My birthday is tomorrow. Depending on whose age you look at in my family I am either not yet approaching middle age or will die in about 20 years. Supposedly this means I am to look at where I've been and where I'm going.
Up until very recently much of who I was, was one thing. Pastry Chef. The title, the position I'd been working for the last fourteen years, although much of the time unbeknownst to me, towards this goal. I identified myself with the restaurant I worked for. Which is a very good thing, because the second question people ask me, after learning how to pronounce my name, is, "Oh really, where do you work?"
I worked as a pastry cook and assistant for almost 8 years when I was given my first pastry chef job. Many of the assistants I worked alongside went on to be famous pastry chefs themselves. And I watched many cooks and sous chefs become chefs of their own restaurants. From my point of view one worked themselves up in the ranks before being given or holding a chef title.
In the last few weeks I have consumed more desserts at restaurants (A16, Campton Place, Rubicon, Two, Delfina.) than I did all last year. And this week I'll be eating more. In part due to birthday dinners, but also as research for a position I'm interviewing for. The object is to find out who is making what in San Francisco. The goal is to assess the palate of the person I may work with, and for him to see what I might make or what sweet things inspire me. We are both looking at where our foggy city, one of the most food and restaurant-centric in The United States, stands on the platform of pastry chef hiring.
I have even called upon the Chowhounders to help me track down the best sugary courses within these forty-nine miles. Sadly, it's been like getting a straight answer out of a lawyer. One dessert here, another there. Some have even been so bold as to tell me about the artificially-flavored butterscotch pudding at Town Hall. (An article about real butterscotch in The Washington Post here.)
I'm not looking for all the sweets to be the same. One dessert at Chez Panisse will be like another at Zuni, Quince or Oliveto. (In fact, if you look at the lineage, these restaurants practically trade pastry chefs like baseball cards.) I want to try the homey American desserts at Salt House as well as Citizen Cake's kooky innovative concoctions or straightforward, simple, seasonal creations like those found at Delfina or Foreign Cinema.
My hope is that I will be eating a pastry chef's creations. I'm not so interested in restaurants that buy their desserts from an outside source. (Think I'm making this up? Read this short article about the disappearing restaurant pastry chefs in NYC.) I'm also a little biased against the chefs who say they're not only the savoury chef of their kitchen, but also the pastry chef. I realize this saves them a lot of money, but I'm really tired of eating warm oozy chocolate cake, creme brulee and tough crusted out-of-season fruit tarts or dishes that look like they just stepped out of the pastry and baking program at CCA.
It sounds like I'm hard to please doesn't it? I'm actually the biggest fan of delicious food you might ever meet. Give me simple, complex, hole-in-the-wall, humble, bold, a quiet ice cream cone, standard traditional fare, technically seamless, fussily plated or a cookie on the go.
Just let me taste the taste of skill, perhaps a dash of inspiration and/or innovation, a love for my craft, tiny sprinkles of deference, whiffs of hope for mastery, half cup of practice, grams upon ounces of question-asking-inquisitiveness, and, although not absolutely necessary: when I close my eyes I'd like to taste that that person's hard work over the years that they've read and worked and asked questions and eaten and tasted helped them land a job where they were taken seriously, and give them the chef title they deserved.
Might you have a favorite pastry chef whose desserts I must have on my extreme dessert-eating spree this week? Any and all suggestions taken into consideration!
Between Meals: SF Chronicle's Michael Bauer blog on desserts in the Bay Area.