The Top Chef: Just Desserts premiere is only a week away. ICE alumni Zac Young, Malika Ameen and Seth Caro are competing on the show. Alumni Hall of Achievement inductee Gail Simmons will act as host. The show will feature guest appearances by famed pastry professionals Sylvia Weinstock, Sherri Yard and Michael Laiskonis. The promise of watching chefs performing challenges involving wedding cakes, flaming desserts and chocolate showpieces has many people counting down the days till the debut of the Top Chef spinoff on September 15.
Before we binge on what is sure to be a delectable season of television, we indulged our sweet tooth by talking to competitor Zac Young. After graduating the Pastry & Baking Arts program at ICE in 2006, Zac went on to work at Bouchon Bakery and Butter. Now, he is the Executive Pastry Chef at the critically acclaimed Flex Mussels on New York City’s Upper East Side. There, he is responsible for a dessert menu that compliments the almost all seafood menu. To get a taste of what to expect from him on the new show, we asked him about his inspiration, the life of a pastry chef and his memories of his time at ICE.
You have a pretty interesting background. How did you get into baking?
My mom was a vegan, so she never baked. But I loved cookies. So I had to teach myself how to make them and it became an obsession. Before I was working in pastry, I was working in the wig department of the Radio City Rockettes. It definitely had certain creative aspects that translated to pastry. It gives you a feel for aesthetics and a visual sensibility that translates beautifully to plated desserts.
How would you describe your menu at Flex Mussels?
The dessert menu is classic Americana with a twist. It is taking something familiar and delivering something that is provocative. I love when the plate arrives and the customer’s reaction is, “That’s not what I ordered.” There is a lot of deconstructing and reconstructing desserts, but everything is rooted in the familiar. Working with an all seafood menu is both difficult and liberating. Especially on the Upper East Side, people have a preconceived notion of what they want for dessert. They want the basic chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream, which isn’t really what I do. But at the same time, because the seafood is lighter they are more willing to order dessert. If you go to a place called Butter, you load up on entrées. But at Flex I’ve found the dessert sales to be phenomenal.
How do you explain the craze for all things pastry?
I think it is something unexplored. Pastry chefs no longer live in a broom closet or do prep work in the basement. Pastry was an undiscovered secret, but people are really fascinated with the end of the meal. Chefs have been so exposed, but how many times can you watch someone sear a scallop? It’s interesting to watch things that are new. Pastry chefs are so precise and we are so neurotic that we can be fascinating characters. We’re a different type of chef — mad scientists in the kitchen.
How did pastry transfer to the Top Chef format?
Pastry is a lot more precise and involves a lot more planning. When I go to the Greenmarket in the mornings I’m looking for peaches with a specific idea about what I’ll do with them. When I worked with Alex Guarnaschelli at Butter, she would see great lemon thyme and then be inspired to use it with something like snapper and go from there. My schedule and shopping are a lot more precise. Pastry chefs are used to operating in our comfort zone. For example, I know the chocolate I use everyday in the restaurant. I know how to use it to make a cake. And I know it will be the same every time. If I can’t have that consistency, I freak out. I found it really difficult to do plan B. Detours are difficult in pastry.
What is your favorite pastry technique?
If you asked me if I’d rather make a showpiece or a wedding cake, I’d tell you I’d rather be deep-frying. We joke in the restaurant that I should do a spinoff of the website Will it Blend? and do Will it Fry? You can use it for a lot more than French fries. It is certainly an underutilized tool in the pastry kitchen. (Zac’s Flex Mussels dessert menu includes a deep-fried whoopie pie.)
How did ICE prepare you to become a pastry chef?
I was very quick. Often, I would be done the recipes for the day in half the time. So, I’d make it again, but with different ingredients. I went through a big green tea phase. For example, if we made blueberry muffins, I also made green tea blueberries muffins. I’d bring it to the team in admissions and we became friendly. (When asked if they remembered the green tea blueberry muffins, one ICE staffer replied “Yup. They were good, but a strange color.”) I was able to do a lot of thinking outside the box at ICE. Chef Instructor Jeff Yoskowitz once said to me, “Zac, somebody needs to stop you.” Luckily, no one has yet.