By LA QUINTA CLARK
New York City can be a tough place for up and coming chefs, and like those before her Veronica Espinoza found that out.
The Texan native worked as a paralegal for several years in Austin, but decided to start anew after a painful breakup with a longtime boyfriend.
“I was dating someone for a long time and it didn’t work out and I was heartbroken. I had a cousin invite me to Mexico to this little town where the grade level was seventh grade and they would have people come in and show them how to make sweet bread and sell it so they could make profits for themselves,” she said. “I had a piece and it was delicious and at that moment I figured out no matter where you go I was still going to be heartbroken…I felt like I needed to change something about myself.”
She combined her love for the arts with her passion for desserts and enrolled at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin, gaining a degree in Baking and Pastry Arts. She pursued a pastry culinary degree in order to help others by creating foods with love and care that would touch their soul.
Espinoza had not intended to switch gears and become a pastry chef. In her mind she had everything one could ask for—a budding career, a good relationship, and a strong family bond. The thought of moving thousands of miles away from home never occurred to her, but with the curve ball life threw, she decided it was time to make a change. Making sweet breads in Mexico jump-started the idea and ultimately set her on the path to becoming a pastry chef in New York City.
Most restaurant patrons rarely see the chefs, and probably do not think much about them; but they do appreciate presentation, taste, and quick service, and it is the chef’s job to provide all three.
Espinoza began her career at the Ausable Club, a country club on the Adirondack Mountain Reserve in upstate New York, acquiring the title of executive pastry chef. From there she moved to Maine where she owned and operated a small non-profit business, Cakes for Kids in Care, in which she baked for children in need. Due to life changes, she sold the business and moved back to New York City.
Upon moving back, she worked as a pastry chef alongside the then sous chef and current executive chef, Scot Burnett, at the Carlton Hotel restaurant Millesime on Madison Avenue for an entire year. Afterward she partnered with Savory Chef Chris Van De Walt to open a catering service, Yummy Perfection, stationed in Manhattan. Her usual days are filled with catering events from weddings to corporate dinners, including vegan dishes.
Espinoza is no stranger to hard work and going after what she wants, and she also believes in not settling for less. She is aware of the battle for minimum wage increases and the disparate pay between female and male chefs in New York City and would like to see change in the future.
“It starts with today; you have to know what you’re worth,” she says.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11,140 chefs were employed in New York City with an hourly mean wage of $24.24 in 2014. This could be a livable pay for other areas, but in New York low pay can stretch the pockets.
With the recent protest concentrating on higher wages for fast food workers, public and freelance chefs are less likely to see an increase any time soon. Some restaurateurs are considering an end to tipping to balance the “back of the house with the front of the house.”
Is the low pay and grunt work worth it for chefs?
Espinoza and Burnett say cooking is a job, like any other. It requires patience and love for the work. The money is not the best to start but the overall experience is worth it. The most important thing is to find your niche and build from there. Espinoza also founded and dedicated a Facebook page— Chefs and Cooks of New York— in honor of the skills and hard work that they display everyday.