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18 January 2021

Libertad Santiago: “Every day more female pastry chefs are moving away from the male archetype”

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The pastry chef, who has recently opened a signature chocolatier, is critical of the system and affirms that if market prices could be adjusted and better salaries offered, the career abandonment rate of female chefs would be reduced.

Libertad Santiago, who represented Spain in the prestigious C3 Valrhona dessert contest in 2018, trained at the EPGB and EspaiSucre, and has worked as a pastry chef in Barcelona restaurants such as Línea and Dos Palillos. In 2020, she decided to go one step further and open her own business: Efímera Chocolates in Sant Cugat (Barcelona). It is an attractive establishment, where signature chocolates with artistic finishes are produced every daily in full sight of the customers. 

The chef, who is of Venezuelan origin, believes that greatest chefs are those who have managed to balance their feminine and masculine skills, and she encourages women to push themselves to find their own voice and explore their creative style. 

1.- How has the role of pastry evolved over the last ten years?

Ten years ago I had still not begun working with pastry. It was in 2011 when I started working in a small pastry shop in Sant Cugat, where I fell in love with the trade and I decided to enrol in the Gremio de Barcelona Pastry School. I remember that at that time, almost a decade ago, American pastry was in fashion, Spain had won the World Cup and El Bulli was closing its doors. In Barcelona, a very positive phase began for the sector, where colours, shapes, formats, flavours and techniques were changing, not only in pastry shops, but also in restaurants. Chefs who knew Ferran Adrià's cuisine well were now opening their own restaurants in the city and a range of new pastry ideas, new menus and new desserts were being created. Haute cuisine techniques were being passed down to a new generation. In 2013, Celler de Can Roca was named the best restaurant in the world by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and the image of the Pastry Chef took centre stage. In addition, MasterChef was launched, making the profession more popular, so cooking and pastry schools ran out of places within the first few days. The Fòrum Gastronòmic gained prestige and renown, and new gastronomic events arose. Then came the beginning of the social media boom of pastry chefs and chefs who are true artists of culinary styling, and now, almost without realising it, we are also selling online. I believe that pastry has undergone a highly dynamic, effervescent and growth-filled last decade, on a technical and creative level, as a business model, at a sales and marketing level, and also as a professional career option. Without a doubt, it is an industry with great potential and many possibilities to explore.

2.- You have worked as a pastry chef in restaurants like Línea and Dos Palillos. Why have you decided to open a signature chocolatier’s now? Is it more difficult to start a business of this kind as a woman?

My dream was always to start my own project. I decided on signature chocolates because it combines the two things that I love most: artistic expression and chocolate. At Efímera Chocolates we make hand-painted chocolates with the taste complexity of a high-level gastronomic dessert. In essence, they are a metaphor for life, which is made up of moments filled with flavour, whose unique beauty is enhanced by their very brevity.

I believe that women have many natural skills and abilities that are especially favourable when it comes to entrepreneurship. We are creatures with a great capacity to dream, project and visualize, the basics of any undertaking. We also have the facility to communicate with passion and enthusiasm, and this is very important when starting a project and needing the support of other people and institutions. In addition, we have an advantage that we can exploit even more. The feminine creative style applied to gastronomic design, in visual and taste terms, is yet to be fully explored, and it is an excellent opportunity to differentiate oneself in the sector.

The entrepreneurial experience is as exciting as it is demanding. It requires a lot of care, patience and affection. The world of cuisine has evolved a lot thanks to the contribution of great chefs who have managed to balance their feminine and masculine skills to create a new vision of gastronomy. We can clearly appreciate it in restaurants and today’s dishes: heightened taste experiences, spaces in which to feel at ease and increasingly personable and efficient work systems. In particular, when the artisan becomes an entrepreneur, they need feminine skills to connect with their own sensitivity and creativity; and masculine skills to have a logical and rational approach when making decisions. 

3.- What challenges do women in the sector face?

Pastry and cooking, as well as other arts and crafts, lend themselves to exploring the complexity of each personality.As human beings, we all have a male and a female side. I have worked with male chefs who have such finesse in their technique and such delicacy in the way they work with products, that the movements of their hands seem light and smooth. I have also worked with female chefs who have managed their dishes with the discipline and rigour of a military general.When I think of the role of women or men in the pastry sector, or any other creative sector, I prefer to view it simply as the role of a person who, with their own abilities and shortcomings, decides to take up a challenge.

I think it is interesting for women in the sector to challenge ourselves to dare to explore and find our own savoir-faire. To do this, we need to take the time to connect directly with matter, flavours, textures and sensations through our five senses. Only then will we understand the shape of each ingredient and be able to transform it according to our own criteria. The secret of creativity is knowledge and study, only then can we stop copying and start presenting our own discourse. We have mastered the technique, now we only need to feel truly free and safe to express ourselves through our work, each one through her own style, and creating her own vision. We know how to improve what we do every day, now it’s time to find our own voice.

4.- Do you think there is a scant presence of women at pastry congresses and events? What do you think could be done to end female invisibility?

I believe that every day there is a greater presence of women at congresses, events and pastry competitions. I also believe that female chefs are increasingly finding their own way of cooking and baking. Every day we women in the sector are moving away from the masculine archetype, and we are becoming more authentic and confident; and that allows us to bring a new sensitivity and vision to the sector. I find it interesting to note that the figure and image of the male pastry chef has also evolved and has become considerably stylised in recent years. This makes me reflect and think that perhaps the new generations of chefs will be increasingly heterogeneous and will greatly enrich how pastries are made in creativity and style. You cannot create a great chef overnight; it is a trade in which, in order to demonstrate skill, you need time and experience, but I believe that we are going in the right direction and that we will see this change in the medium and long terms.

5.- Do you think women have the same opportunities (salaries, positions of responsibility, recognition, etc.) as men in this sector? Is there a solution?

When you visit pastry schools, you realise that there are as many girls as there are boys. I think the problem should not be focused on the opportunity gap or the salary gap, but on the restaurant/hospitality system in general. In Spain, gastronomic cuisine has evolved a lot, but its structures and remuneration systems have become obsolete. When you dedicate yourself to a profession that requires as much investment in training, hours of work, skills, abilities and management capacity as haute cuisine, the logical thing should be to receive a corresponding salary. When you work between 70 and 80 hours a week, and you have little time for personal life and household management, earning a salary that allows you to access certain resources makes it easier to counteract the less amenable effects of the profession. If the profession were better paid, it would prevent many cooks, especially in the case of women who are or want to be mothers, from abandoning the career for other options that are more lucrative or which offer a better balance between one’s personal and professional life. As an entrepreneur, I understand, from the point of view of the employee and the employer, that this is a delicate and complex subject. I am not making the comment as a criticism of restaurant owners, or of the union, but of the system as a whole. I believe that the solution is to educate the consumer from all angles so that they value our work more. The challenge lies in knowing how to communicate more clearly the quality of our work, our philosophy and way of creating, which is not only about making food, it is about creating an experience. Perhaps in this way, market prices can be adjusted, allowing us to offer better salaries, to help reduce the career abandonment rate of female chefs and thus increase their presence in all those positions and scenarios that require great dedication, commitment and experience.

6.- Is it difficult for a woman to balance her personal and professional life in pastry making?

While you want to seek excellence, coordinating your personal and work life is difficult. Great results are only achieved with great effort, and that requires sacrifice. The pastry industry is offering more and more new forms of employment. Not all jobs carry the same demands as Michelin star restaurants. There are all kinds of levels. The important thing, in any case, is to be honest with yourself, define the extent of your own aspirations and be consistent in choosing the lifestyle you want to have, the style of pastry you want to make and the place where you choose to work. Also, to know how to communicate your dreams and goals, and surround yourself with people who support and encourage you.

7.- What tips do you have for female students who want to be bakers?

Having the opportunity to address future pastry chefs who want to achieve excellence in this trade, I would recommend that they try everything they can, but to do so with concentration and conscientiousness, sharpening their knives and creating a system of notes and paying attention to the work they are doing, it is easier than it seems to forget a recipe. Find a place of work where there are chefs willing to teach you and where you feel that you are learning. Form a group of professional colleagues with the same or at least similar aspirations to yours, because the journey is long, it is hard and it is highly adivisable to have people who support you. In addition, it is also fun and enriching. If you can share the moments of laughter and celebration with people whom you understand and connect with, all the better.

8.- Have you experienced any discriminatory situations in your profession because you are a woman?

Personally, I have never experienced any situation of discrimination. I have always been fortunate to work with respectful and understanding people, human people. I understand that sometimes life can put us in difficult situations, and that they can be described as unfair, but it is precisely in those moments when we have to act with responsibility and self-respect, knowing how to set our boundaries and move on.