Bakers Dozen has great guest speakers and many IACP and James Beard award winners within its ranks including Flo Braker & Alice Medrich (who were both featured on Baking with Julia) and Chez Panisse pastry chef Lindsey Shere. If you are in the Bay Area, I highly recommend you check it out and join. Sorry about the photos. As you might be able to tell, shades were drawn in the room and even wonderful photographer Paula Eve Aspin only got a few shots. (Thanks Paula!)
Emily Luchetti, executive pastry chef of San Francisco’s Farallon & Waterbar, author of five books including 2011’s The Fearless Baker, and IACP and James Beard award winner, hopped onto the banquet table in Foreign Cinema’s gallery to interview Yigit Pura, executive pastry chef at Taste Catering and winner of the first season of Bravo TV’s pastry competition Top Chef Just Desserts.
Perched on the back bar, I tried to get down as much as I could, but I am only able to capture the highlights here. Yigit is infectiously energetic with a hilarious dry wit, and his patter was turbocharged by the Peet’s coffee sitting next to him, so it was tough to keep up but I had a lot of fun trying. For more proof of Yigit’s funny, follow him on Twitter @YigitPura
Emily started off by asking how Yigit manages to keep the technique and quality of “four star food” in the volume required for catering jobs at Taste Catering.
Yigit definitely tries to get the very best ingredients and describes “begging farmers to pick fruit from the tops of the trees” when executing an event for President Barack Obama. Yigit also looks for methodical, organized pastry staff – when interviewing pastry chefs, if they are impulsive and improvisational, they can “get out of [his] kitchen.” With between 2 and 30 events per week, Yigit and his pastry team (three full-time staff year around) decide on menus and execute as much in advance as possible. The “great thing about pastry is a lot can be planned ahead” and made in stages. For example, tart dough can be made a month in advance and frozen.
Yigit’s largest party, a Major League Baseball party for 22,000 guests, happened to be booked for April 2007, shortly after his being hired on at Taste. He quickly realized that he could not do the same petits fours for 22,000 people he produced in a 4-star restaurant kitchen at Daniel in New York City, but describes this huge event as “training wheels” to “get the volume done.” They ended up producing a successful dessert buffet for the MLB party that sparked a decision to specialize in petits fours because large volume (especially at a standing event) is “easier to do with a well-presented bite that looks beautiful on the display.” Taste now has a “massive list” of over 80 petit fours to ensure returning clients get their old favorites while always trying something new.
Over four years of catering experience have given him confidence with volume. Menu planning includes careful consideration of which items can be produced in advance and which have to be made the day of an event. Fortunately, his kitchen is 2500 square feet, with good storage and a walk-in fridge that holds 16 racks of components in progress, but everything is baked off in two convection ovens (that hold 5 sheet pans each).
Paula Eve Aspin
When Emily asked about the biggest challenge with catering versus a restaurant environment, Yigit explained that a catering chef cannot cook just for themselves, as clients have their own opinions about what’s being produced, and it’s their event. Yigit enjoys the challenge of “taking something as simple as a cupcake, and making it amazing,” as they produced optional flavors and textures for a cupcake station for a Google executive recently.
What was your biggest disaster?
Breaking the ice, Emily recounted her own recent dessert disaster of a recent dinner for Tony Blair at a home in Atherton, and s’mores were on the menu at Tony’s request. Marshmallows had been made for her, but were far too sticky to use, and she had no time to remake them. Emily walked over to Williams-Sonoma, bought marshmallows, pulled them out of their individual wrappers, and placed them on a sheet pan with her name on the top. Figuring none of the desserts would be eaten at the end of a long meal, the time came to serve the s’mores around the fire and Tony did end up eating the whole dessert. They asked if she made marshmallows for the s’mores, and she said yes.
Yigit’s disaster was of the tiered cake variety at Daniel, and anyone who has made a wedding cake will feel his pain. The pastry team produced 1-2 wedding cakes per week in Daniel’s private dining room, in which a client was celebrating her 4th marriage – Yigit helped make 3 of her wedding cakes in 3.5 years! This 4th wedding was a Parisian theme complete with Eiffel Tower and the bride wanted a red Parisian wedding cake. As Yigit rushed up the slate-tiled hallway to deliver the cake, he slipped and landed on his hip, smudging the cake into the wall and sending Yigit into a panic. Stealing as “many red roses as possible”, he used an offset spatula and rose petals to disguise the damage, and nervously waiting for the bride’s reaction.
Everyone in the Foreign Cinema gallery laughed when Yigit flatly repeated what she said: “a little more flowers than I expected but nice!”
Oh, and for anyone interested in making a croquembouche in the Hamptons in the month of July? “You will make it three times.”
New York vs. San Francisco
Emily described a common tension between the New York and California food scenes. In short, New Yorkers play too much with food, and San Franciscans don’t do enough with food.
Well, they used to call Yigit the “hippie” at Daniel because of his love for fruit. In New York, a good peach could be $6! But when he moved to SF and was served a plate of unpitted medjool dates, marcona almonds and an unpeeled clementine at an established restaurant for dessert, that was going too far and “not dessert”.
Emily and Yigit both praised the amazing produce, farmers markets and ingredients in California, compared to anywhere else in the country. After visiting Cowgirl Creamery, Yigit says “happy cows really do come from California.” San Francisco as a restaurant market is more unforgiving though. One bad write up can really affect a restaurant here, but the New York market is so much bigger, Mario Batali says “he could piss off 4 million people and still have 4 million customers.”
Top Chef Just Desserts
In response to an audience question about how being on Top Chef Just Desserts changed him, Yigit reported the experience made him more humble. When you do well under the constraints of a challenge, it’s great, but when you flop, it’s terrible. He has “always been confident, and it’s given [him] a reason to check [him]self.” There is a flip side to being in the spotlight – some love to see you succeed and some “love to see you fail.”
Yigit said that Bravo actually tamed the drama (which he tried his best to avoid) down for television, and stressed the intensity of filming while sleeping 3 hours a night over a 6-week period. After the filming ended, Yigit slept 20 hours a day for 3 days in a row. While he was thrilled to see that he could come up with creative items on short notice, he was shaking from nerves and “wanted to die” when wedding cake maven Sylvia Weinstock tasted his cake. Off camera, she joked about how “stupid” it was to make a cake in 90 minutes!
One advantage Yigit feels led to his winning the competition is his use of the metric system (he has never used the volume/imperial system), making it very easy for him to memorize 40 base recipes before starting the show. While his season was not allowed to bring any recipes with them, Season 2 was allowed recipes, extravagant ingredients and special tools (Yigit consults on the show).
Listening to Yigit deftly quip, you would never know English is not his first language, but he moved to American from Turkey when he was in 7th grade and now speaks 3 languages. Even though his grandfather was a successful restaurateur in Istanbul, Yigit wasn’t encouraged to go into the food business (“boys aren’t supposed to be in the kitchen”) and went down the path to business school before realizing he wanted to become a chef. After a brief stint at the CCA, he dropped out to train in kitchens. Through a lucky break and hard work, he scored a position on the pastry crew at Daniel in NYC, and endured the tough brigade system surrounded by (mostly) French chefs.
It wasn’t until years later that he felt that his family had accepted his decision after they were blown away by a 16-course tasting.
Fast forward to his telling his mother he won Top Chef Just Desserts. She was so thrilled she fainted.
Tout Sweet Patisserie
What’s up next for Yigit? A beautiful pastry shop in Union Square called Tout Sweet, due to open in Spring 2012. There are many bakeries in San Francisco but no pastry shops of the kind he loves in Paris. He wants the customer to be visually inspired, and “tickled by just being in there.”
Tips and Miscellany
Emily’s favorite things, a list of her top 10 baking ingredients and top 10 pieces of baking equipment, is awesome and a good gift list builder for burgeoning bakers in your life.
Yigit has been loving using rapadura sugar
Yigit’s favorite Turkish dessert is kadayih, which has shredded chicken in it for texture!
If Yigit weren’t a pastry chef, he would be a beekeeper.
Paula Eve Aspin (photo)