Pastry Chefs in San Francisco: A Sudden Lack Therof?

| March 19, 2007 | 9 Comments
  • 9 Comments

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.

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Category: bay area, chefs, culinary education and classes, dessert and chocolate, restaurants, bars, cafes, san francisco

About the Author ()

Shuna fish Lydon was whisked and baked in San Francisco but served and eaten in New York City. She's had a 16 year tumultuous love affair with professional cooking and has BFA in photography from CCAC. Working with and for some of the best chefs in NYC and California, Shuna's resume reads like the who's who of cooking today. She identifies as a fruit-inspired pastry chef and calls the many local farmers' markets her muse. Currently "at large," Shuna spends her time teaching baking and knife skills classes, consulting at local restaurants and writing for a number of outlets about deliciousness.
  • Sam

    It’s your birthday tomorrow?!
    That’s not enough warning to make you Bakewell tarts in time! Happy Birthay Shuna.

    One of my favourite desserts in town is the Biarritz Rocher at Piperade but I am certain you wouldn’t like it for the same reason you don’t like another of my favourites – the vacherine at Coco500. These aren’t sophisticated ground-breaking desserts – they please in the old-fashioned way which is sometimes what I need – like a chocolate sundae would do.

    I loved Boris Portnoy’s carrot and avocado dessert at Campton place – did you try that when you were there?

    The pistachio pot de creme, served with a red citrus at Perbacco is interesting too.

  • Aaron

    I unfortunately don’t have a suggestion, but sadly recognize the brutal truth and honesty you’ve employed to examine a rather depressing situation.
    We can blame savory chefs and restaurant management all we like, but until patrons/diners become educated enough to vote with their forks, and demand finer desserts and not order them when they’re not up to standard, things can’t change.

  • NS

    I’m sure this will come as no surprise to you, but my vote goes to William Werner — Executive Pastry Chef at Navio in the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. I would also recommend Boris Portnoy, but I see you’ve already been to Campton Place!

  • Janet

    Sadly as a pastry eater, I also find there are no real desserts anymore. I am very tired of creme brulee, some brownie concoction and tired tired tiramisu. Where are all those creative chefs? I know they’re out there.

  • Charles Shere

    “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.) ”

    Really? In 36 years I can only recall half a dozen pastry chefs at Chez Panisse, and none came from Zuni, Quince, or Oliveto, nor did any go there, to the best of my knowledge. One — Mary Jo Thoresen — went on to her own restaurant, and I’d eat dessert at JoJo in Oakland any day.

    Pastry cooks, maybe. Chefs, no.

  • shuna fish lydon

    Hello Charles,

    Indeed this is a fine point of enigmatic distinction. I would agree with you except that inside the CP kitchen each person is called the pastry chef. A point I found puzzling during my stints there, but told to me explicitly by a number of people in command there, so I did not argue.

    Because of this, many people who have worked at CP in the pastry kitchen put Pastry Chef on their resume. And to this end there are those who have worked at many of the restaurants mentioned, creating similar desserts wherever they go.

  • Charles Shere

    “…inside the CP kitchen each person is called the pastry chef.”

    News to me, Lindsey says. She, David Lebovitz, and Mary Jo always were quite careful to maintain the distinction, which is neither enigmatic nor trivial. A chef is both a cook and an executive, a chief, a person responsible for the entire department and the cooks within it.

    The misunderstanding may arise from the Chez Panisse kitchen staff organization: because it’s really two restaurants, downstairs and up, open six days a week, each department has a pair of co-chefs instead of a single chef. So there are two downstairs chefs (co-chefs, in fact); two café chefs; two pastry chefs.

    (The pastry situation has only obtained since Lindsey’s retirement: until then she was the single chef in charge of pastry.)

    “Chef” does not mean “excellent cook.” It means chief cook in charge. If a cook calls herself a chef on a resumé without actually having served as chef, that’s disingenuous. The distinction is useful and should be maintained.

  • Cialti

    It’s not attached to a restaurant, but I would highly recommend a trip to Los Gatos to visit the patisserie Fleur de Cocoa (open Tuesday – Sunday). The pastry chef is Pascal Janvier. Amazing desserts.

  • Anonymous

    I have followed my favorite pastry chef since she was at Restaurant Lulu. I later found out that her name is Chona Piumarta. She then went to that Ogden’s “mall” restaurant Lark Creek Steak House, now she’s at Slanted Door. Check it out.