Melanie Dunn

Chef/Owner, Pâtisserie Mélanie

Studied at: Le Cordon Bleu, Paris

What is the first recipe you ever baked?
Lemon bars.

What’s your favorite thing to bake at home?
Bread.

Kouign-amann from Patisserie Melanie in San Diego

What is your go-to dessert?
For dinner parties, I usually make a panna cotta layered with a gelée and fresh fruit, which looks stunning if assembled in a martini glass and you can make it the night before. To eat for myself? I love pavlova in summer with lots of crème Chantilly and fresh fruit and apple crisp in the winter.

What inspired you to become a chef?
I had a passion for baking when I was young, but I didn’t dream of becoming a chef until 10 years ago, when I was a high school English teacher. I was feeling stagnant in my job and working with food and baking (especially French pastries) was always at the top of the list of things I would most like to do if I wasn’t teaching. It took me three long years to complete the patisserie program at Le Cordon Bleu. But the whole time, I held onto the vision of life as a pastry chef.

My husband and I weighed me working at a bakery for long hours and minimum wage against digging into our savings for me to open my own small-batch bakery to bring our neighborhood the kinds of high-quality viennoiseries and pastries you could only find in Paris. It was an easy decision to make, coupled with the fact that we already owned a commercial space. Voila! Pâtisserie Mélanie was born.

Chocolate pastry from Patisserie Melanie in San Diego

What advice would you offer to anyone looking to start a culinary career?

As a former teacher, I really believe in formal education. I was fortunate to be able to attend what’s considered the best school for my particular discipline, but I understand that’s not always an option. Also, there are some schools that make big promises but leave students with nothing but debt and a job they could have gotten just by walking into a restaurant or bakery. Having a degree from a cooking school doesn’t guarantee you a spot in a kitchen, and you have to be willing to wash dishes, sweep floors, do the unglamorous prep work.

Most importantly, as with anything you do, there’s no substitute for hard work. Until you have a culinary career, cook and bake on your own time as much as possible and photograph your work—in progress and final product. It will be evidence for future employers of both your passion and skills.