I got into this industry, probably like a lot of people, by chance. I wanted some spending money at the age of 14 I got a job as pot washer in a restaurant. Six months later I was on the broiler cooking steaks. Through high school and college I could always get a job in a kitchen. I always enjoyed it because it is hands-on, and for me, that’s very rewarding. I wasn’t the greatest cook in the world, but I stuck at it. (I believe that the race is not won by the person who runs the fastest, but who runs the longest).
Somewhere along the line, in my mid 20s, I realized that this was something that I wanted to do as a profession. I knew that if I was going to succeed, I needed some education, some training. I spoke a little French at that point (not enough as I found out later) and studied up on numbers and measurements before enrolling at cooking school in Paris. That was the best in year my life. I was young, in Paris, becoming a chef. The school taught French cuisine. It was geared towards the European palate, but technique was such a part of the daily training that you could take the education and go anywhere with it. The course itself was about one-third pastry. Every day we made a dessert. We came out really prepared to work anywhere, and I accepted the job as the sous chef at a place in New Mexico called La Posada. They put me on desserts, too. I wanted to get back to the Bay Area, and a pastry chef position opened up at the Fairmont Hotel. To get the job, I walked in the back door and talked to the chef. Times were different back then — you didn’t go through Human Resources, you just walked in through the door and talked to the chef. He hired me on the spot. The Fairmont is a high end hotel with great cuisine. We did a lot of banquets in the restaurant. It was enthralling, but hard work. I always felt I had an aptitude for the work. For me, it came pretty easy and I always enjoyed it. I worked my way up to be the head pastry chef in my ten years there.
“The Petit Four Incident.”
One day the new Executive Chef, a big, gruff, German guy (he wasn’t very well liked, I remember someone once threw a cocktail table off the roof onto his car), came in to the kitchen. He called out to see who knew how to make petit fours, but he was looking right at me. I’d only made them once in school, but I volunteered. He hit me with an order of over 5,000 petit fours a week — 700 a night. I was floored. I didn’t know what to do. I realized the chef was trying to get me to squirm, to knuckle under. He was trying to get the better of me. He went on to tell me that he wanted to pipe the name of whoever was performing at the hotel every night on each petit four (Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, and Joel Gray were frequent performers at the Fairmont around this time). Again, I was floored. But he wasn’t done. After telling me this and seeing the deer in the headlights look on my face, he asked: “Don’t you want to know the next name of the next star?” I was just trying to come to terms with this project, but I cautiously answered, “Yes…” He responded: “Bernadette Peters.” Oh my God, a 10 letter first name! I had no idea if I could pull it off. It was overwhelming just to hear about it, but the kitchen helped me out, and I did pull it off, so it was a confidence builder. I was learning that if you challenge or push yourself, you’re going to achieve more.
I eventually moved on to the Pan Pacific Hotel, also in San Francisco. It was modern, nouvelle, upscale. It gave me the chance to be more creative with high end desserts. At the time, architectural desserts were en vogue. These were “highly manipulated” desserts, Eiffel towers or abstract pieces teetering on the plate. The crew at the Pan Pacific was young and cutting edge and we were able to make some pretty amazing desserts.
I enjoyed working in the industry, but I had always wanted to teach, and I thought I’d be good at it. The final step in learning, I believe, is to teach. So I took the job teaching at a culinary school in the Bay Area. I really enjoy teaching, and it has made me a better chef. I have a real empathy for the students and what they’ll need to navigate the challenges in this industry. It’s very rewarding for me. Teaching is not just about explaining food, it’s about explaining the profession and ushering people into the fraternity and sorority of chefs. Maybe it’s a legacy thing because you’re passing the baton on, to some extent. These are the people who will be running the industry.
I get asked what my favorite thing to bake or favorite pastry item to make is. The truth is that I like it all. That’s the rewarding part of this business. You don’t have to specialize. There’s no end to it. You can stay fresh in many areas. My style is pretty traditional. Sometimes I question where people are going with food – blending flavors that maybe shouldn’t be together, or putting garish colors in food. I’m all for pushing the envelope, just not for getting out of the envelope completely. Food can’t be just art – it’s something you eat. You have to be objective about some things. People have palates and they are going to taste it. You can fool some people some of the time, but innovation has to come at a slow pace; it has to be carefully undertaken. So many of our clients are meat and potatoes people, we have to give them what they want, but we can do it in a way they didn’t expect it. Sometimes the concepts outstretch the flavors.
When I think back on my career and what is taught in our kitchens today, I’m amazed at how much has stayed the same. The things I was making 40 years ago are still being made today. Through all my experience, the techniques don’t change. Styles, recipes, ingredients, and palates change, like fashion and clothes, but how you build and construct the food doesn’t. The basic laws and techniques will always be there.