As the executive pastry chef for Victoria’s renowned Fairmont Empress, D’Oyen Christie continues to test his limits as a baker, a chef, a sculptor of chocolate and a mentor.
“My duties, day to day, include making menus, working with the sales team, creating showpieces such as chocolate sculptures, mentoring staff members and designing products that appeal to the Fairmont customer,” says Christie.
His career path began in Jamaica at age 15 when he chose to take home economics in high school. “It was a bit of an unusual choice for a boy,” he says. “I convinced a buddy to take it with me and, of course, all our friends would come around at the end of the day to see what we had made.”
Moving to Toronto at 17, Christie followed his passion, encouraged by his mother, who worked in the pastry shop at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. His first apprenticeship was under the watchful eye of respected Pastry Chef Shing Yu at the Holiday Inn City Hall. Christie worked with Yu for six years, learning much about being a baker. “I was fortunate to have such a good mentor,” he recalls. “He was like a dad to me. He taught me how to work with chocolate and a lot of the basics of being a pastry chef.”
Christie thinks of himself as “a chocolatier at heart,” and his love for the delicious desserts inspired him to become a sculptor. He won Gold at the 1989 International Taste of Canada for his chocolate showpiece and dessert.
The Fairmont Empress is one of the iconic hotels of the Fairmont Hotels & Resorts properties, and afternoon tea has been a ritual and tradition there for as long as the hotel has existed. It is up to Christie and his 10-member team to satisfy the high expectations of more than 115,000 afternoon tea guests annually.
“I have a very satisfying job,” he says. “It is wonderful, at the end of the day, to have had an idea and to see it through to fruition. It’s an amazing feeling.” Christie shares his enthusiasm for being a pastry chef by mentoring the apprentices on his team, as well as doing demonstrations for charitable functions, such as the annual Big Brothers, Big Sisters event in Victoria.
He views apprenticeship training as being very important, because nothing compares with hands-on experience and having a teacher who takes an active interest in the student. “A lot of the new generation these days have different ideas about what work is going to be like,” says Christie. “Some don’t want to work midnight shifts, for example. But if you are dedicated to learning, you must be willing to do the hard work. I had a teacher who used to say, ‘First you learn, then you earn.’ And once you have that skill, you can go and work anywhere.”
Keeping up on the latest developments in kitchen methods and technology is also important. “I spent quite a lot of time taking courses in-house and in college about management, for example,” says Christie. “I’d recommend that anyone wanting to be a pastry chef should take the basic and the advanced courses in baking. When I’ve gone to the World Pastry Forum in America, and on my visits to France, I’ve used the opportunity to take different courses being offered. I’m constantly upgrading my skills.”
Christie says dedication is very important for anyone who hopes to be a chef. “I enjoy my job,” he says. “And I do it because I love it — not just because I’m making money from it. It is so satisfying. As a pastry chef, I do things that a nine-to-fiver doesn’t get to do. I help people learn, I’m a part of their life, I help them to get where they want to go.”
His advice to anyone planning to become a pastry chef is to “go to school and get the basics. You need to learn the foundation of pastry and baking. It is also a good idea to work in a bakery or pastry shop for a year and learn about the industry.” While he admits that working in a kitchen is “not as glamorous as you see on television,” the payoff is high for those committed to the industry.
Having worked at various Fairmont hotels across the country, Christie is happy to find himself in Victoria, his home for the last seven years. But he continues to travel as he is frequently asked to visit colleges and apprenticeship training facilities. “I get asked if I would mentor a particular student for a couple of weeks,” says Christie. “I always say, ‘no problem.’ An executive pastry chef is also a manager, and you are actually teaching someone how to put your thoughts into action.”