try to go as far away from tourist places as I can. Sometimes the places are sketchy, but the food is always better.”
Not only is Allen open to creating a delicious confection from virtually any idea presented. She also uses her culinary expertise to create the dessert bar’s light food menu. The scrumptious but limited menu features a charcuterie board, breaded pickles, baked Brie, potato skins, spinach salad and a blueberry Brie sandwich.
The dessert bar just added a mouth-watering weekend waffle breakfast that has spiked traffic.
“By serving a waffle breakfast, Sunday went from being our slowest to our busiest day.”
Allen’s attention to creativity, design, production and profitability are always at the forefront of any major decision. Competition is stiff and as eager entrepreneurs, Allen and Delaney have taken a novel approach, offering cooking classes, paint nights, mic nights and a once-a-month movie night. This month’s screening is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on Saturday, Dec. 21.
“We try to do as much as we can to keep the interest up,” she says.
When asked if Allen has advice for aspiring pastry chefs keen to open a business, she laughingly replies, “It’s hard work. You’re not going to sleep for a long, long, time. Don’t think you will.”
After a moment Allen adds, “You can always learn more. Don’t ever let yourself get arrogant. There is always something you can learn. I always learn something every day. Just keep trying.”