(This interview appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
After graduating from London’s Le Cordon Bleu in 2003, Pastry Chef Jen Yee hit the ground running, launching her career at Gordon Ramsay’s Menu at The Connaught in London, followed by a position as opening team member of the modern Chinese tea salon, Yauatcha in Soho.
In 2006 she returned to the States to become Pastry Sous Chef at Gilt inside New York City’s luxurious Palace Hotel. A few years later, Yee became Charlie Palmer’s Pastry Chef at Aureole, and then moved on to the 2 Michelin-starred SHO Shaun Hergatt downtown, where she was able to showcase her contemporary technique and style.
In early 2013, Yee paired with Chef Andrew Carmellini to open his third restaurant in New York, the French inspired Lafayette Grand Café & Bakery. Her neatly executed desserts in the restaurant, as well as her whimsical takes on traditional patisserie in the café, garnered her three nominations from the James Beard Foundation for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Yee is now the Executive Pastry Chef for Lincoln Hopkins’ Resurgens Hospitality Group, with a focus on his flagship, Restaurant Eugene. Pastry Arts’ Brian Cazeneuve caught up with Yee in New York recently to find out a little bit more about her past, present and future.
What made you want to pursue a career as a pastry chef?
I think from a very young age, I knew I wanted to create things. Food, especially pastry, was an easy medium for me to play with even as a kid. I remember watching public television after school with my Uncle, and Great Chefs would be on. I would always look forward to the dessert segment at the end, but sometimes they would just make savory courses throughout the whole show. I remember feeling cheated during those episodes! Also, watching those shows gave me the realization that you can actually make pretty, sweet things for a living!
You studied architecture. Did that study help you at all in constructing or plating your desserts?
I have a BFA in Interior Architecture, and some of the prerequisite classes were very art based; color theory, drawing, art and architectural history. I think this gave me a great foundation on which to build my dessert style (pun?). The one concept that has really stuck with me is balance, in terms of flavor, texture, temperature and color.
You’ve said you’re not always one for following recipes – you prefer to use your intuition. How so?
Using recipes is great, and often necessary, in pastry. But what’s even more important is using your palate and instinct. A dish can be technically perfect, but if it doesn’t taste good, what’s the point? I think my intuition comes into play in both flavor and presentation. I want the flavors to pop and the food to look natural, with components that are familiar and surprising at the same time.
Where do your inspirations come from? Do you have to be in the kitchen to dream something up or can you be out on a walk, looking at a sunset, fiddling with an ingredient, that sort of thing?
My inspiration can hit me when I’m lying in bed at night, hiking on my day off, surfing the web or just in the kitchen when our produce delivery arrives. And whether I’m working with a familiar or new ingredient, there are always ‘what if’ moments: ‘What if I did this to it?’ or ‘What if I paired this with that?’, etc.
At your busiest, how many hours are you in the kitchen?
I used to be an absolute crazy person and work ridiculous hours. That, of course, was never going to last long, so over the years, I’ve found ways to be smarter with my time and to trust my team. I also think that back then, I was extremely insecure about my professional worth, so I tried to make up for it by being the first one in and the last to leave. Nowadays, I average about 10 to 12 hours a day, but it’s broken up between time in the kitchen and time on the laptop or in meetings.
Do you get on a creative roll that keeps you in there until you drop, or do you go by the clock?
If I’m on a roll, I definitely try to ride it out to completion. When the creativity bug bites, the last thing you are doing is looking at the clock! That’s the beautiful thing about pastry: if you put in the time, you will come out with tangible results (that you can eat!). Even if your experiment doesn’t quite hit the mark, that experiment can tell you right away what you could’ve done differently or what areas can be improved upon.
What savory dishes do you like? Does it influence your pastry making? It seems chefs are crossing the line more and more between savory and sweet preparations – is that accurate or fair?
I like far too many savory dishes to list! And from so many different cuisines, as well. I think all food a chef experiences can inform their own work. Chefs and pastry chefs have been crossing over and borrowing from each other’s pantries for a long time. It’s really nothing new.
What’s the most underrated ingredient for a pastry chef?
I’m glad to see more and more pastry chefs using alternatives to regular white refined sugar. Honey, maple, sorghum, cane, palm, date, rice, and more are out there to sweeten our sweets. And most importantly, all of these sweeteners can lend another layer of complexity and nuance to even our most basic preparations.
What’s your favorite dessert to eat at home?
Cake. I love eating cake, and I’m certainly capable of keeping some in the house at all times, but I don’t, because I heard you’re not supposed to eat cake every day. So I substitute with ice cream on the days I can’t have cake.
Second only to cake are cookies. I love cookies. And I serve my ‘Dream Cookie’ at Holeman & Finch in Atlanta. It really is my ultimate cookie, and it’s proven to be everyone else’s too! It’s baked fresh, and it’s chock full of Valrhona chocolate, pecans, coconut, oats and coffee.
What’s an ingredient you haven’t worked with that you would like to?
I would love the opportunity to spend a great deal of time working with all the varieties of a single fruit (or vegetable). For example, to be able to play with all the different types of quince from around the world, tasting their different characteristics and how they react to heat and other cooking methods.
What’s your favorite restaurant, and your favorite dish there?
I think my favorite restaurant is La Tupina in Bordeaux, France. The food was great, but the experience even better, sitting outside in the middle of summer, with the atmosphere buzzing all around. My favorite dish was something very simple but so extraordinary – a rich duck broth served in a wine glass that was primed with Madeira from the 1800’s.
Tell us about your experience of eating snake in Vietnam. How did that come about?
I think the impetus for wanting to eat snake was a combination of watching an Anthony Bourdain episode, and reading in the local guidebook about a strip of restaurants in Hanoi that specialized in snake. We became friendly with our taxi motorcyclists, and asked them to take us to a snake restaurant. When we arrived, we were taken to the restaurant through the backyard, where we saw dogs in cages and snakes in baskets. When we sat down, we were presented with a live snake, which was quickly sliced open and drained of its blood and bile, which we drank. We proceeded to have about six to seven courses with different snake preparations. After that, our drivers took us bowling.
Can you think of a food experiment you tried that didn’t work?
When I first became a pastry chef, I was obsessed with making this blue cheese cheesecake dessert. I loved it, but no one around me did. Neither did Sam Sifton of The New York Times, who described it as “exactly like what you’d get if you mistakenly made a cheesecake with blue cheese.” Oh well. I wonder if I try again, whether the results may be different the second time around?
What’s an experiment or an ingredient that did work or gave you a ‘wow’ moment in the kitchen?
Last winter at Restaurant Eugene, we had an influx of beautiful kohlrabi come in from one of our farms. The bulbs came complete with their deep green tops, so I braised some of the leaves in olive oil, salt and pepper, and pureed them into an ice cream base. I paired the ice cream with citrus and meringue and the whole thing worked.
You’ve been a show contestant and a judge. Did you enjoy it? Apart from the entertainment, do you think those shows are good for the industry?
I think any show that brings exposure to an industry is good for that industry. I am, however, wary of how some shows may discount all the years of training needed to be really good at your craft
If you could have one chef, alive or not, prepare you a meal, who would it be? And what would he or she make?
If I could go back in time, I would love to experience one of the grand buffets created by Antoine Carême. Just the sheer opulence would blow my mind. And plus, I’m really into retro food and desserts, and this would be the ultimate.
Do you like the business part of the business? Does that ever get in the way of creativity?
Sometimes the business informs the creativity and vice-versa. At the end of the day, we are here to provide a service to people, who in turn provide us with a certain level of creative freedom. Unless you have bottomless funds, there is always a balancing act of being creative and being practical and smart.
Why do you think women in the industry are not recognized as often as men? (The chefs on the 2018 San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant List were nearly all male, for instance.) Why is the industry not up to speed on this?
Of all the kitchens I’ve worked in since 2001, the women outnumbered the men in just one of them. Even when the Executive Chef was a woman (Angela Hartnett at The Connaught), men dominated the roster. Before I became a pastry chef myself, only two out of my seven pastry bosses were women. The professional restaurant industry simply has a higher population of men – fact. Until we have an equal amount of men and women in the kitchen, I feel the representation will always tilt toward the guys. But that doesn’t mean that we as women can’t hold our own, and celebrate and support each other. Yes, I think we have to work harder to get our voices heard, but what else is new?
What will be the next frontier of the pastry world?
I hope finding ways to be more environmentally responsible is on the to-do list. Using more naturally derived, less refined ingredients should be a priority.
Photo Credits: Henri Hollis, Andrew Thomas Lee