When our paths crossed, I was at a point in my career where leadership was becoming a skill I wanted to cultivate in myself. When I looked at the people in leadership positions through out my time in kitchens, many of them dominated kitchens in ways I did not believe would be successful for myself, in large part due to our difference in gender.
I was looking for someone with a leadership style I could successfully integrate, one that would help me to bring the team I led to their best every day, and help me navigate my own career growth. I knew a large part of this was how my cooks and bosses perceived me, and how differently behaviors are perceived coming from a man versus a woman. I needed to experience a leadership style that would help me take advantage of my personal strengths, and being a woman, those that grew from my female nature. The men I had worked for provided qualities that I admire and have assimilated into my role as a chef, but there were as many traits I had to leave behind.
Long story short, I needed to work for a girl.
Lucky for me, the call to do just that came quickly. An LA area code popped up on my cell phone while shopping one summer day in Seattle, and within 48 hours I was on a plane down to meet the woman who would do more to shape me as a leader in the restaurant world than she could know.
Little did I know, she would also do more to reshape the way I created desserts than I could have imagined.
I’m going to have to make an embarrassing confession, one that makes me a little ashamed of myself. I took a job as Sherry Yard’s sous chef thinking there wasn’t much she would teach me creatively. I was coming back from the edge of cuisine, Alinea, Noma, Kadeau, Denmark! I’d seen the gods on their olympic mountains and watched infinity grow. I understood foraging, cultural reclamation, textural manipulation, and how to impeccably recreate impossible cuisine every night for those who came, like me, to worship at these temples.
The menu at Spago held desserts that I’d seen all over the country. Classics like soufflés , apple vol au vents, cobblers bubbling in copper pots. Then there were the signatures, like the Kaiser Schmaren, an Austrian classic transformed by Sherry years before, souffléd to order and served with warm berry sauce. Pineapple and Banana wrapped in rugelach dough, a unique and comforting turn over. Liquid centered warm chocolate cakes wrapped in crispy pastry, and a cookie plate centered with favorites like chocolate chip and italian rainbow cookies.
My deepest gratuity is that I came crashing to reality within the first two days of being at Spago, hitting the ground to see Sherry in her pink coat laughing down at me. It occurred to me, after tasting the desserts, and seeing the immense effort and technique that went into the uber efficient department, that the reason I felt like I’d seen all her desserts before was that her style, defined almost 20 years earlier, was so striking and so successful it had been appropriated by the masses, and facsimiles were now spread across the country. She wasn’t part of the masses, she had inspired the masses.
The bigger lesson I needed was to stay humble, and remember that there is much to learn in every kitchen if you are looking for it. I could have missed the opportunity that lay before me had I let ego blur my vision, and I learned more in my time with Sherry about pastry than every other job I’d had combined.
The first task Sherry put on my prep list was puff pastry. And gosh darn it, I had to admit didn’t know how to make this most classic of pastry techniques.
I’ll bet Sherry knew that.
I could make you a liquid custard that when poured on your table transformed into semi solid creme brûlée in front of your eyes, but I hadn’t laminated dough since pastry school. I understood how to use a pacojet and could work the anti griddle, but I hadn’t touched a sheeter for 15 years. It was clear I was here to learn much more than just how a dynamic woman is a leader in a male dominated profession. I still needed to learn how to be a pastry chef.
My time at Spago was eye opening, the most pivotal experience I’ve ever had in a kitchen. Yes, I saw everything I wanted in Sherry as a leader, learned simple things about body language, and sat wide eyed as she told me stories about her own growth as a pastry chef. I am constantly telling my cooks, “I can tell you what Sherry Yard told me” the same way a mother might tell her children, “your grandmother always said…” Spago was my last stop before blackbird, and the classics I relearned became crucial for my ability to intertwine the progressive ideas and techniques I’d experienced with sellable a la carte desserts. Not desserts sold as part of a tasting menu, but desserts chosen after bellies had been filled with bottles of wine, appetizers, and entrees. It’s not a stretch to say Sherry Yard put the dessert back in my desserts.
I took another cue from her this month, when a photograph of a monolithic cream puff with the hilt of a steak knife protruding from its crown it made it’s way to me, a Sherry Yard twist on a classic dessert, presented for the restaurant she created in DC, City Perch. At that moment, we were working on a dessert with heat stable chocolate pudding served warm against frozen avocado ice cream, and were deliberating as how to present these two divergent temperatures in an elegant way.
When the simple dome of baked choux pastry wrapping Sherry’s cream puff came into sight, I was reminded again to stop overthinking it and put a little dessert in it.
Our chocolate flavored shells, baked from pate de choux with a simple cocoa craqueline over the top, are split half an inch from the base and hollowed out with a spoon. The base is filled with heat stable milk chocolate pudding made with the butterscotchy Tanariva from Valrhona. Chopped roasted macadamia nuts are pressed over the puddings surface before the shell is toasted in the oven. The dome is removed from the oven early, and once cool to the touch, packed with avocado ice cream. Reassembled last minute, a bit of roasted macadamia butter anchors this hot-and-cold profiterole to the plate in a nest of red pumello and chewy jewels of candied grapefruit. Stars of fruity avocado puree radiate out from the center, and macadamia nut is grated with a microplane over the top to finish.
I’m now comfortably settling into the leadership aspect of my position, during a time when our creative style at blackbird is maturing. And with something as simple as a cream puff, I am grateful to be continuously humbled and reminded by the woman who helped bring me here, to keep putting the dessert in our desserts.
Additional Components: pomelo cells, roasted macadamia grated on microplane