Hailey Pacyna knew from an early age that she wanted to become a pastry chef.
In 2014, a 12-year-old Pacyna discovered her flair for baking when she entered a Key lime pie competition in her hometown of Islamorada, Florida. Though she was up against seasoned home bakers, Pacyna won with her own take on the traditional pie. She won again the following year. Then, the year after that, she won an even bigger baking competition in Key West.
Those contests helped Pacyna realize that not only did she have a passion for baking, but she had talent. She continued to develop her skills, making cakes, snickerdoodles, and raspberry cookies. She also began to take inspiration from the elaborate creations she saw professional pastry chefs post on social media. “Every day I look at them and I’m like, wow, I want to do that,” she says.
She’s already well on her way. Now a rising high school senior, Pacyna spent the summer in France honing her pastry skills and tasting new flavors on The Experiment in International Living’s French Language & Culinary Training program. The summer abroad program took her to Paris and Lyon — both gourmet centers — as well as for a homestay in southeastern France. It also included a weeklong training program at the Institut Paul Bocuse, one of the world’s most prestigious culinary schools.
Pacyna earned a scholarship to the study abroad program as one of this year’s winners of The Experiment’s Monroe County essay contest. Her submission explored how climate change is causing bleaching and disease among the coral in the Florida Keys. “There’s no light shining on it in the news, but it’s actually an issue,” she says.
Pacyna was excited to spend part of her summer abroad with The Experiment. Not only was it her first time traveling internationally, but the French Language & Culinary Training program was a perfect fit for her.
“I’m really into French pastry,” she says. “It’s more of an art in France. It’s more intricate and the history of it is pretty cool, too.”
Over the course of four weeks, Pacyna sampled basil-lemongrass chocolates in Paris, and she spent hours touring a gourmet food hall in Lyon, where she tried macarons, sugary dried kiwi, and a cake filled with layers of caramel, cream, and chocolate. “It inspired me,” she says. “That’s what I want to do, those really cool pastries.”
A homestay in Pierrelatte gave Pacyna even more insight into the world of French pastry. “I had the best host family ever,” she says. Pacyna’s host father was a chef who had once owned an Italian restaurant. He showed her how to make roses out of almond paste and, together, they made sweet and savory crepes for the family. “Everything was exceptionally good,” she says. “I found out that I like leeks.”
But perhaps the biggest step forward for Pacyna’s budding pastry career was the week that she and her classmates spent in Lyon training at the Institut Paul Bocuse.
Pacyna was already familiar with the school — and its namesake, the groundbreaking French chef whose death earlier this year was mourned around the world — when she applied for her summer abroad with The Experiment. She’s been considering applying to the institute’s undergraduate program ever since her uncle told her about its excellent reputation. The Experiment provided a perfect opportunity to try it out first.
The Institut Paul Bocuse surpassed Pacyna’s expectations. She really liked the two professional chef-instructors who guided her Experiment group as they progressed from following the recipes for quiche and crème brulée to preparing their own dishes and learning how to plate them artfully. They paired roast chicken with morel sauce, prepared an appetizer of crayfish, and made an array of small plates such as gazpacho, beef tartare, and panna cotta for their graduation party.
“I feel like all the ingredients [were] super high-quality,” Pacyna says. “Even the salt was amazingly better than ordinary table salt. And the honey was amazing, the mushrooms, the meat … everything was a lot higher quality, which definitely makes a huge difference.”
In addition to learning new techniques and recipes, Pacyna bonded with her fellow Experimenters during their week at the Institut Paul Bocuse. “We’re an awesome group,” she says. “I think we got super lucky. Everybody was asking everybody if they weren’t sure how long to cook the potatoes and things like that.”
By the end of the week, Pacyna was already looking ahead to when she might be able to return. She met with the school’s recruiter to learn about their programs and their on-campus living quarters. He also shared his contact information so that Pacyna can reach out to him when it comes time to apply to the competitive culinary school.
Pacyna is still debating where she plans to pursue her culinary training. She also planned to visit Le Cordon Bleu when her Experiment group returned to Paris at the end of the program. But one thing is certain: Spending a week at the Institut Paul Bocuse reinforced her desire to become a pastry chef.
“I loved it,” she says. “I felt like I was where I belong.”
The Experiment in International Living offers 31 summer abroad programs for high school students in 25 countries worldwide. In the France: French Language and Culinary Training program, students take an unforgettable culinary and linguistic journey through France. While they travel to Paris, Lyon, and southeastern France, they receive language and culinary training and immerse themselves in French daily life through living with host families.