By Casey Feehan

Chefs get their inspiration from many different places, but it was a well-timed fortune cookie that helped ICE alum Zac Young realize that his future was in the kitchen. Since graduating from the Pastry & Baking career program, Zac has gained widespread recognition as a contestant on Top Chef: Just Desserts and has led the pastry team at some of New York’s top restaurants.

What were you doing before you enrolled at ICE? Was there something that sparked your decision to attend culinary school? 

ICE Alumni Interview - Zac Young - ice.edu

ICE alumni Zac Young.

I was working in the wig department at Radio City Music Hall. I decided that baking cookies would be a fun hobby and found myself becoming obsessed with the balance of creativity and structure involved in baking. Baking can be very precise: there are only so many alterations you can make within a recipe before it fails, and what I found was that I really enjoyed playing with those boundaries. As the Christmas season was winding down, my mother called and said, “You don’t talk about theater anymore: all you talk about are your damn cookies. Go to culinary school.” That night, I ordered chinese food and the message in my fortune cookie said, “Some men dream of fortunes, some men dream of cookies.” The universe was telling me something.

Where was your externship, and where have you worked since graduating? 

I was actually the first extern at Bouchon Bakery, and I burned down the microwave. Since then, I’ve been the Pastry Chef at Butter and Flex Mussels (including the Flex Donuts pop-up shops). I’ve also done development work for a large packaged food company specializing in boxed cake mix and frosting. Now I work for David Burke. Right now, my home base is David Burke Kitchen in SoHo, but we have so many new projects on the horizon – it’s fun to be a part of something that’s expanding.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

I really love the little side projects I get to do, such as making dresses out of chocolate or creating a gingerbread version of the Chrysler Building.

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from your time in the industry?

Show up early, leave late. Pay attention: listen to what your chef tells the other cooks and implement those things in your own work. Don’t complain.

Zac Young - Alumni Interview - ice.edu

Zac MCs the 2013 Dessert Pro Magazine “Top Ten Pastry Chef” awards at ICE.

Briefly describe a day in your current working life. 

I get to work at David Burke Kitchen in SoHo by 9:00AM and eat whatever is left over from breakfast (though I’m partial to just eating the fruit filling out of a danish). The sous chef and I go over prep lists and production for the day, and I make sure the station is set and ready for war before lunch picks up around 12:30PM. Lunch is tough because guests like to get in and out quickly. At 2:00PM we start bread production for dinner service. We can easily go through 300 mini loaves of bread so I like to lend a hand: I call it our “Bread Party.”

Around 3:00PM we put out amenities for the hotel, which can include chocolates, cookies, cheese, birthday cakes, chocolate-stuffed strawberries and champagne. When 3:30PM rolls around, I chat with the other properties (Townhouse, Fishtail) about specials or upcoming events.

At 5:00PM, I check the service station for dinner service. Pre-meal begins at 5:30PM with the front-of-house staff and we review the night’s specials. Once dinner service starts, I go back to the production kitchen and help with prep for the next day. My sous chef and I start inventory/ordering at 8:00PM, and we go over prep lists for the following morning. If there’s a private party or event at the restaurant (and there always seems to be one), it’s usually around 9:00PM that I put out their desserts, hoping that when 9:30PM comes I’ll get to head home. But most nights it’s closer to 10:30PM.

What might people be surprised to learn about your job?

How much work we do for the savory side of the kitchen: we make pizzas, potato rye crisps, savory flans, etc. I also help wherever help is needed in the kitchen. If that means plating hors d’oeuvres or expediting the line, so be it.

Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years?

This is my dream job, so I’m not really sure what more I could ask for. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!

To read about a typical day in the life of a restaurant pastry chef, click here.

Every year, the James Beard Foundation celebrates summer with a party in the Hamptons. The annual celebration features champagne, wine from Wölffer Estate Vineyard, Stella Artois beers and culinary offerings from a group of over 30 talented top chefs.

This year three ICE alumni were on a select list of chefs preparing food for the event. Missy Robbins (Culinary ’95) of A Voce prepared Italian-Style Lobster Rolls with Fennel and Sea Salt Potato Chips and Matt Weingarten (Culinary ’96) of Inside Park at St. Bart’s also prepared a lobster dish — Barnegat Light Lobster with Lemon Ricotta and Micro-Sorrel. On the pastry side, Zac Young (Pastry ’06) of Flex Mussels and Top Chef: Just Desserts prepared Lemon Meringue Pie with Disco Blueberries. More…

On Sunday, ICE alum and star of Top Chef: Just Desserts, Zac Young came to ICE to guide students through a tasting of a variety of Guittard chocolates and demonstrate some desserts designed to highlight the flavor profiles of different chocolates.

The Guittard family has manufactured chocolate in the San Francisco valley for more than 140 years. Guittard Chocolate’s high-end E. Guittard line includes a variety of blended and single-origin chocolates made from beans from select locations. The students were able to taste 12 different chocolates, ranging from a 38% Hawaiian milk chocolate to a 91% bittersweet blended chocolate. The tasting included single-origins from Hawaii, Peru, Madagascar, Trinidad, Venezuela and more. Zac said that as a pastry chef, he loved working with these single-origin chocolates because they have a flavor profile of their own and can they can be used to make desserts that go a step beyond the base flavors of chocolate and begin to highlight the fruit and flora notes chocolate can have. More…

This weekend, ICE Chef Instructors, students and alumni participated in the 13th Annual Chocolate Show at Metropolitan Pavilion in NYC. The show is “the world’s largest event dedicated to chocolate!” The four-day exhibition of everything chocolate draws in pastry chefs and chocolate enthusiasts from across the world.

The event kicks off with chocolate fashion show every year. ICE alum Zac Young, fresh off his stint on Top Chef: Just Desserts, participated in the fashion show and worked with designer Nicole Romano to construct a dress made entirely of balls of chocolate for the kick-off event. Young returned later in the weekend to give gave a demonstration in the Culinary Theater, showing the audience how to make Chocolate Pie “On Its Side,” one of the most popular dishes on the menu at his restaurant, Flex Mussels. More…

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. More…

Bravo just announced the contestants for the first ever season of Top Chef: Just Desserts. The list includes not one, but THREE ICE alumni! Zac Young (Pastry ’06), Malika Ameen (Culinary ’97) and Seth Caro (Pastry ’04) will all compete on the show. We can’t wait to watch them whip, bake, pipe and decorate their way through the challenges on the new pastry-focused version of Top Chef. The show will be hosted by another ICE alum, Gail Simmons. Check out the bios of the pastry chef-testants:

Zac Young
AGE: 27
HOMETOWN: Portland, Maine — currently resides in New York, NY
PROFESSION: Executive Pastry Chef, Flex Mussels
FAVORITE SIMPLE FALL DESSERT RECIPE: “Upside-Down” Apple Crisp with Crème Fraîche Ice Cream.
While employed in the wig department of the Radio City Rockettes, Zac Young had an epiphany: he would rather be baking cookies than fluffing Santa beards. Born to a vegan mother, Zac never had chocolate mousse, but knew all too well the flavor of a tofu and carob pudding. After graduating with honors from the baking and pastry arts program at The Institute of Culinary Education, Zac went straight to the top, working under Sebastian Rouxel and Richard Capizzi at Bouchon Bakery. In 2006, he was offered a position of Pastry Chef at the New York City hot-spot Butter Restaurant. While there, Zac developed his signature style, using classic French technique, bold flavors, and fun to put a creative twist on American desserts. Always hungry for more, he trained in France with such renowned chefs as Philippe Givre at Valrhona and Philippe Parc at Chocolate Michel Cluizel. In 2009, Zac moved uptown to the bustling bivalve mecca Flex Mussels. His whimsical creations caught the fancy of New York Times’ Restaurant Critic Frank Bruni, causing him to exclaim, “how lucky of us to find room for dessert” in his review of Flex. In his free time, he can be seen making dresses out of chocolate for the opening night of the International Chocolate Show. His mother is proud, even though his desserts are not vegan. More…