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?
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.
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.