Baking & Pastry
Chef Instructor, Baking and Pastry
The Art Institute of California—San Francisco, a campus of Argosy University
The culinary industry is not an easy one—it takes commitment, hard work, and discipline. Cindy Mushet , Chef Instructor, Baking and Pastry , The Art Institute of California—San Francisco, a campus of Argosy University
What would you say is the defining moment in your life when you knew you were destined to become a creative professional?
I grew up watching the joy that creativity brings to people, and knew I wanted to do the same. My first job was in a bakery, where I learned to pipe cakes and write with chocolate, and from there I was hooked. The fragrance of butter and sugar, the quiet solitude of pre-opening, and the happiness of customers with their freshly baked pastries—I knew this would feed my soul. And it has.
How do you weave your professional background into the classroom experience to provide an industry veteran's sense of the realities / challenges / opportunities of the profession?
The culinary industry is not an easy one—it takes commitment, hard work, and discipline—but the payoff is living your passion every day and the ability to open creative avenues for success as YOU define it. I had good role models and mentors throughout my career, and their advice, support, and encouragement helped me reach my goals. I strive to do the same for my students. I worked hard to create opportunities in many arenas of food, not only baking in restaurants (my first love), but also consulting, speaking at conferences, recipe development, teaching, writing articles for national newspapers and magazines, authoring three books (one an IACP award winner and James Beard Award finalist), traveling and teaching around the country, appearing on TV, even opening my own specialty baking business. Every day in every class, I connect the knowledge I’ve gained over the years to what my students are learning, and how that will apply in their profession.
The rewards come as you master the skills needed to be successful. Students often want to jump ahead to create a masterpiece they’ve seen on Instagram, which is fantastic, yet there are steps to climb before you reach the highest level of your creativity. Here at Ai, we take those steps, and I offer help, explanation, and practice on the building blocks of a career in food, while offering examples from my career struggles and triumphs and tips I’ve formulated for success that can clarify a technique and lift students to the next level on their path to success. In addition to having success, I’ve made every mistake possible, and learned from them all. I share those experiences so students can understand why they are doing things, what leads to success and what can impede their progress. The breadth of knowledge that instructors here at Ai have to share is vast and, I believe, is one of the most beneficial aspects of the culinary program.
Is there a class assignment that exemplifies your approach to teaching and mentoring? Similarly, how does your approach inspire each student to push themselves beyond their own perceived limits?
In Advanced Patisserie, students are required to create seasonal menus of plated desserts. We talk at length about flavors and textures, sauces and garnishes. The students spend time researching desserts and learning how plated desserts are created, and we practice making plated desserts in class. For their research project, each student goes to a restaurant and orders a plated dessert and writes a review of the dessert, its components, the restaurant and the service. At that point, it all comes together for them. The classroom is important for roots, but the real knowledge blossoms as the students get out into the world and begin to critically evaluate food using the knowledge they’ve gained in school. Many times students will come to a class and say they are not interested in learning the subject (for example, breads, or plated desserts, when all they wanted to do was decorate cakes). Once students learn the skills of each new baked good, they gain confidence, their horizon expands, and so do their career opportunities. Encouraging students to get out and try baked goods on a regular basis expands their breadth of knowledge and critical thinking about what makes food good. Exploration fuels creativity, passion, and vibrant conversations in the classroom. It’s an essential part of the education process.
What role does collaboration contribute to students' success, especially when students from other programs contribute to the same project?
Kitchens are all about collaboration—teams working together to achieve common goals. Learning to collaborate is a skill, and the education at Ai fosters that skill. In kitchen classes, students work in teams, and even though each student is responsible for executing their own recipe(s), they must work together to finish the team’s production of baked goods on time. This takes communication, coordination, and active listening, as well as baking skills. Some teams work smoothly, and some teams require more work, but all professional kitchens are team-oriented, and students learn how to problem solve, motivate, support, and professionally critique each other as they progress through school.
When majors from several departments work together, magic happens. There are several events every year that bring students from various departments together, such as the Fashion Show or Ai Out Loud, and these are opportunities to see the creativity and skills of students across the school. Culinary students have the opportunity to cater these events, set up displays, and watch others enjoy the food they made, another experience outside the classroom that exponentially enhances the learning experience inside the classroom.
In your opinion, what is the single most important thing you impart to your students to help them succeed in your class and in the real world? Alternatively, what is the most critical advice you would offer any student as he / she embarks on a creative career?
The requirements of professionalism in the food industry are the most important thing I teach students. They can always learn a new recipe or a new technique in the industry—and they will learn many throughout their careers—but the core values of a professional kitchen do not change and success is dependent upon them. Organization, preparedness, respect for all, cleaning, listening and remembering, proper storage and sanitation, teamwork—once a student learns those, the sky is the limit.
My advice at the start of a career is to work as hard as you can and learn as much as you can before you start to follow the money. Give yourself time to work in several places and experience various aspects of the food industry before you settle on a career path. You may think you want to start a food truck when you arrive at school, but once you open yourself to new experiences and a broader depth of knowledge, you may change your mind completely, or realize that the food truck is perfect for you. There are many opportunities in the food world—if you are professional and build your skills, you will rise quickly and have your choice of jobs. If you jump for the title of executive pastry chef a year out of school because you want the salary that goes with it, this will hinder you in the long run. Take time to learn, hone your craft, and become an expert in your field. As your title and salary rise, you will have less time for those things, and you will need a strong base of knowledge to be successful and continue to rise.