For many interested in a culinary career, the price tag associated with top culinary schools can be daunting. For that reason, Chef Heidi Zerbe, CWPC, executive pastry chef, Amp’d Group, chose an American Culinary Federation Education Foundation (ACFEF) apprenticeship program at Westmoreland County Community College (WCCC), Youngwood, Pennsylvania, which allowed her to work full time while going to school.
A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Chef Zerbe earned her associate of applied science in baking and pastry arts in 2015 from WCCC, during which she was a pastry apprentice at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Farmington, Pennsylvania. Following her 4,000-hour apprenticeship at Nemacolin, she became the assistant production manager at Bethel Bakery, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, before joining Amp’d Group, Pittsburgh, as executive pastry chef in October 2015.
While looking for a low-cost alternative to culinary school, Chef Zerbe met ACFEF Apprenticeship Committee chair Dr. Cindy Komarinski, Ph.D, CCC, CCE, HAAC, who introduced her to the American Culinary Federation and the apprenticeship program at WCCC. Chef Zerbe is now the Sergeant-at-Arms for the Laurel Highlands Chapter. She credits her ACF membership with providing her access to new chefs and opportunities, and also for her fiance, who she met on the Knowledge Bowl team at WCCC. “The networking opportunities have been outstanding,” she says. “The chapter also hosts monthly dinners and events that have allowed me to visit new places where I can learn new ideas and techniques that I use in my job.”
Chef Zerbe shares her ACFEF apprenticeship experience with We Are Chefs, including how it has prepared her for a career as an executive pastry chef with responsibilities that include overseeing the pastries for three Amp’d Group restaurants, managerial aspects of the role and being a key player in the recent opening of Social House 7, Pittsburgh.
What are your roles and responsibilities at Social House 7?
As the executive pastry chef for Amp’d Group, I am responsible for the pastries at Ten Penny, an upscale American restaurant, Delanie’s Coffee Shop and the newly opened Social House 7, an Asian fusion restaurant. I research and create the dessert menus for both Ten Penny and Social House, and work with two assistants to prep and plate our items daily. My team is also responsible for the desserts for parties in our private dining area or banquet space, such as bridal showers and rehearsal dinners. I frequently meet with the executive chefs at both Ten Penny and Social House 7 to discuss sales and upcoming events and handle all managerial aspects of the pastry chef role, such as inventory, costing, scheduling and purchasing.
Why did you choose an ACFEF apprenticeship?
I chose the apprenticeship option over standard culinary school because I liked the idea of working full-time while going to school. There were a lot of advantages in taking what I learned in class and applying those techniques immediately in the pastry kitchen at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. This especially helped me because I am a hands-on learner. It also helped that the cost was much lower than other culinary schools and let me earn a paycheck while I was a student.
How did your apprenticeship prepare you for your career?
Although I have been baking since I was eight years old, it was only at home. I always took charge of desserts for holidays and family events, but I did not have the formal training I wanted. The apprenticeship program helped build my career by teaching me the classic French pastry techniques that I use daily on the job. Through the required 4,000 hours of work, I learned time management skills that have prepared me for my current role. I also use more than just the pastry skills I learned, as I find myself remembering management techniques from my Supervision and Training class and all of the required math that I was taught in my Food Purchasing and Menu Management class.
What advice do you have for others who are considering an apprenticeship?
If you are considering an apprenticeship option, I highly recommend that you do it. There are so many advantages to the program, but I would advise thinking carefully about whether you can commit yourself completely to such a massive undertaking. It’s undeniably a lot of work, but it’s more than worth it! If you are up for the task, you will learn and grow so much in two years, and you will be able to enter the workforce with an invaluable set of not only culinary or pastry skills, but management skills as well. And don’t get behind in your logbooks.
Most interesting lesson learned in apprenticeship program?
The best lesson I learned as an apprentice is that through the help of the chefs and instructors, I found that I am capable of doing so much more than I realized. Through the apprenticeship, I’ve learned how to take the ideas in my head and create a dessert and actually put it on a plate. It is a satisfying feeling to know that I have the knowledge and skills to perform the things I wanted to do before the apprenticeship.
You recently were involved in a restaurant opening, what was that like?
I have never been part of a restaurant opening, so everything was completely different. Managing Ten Penny and making pastries for Delanies, all while opening Social House 7 has been quite a roller coaster, and at times overwhelming. Fortunately, I have two amazing assistants, Taylor Lamb and Samantha Santti, who have been great at helping me with production and service. I really couldn’t ask for a better team. The owners of Amp’d Group have provided me with an incredible opportunity and are supportive of my role and what I bring to the table. Before opening Social House, I knew very little about Asian desserts, so the menu planning was an interesting process to go through, with a lot of research, experimentation and trial runs. It’s been fun to see the feedback from guests about my dessert menu, including what they love and areas where I can improve.
What do you love most about baking and pastry art?
I love the creativity that I get to use on a daily basis. For me, it’s not just about making food that tastes good, but looks pretty and is interesting as well. When my desserts go to the table, I want a guest to be excited. Coming up with a cohesive menu that showcases a variety of flavors and profiles has also been fun for me.
Ready to take the next step in your career? Find an ACFEF-accredited school near you. Want to network with other inspiring chefs? Call our membership department today at (904) 824-4468 and learn how an ACF membership can help jump start your career.