From a “wake up call” two years ago to a grueling six-week externship in Colorado this spring, Donna Ryan became the newest diplomaed pastry chef in Hobbs. Ryan and her husband Tim Ryan have owned and operated the Hobbs Orthopedic & Sports Therapy (HOST) on North Grimes Street for 33 years, but she still had an unfulfilled wish.
“I’ve had kind of a diverse direction in my life from being a homemaker and a mom, to a registered nurse, to an orthopedic registered nurse, to a culinary school, to a catering business, to helping as a business manager of the clinic and, now, a pastry chef,” Donna Ryan said.
She recently graduated from the world renown Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts with a diploma in pastry arts.
While USA Today listed the school among the nation’s top 10 last year, the industry’s organ Chef’s Pencil ranked Escoffier as No. 1 in the world. Ryan said once she closed her catering business around 2014, she had considered the pastry arts among her weaknesses.
Then, the COVID pandemic hit. “I knew after I had been a chef and working in the business more than 10 years it’s difficult to make the money that you intend as a caterer. It’s not easy. I knew that pastry was an area I felt somewhat lacking in. You get some of that in culinary school, but not in any kind of depth to develop skills,” Ryan said.
She had earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts from Odessa College near the beginning of this century. That was in addition to her other associate’s degree in nursing as a prelude to becoming a registered nurse.
“I kind of had in the back of my mind that some day I’d go to pastry school,” Ryan said, but she discovered in order to get that training, she would have had to live somewhere else for a while since there is no pastry school near Hobbs.
Still working with her husband at the HOST, she didn’t want to move even for a couple of years. “Then COVID happened and during the pandemic we were on vacation and I also got sick. Not with COVID, but I was hospitalized and it was sort of a wake-up call,” Ryan said.
While recovering, she opened her social media access and found Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts offered online curricula and diplomas. “Out of the blue,” Ryan said, “out pops this program. It’s an online program. They have main campuses in Boulder, Colo., and Austin, Texas. But they also have this online program for a pastry certification. It’s a year-and-a-half. There’s a six-week externship involved.”
She explained an externship differs from an internship because the skills already exist and the extern is simply honing them. Another difference is an intern usually gets paid.
“Of course, I approached my family. My husband was somewhat supportive,” Ryan smiled. “But my daughter said, ‘Mom, you don’t have the time to do that.’ I’m involved in my church. I do a lot of volunteer work. I’m in other organizations. And I work.”
But she followed her strong desires, looked into the process and enrolled.
“I started in January 2021. We had different subject matters. Every six weeks, it would change. We had quizzes and tests,” Ryan, said, just like going to a physical campus.
Photographs of everything she baked for the class were required.
“With the pictures on the cell phone, those chef instructors could spread out a picture and see the tiniest crumb. They could tell if there was anything substituted or faked,” Ryan said. “For each product you baked, you also had to write up a report, including the recipe, any mistakes, and what you learned. Even though I had some skills, it was a broader program. The chef instructors were very supportive.”
When the final six weeks of the course came along, Ryan had to decide how she could complete the externship. Now, staying in Hobbs was out of the question.
Ryan said, “There was little to offer in Hobbs for that level of expertise, so I went to Denver where my kids live and stayed with them and commuted 40 minutes every day where my chef instructor was opening a brand new bakery in Aurora, Colo.”
The chef instructor impressed Ryan for the six-week period.
“She’s Vietnamese, but she’s French-trained and just a phenomenal baker,” Ryan said. “I learned so much. I worked so hard.”
Now boasting two children who are professionals straddling the age of 40 in addition to all the other career turns in her life, Ryan realized the pastry work took a lot out of her in spite of her love for it.
“I’m at the age now where I’m not used to putting in those long hours,” Ryan said. “As an RN, you work 12 hours. As a caterer, you work however long you need to work, but just doing office work is not as taxing.”
As the HOST business manager, her duties entail mostly bookkeeping and billing, though at some time she has help practically every position in the operation. The externship was different.
“You’re expected, when you walk in at 5 a.m. to start getting your baking done,” Ryan said. “At the end of the day, I drove my 40 minutes back to the kids’ house and pretty much collapsed. Then, got up the next morning and did it again. That was six weeks.”
She graduated in May with a diploma in pastry arts.
But during her classes, Ryan said, she couldn’t eat all the items she baked, so she gave them to her friends around town, among whom were Jim and Judy Britton, who received some pastry called Paris-Brest.
“Jim and I have had the pleasure sampling some of her productions and they are amazing,” Judy Brit-ton said.
Does Ryan plan to go into business in Hobbs?
“Besides the baking, (the school) has business classes,” Ryan said. “They teach you how to set up a business, how to price a menu, how to price your products, and all the bakers’ math.”
But she has yet to take that step.
“I don’t have a brick and mortar or a business license, yet, but last summer I did a school for 20 children ages 8-12 for two weeks,” Ryan said. “We baked and we had the best fun. We tried everything from making waffles, to muffins to cheesecakes to pies. We did it all.”
She said she taught the kids how to wash dishes and clean up after themselves, then gave each of them a baking kit that included measuring cups and spoons, mixing bowl and whisk, “all the things you need to start baking with.”
Would she encourage others to become a pastry chef ?
“If you’re thinking of going into the baking profession, you need to have your resources as far as food purveyors,” Ryan said, in addition to ingredients. “You do go through a lot of butter and eggs. That’s the benefit of me being a chef first, that I had all of that in place. I have a lot of equipment that I had purchased over the years.”
What does her family now think of her accomplishment?
“They love it. They think it’s fabulous. My daughter loves to bake and I’ve been teaching her a few tricks of the trade,” Ryan concluded. “And my son is quite the accomplished cook. He’s been teaching me things that I have never experienced.”
She did laugh that most meals at home aren’t the gourmet type because her husband Tim is what she calls “more vanilla in tastes.”