HomePeopleTeacher Feature: Stephen Durfee

Teacher Feature: Stephen Durfee

(This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Director of Curriculum
Dandelion Chocolate, San Francisco, CA

As the former Executive Pastry Chef of The French Laundry in Yountville, CA, and the recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s award for ‘Pastry Chef of the Year’ in 1998, Chef Stephen Durfee achieved much in the world of pastry at an early age. Not one to rest on his laurels, however, he has continued to challenge himself throughout his career, racking up accolades that included being honored as one of the ‘Ten Best Pastry Chefs in America’ by Pastry Art & Design magazine in 1999; winning a bronze medal at the 2007 National Pastry Team Championships; another bronze medal at the 2010 World Chocolate Masters National Selection; and finishing in fourth place with his team at the 2013 World Pastry Championships. For over 20 years, he was a Professor of Chocolate and Pastry Arts at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, where he oversaw the Advanced Concepts in Baking and Pastry program. Recently, Durfee was named the Director of Curriculum at Dandelion Chocolate, a renowned ‘bean-to-bar’ company in San Francisco, where he will share his knowledge and love for chocolate with yet more students and chocolate enthusiasts. Here Durfee discusses his career journey, his love for teaching, and what he hopes to achieve in his new position.

Early in your career, you worked in the garde manger station at the French Laundry, which must have been pretty exciting. How did you land that job and how did you end up in pastry?

I got the job at the French Laundry because my wife at the time, Kristina, was hired as the pastry chef. She had been the pastry chef at Thomas Keller’s restaurant Rakel in New York City. He actually contacted her and said, ‘Hey, I’m opening up this restaurant in Napa Valley – are you interested in moving out here?’ So at the time, we were living in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, and I was working and she was not. My wife basically said to Thomas, ‘Hey, Stephen needs a job, too.’ So he hired me as the garde manger, and honestly, I had no experience in that area of the kitchen at all – most of my work had been in baking and pastry. So it was really like learning on the job as you go, which was indeed very exciting but kind of stressful.

I was fortunate that I had a great colleague in Ron Siegel, who also worked there. It was just a kitchen team of three – Ron and me and Kristina, and then Thomas, of course, working a station. So it was just long hours to get through. At some point Kristina had an injury at work and hurt her hand, and I had to cover for her in pastry. By that point, our kitchen staff had grown a little bit more, so it was somewhat of an organic sort of evolution of the company. Then in 1995 we built a new kitchen at the French Laundry and at that point we started serving lunch, so I moved to the lunch crew and did the fish station.  By the end of the second year, I had worked every station in that kitchen.

I had been at the restaurant for about two years when I became the pastry chef, and it all worked out for the best, because by that point I was pretty well acquainted with Thomas’s cooking and what constituted a Thomas Keller dish, and I really felt like I had a good grasp of his style. I could make desserts that matched the type of food that guests were having in the restaurant, because I understood how a dish was composed. I think more than anything, that’s what made me successful in that position, because I had that previous experience and could make desserts that matched the rest of the food. 

How did you get into teaching?

Well, I had grown up in a family of teachers. My parents were both teachers and I grew up on the campus of a boarding school and it was just part of my life, teaching. When I went to college, I actually came out of college as a teacher. I taught for three years at a high school boarding school. I had in mind this idea that I wanted to go to graduate school in New York City, so I moved to New York City. But the timing was just not quite right, and through the evolution of one job to another, I was a private chef for a family, and then I worked at the restaurant Nosmo King. Then I ended up going to Peter Kump’s cooking school, first on the weekends and then I enrolled in their regular baking and pastry program after that. Then they let me be a teacher’s assistant, which really was like a glorified dishwasher job to help offset the expense. When I finished that program, I joined the team teaching the weekend classes. It was like how to bake pâte à choux and make pastry cream, and rolling a tart shell, and things like that. So really skills-focused classes. I loved skills, so I started teaching right away, as soon as I had gone through school. So when the opportunity came up at the CIA to join the team, I had already had that teaching experience.

What was the most rewarding part of teaching for you?

The most rewarding experience is when you have a student who becomes successful. Over the years, I had so many great students. Some of them you keep track of, and some of them you lose track of, but certainly, when somebody goes and launches a successful business, or somebody gets a writeup, their desserts get a write up in the paper or in a magazine, or somebody follows in your footsteps type of thing. I’ve had two different former students become the pastry chef at the French Laundry, which is pretty cool. And I’ve had others who have launched successful chocolate businesses, or have gotten a pastry chef job in another great restaurant. Or they write to you and say, ‘I’m working with Grant Achatz these days.’  So those are always very rewarding things to hear.

Then in 2015, I started this advanced program for the students who were staying on in Hyde Park for a bachelor’s degree, that they offered a couple different areas of concentration. So I got to spearhead this big concentration that was held at Greystone, and we got to do so many cool projects. That’s when I started the chocolate-making program at Greystone. But we also taught students panning and we did some really in-depth studies of flavors and building desserts based on themes. Bringing a product to market, for example, and just some really cool projects that I think got the students to really stretch their imagination somewhat and flex their muscles, that kind of thing. We also hosted a baking and pastry conference a couple of years there that brought other great chefs to the school, and we got to collaborate on some really interesting ideas for desserts. Over 20 years, I had so many great memories, but I think that bachelor’s program, in particular, was especially rewarding because we kind of got to build that up from scratch.

Last spring you were invited to the White House to participate in the annual Easter egg roll. That must have been an amazing experience!

Yes, the American Egg Board sponsors that event every year, and I was just recommended by a mutual friend who reached out to me and said that they could use some help. The planning began months and months ahead. Because they hadn’t held the event for the last two years, they really wanted to do something fun and exciting. And since the president’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is a college professor, they wanted to make the theme of the whole Easter egg event this year be ‘egg-ucation’. So I think that they connected with me because I was an educator. They had various stations spread out on the lawn at the White House. During the course of the day, they had about 35,000 guests come, but they came in waves of 7,000 at a time over the course of two and a half hours or so. Then they sweep the grounds, kick them out, and bring in another 7,000. There’s the Easter egg roll, and the Easter egg hunt. Then there is a place for kids to go for exercise and “physical egg-ucation”. They had some NBA basketball players and they had Kristin Chenoweth from Wicked, who was reading during story time. They were all spread out in different areas. My station was the ‘meringue magic’ tent, which is where all the food was. They had asked me initially, what can we do for some snacks, dessert snacks that are made with meringue.  I said, ‘We should make a replica of the White House out of macarons. It was just an idea that I just kind of came up with on the spot, in the middle of a phone call, and they loved it. So then it was just kind of figuring out how do you actually make a model of the White House out of macarons, but I got great support. They had a caterer there who did a ton of work on our behalf. I did the same demonstration five times, back to back to back during the course of the day. Because making maroons themselves is finicky, and I wasn’t sure what we were going to do even to kind of make it fun. We did a demonstration of making a gateau dacquoise, which had enough in common with macarons. It’s a classic cake, built like a sandwich, a meringue and buttercream sandwich. So we were able to be on a stage and get a lot of participation from kids. Kids came up on the stage and I’d say, ‘Let’s crack these eggs together and I’ll show you how to separate an egg. Let’s whisk this meringue and you can add the sugar bit by bit and let’s put it into a pastry bag and you can pipe it.’ We had pre-baked dacquoise discs so that we were able to put the kid’s piped meringues  into the “magic oven” and then pull out something that was already baked and perfectly round and crisp, and then take two meringues and sandwich them together and make a cake. And also because we did the demonstration so many times, we were totally dialed in by the second time around in terms of timing, and so the kids could get up there on the stage with us and have a good time. It wasn’t stressful. It was neat. I got to meet the president’s wife. She came right over and chatted about the centerpiece that we had made. I hadn’t expected that, so I was a little kind of stunned at the moment in terms of what do you talk about?

At one point in your career, you became a little obsessed with chocolate. Would you say that’s fair, and what did you do to learn as much as you could about chocolate?

Yes, I definitely became super-interested in chocolate, and part of it was just because I was given the opportunity to teach the confections class at the CIA.  I had loved chocolate since I was in Nick Malgieri’s class at Peter Kump’s school, and we learned tempering and he had a couple of molds, and I just was so interested in that. I went out to JB Prince and I bought some molds that very day. I was working at Alison on Dominick Street at the time, and brought them down there and started making truffles immediately. I thought it was just so fun. But so many years later when I was a teacher myself, I got to teach that class. I read a lot, I got great books, the Pierre Hermé books and the one by Frederic Bau of Valrhona. Also, the book on chocolate by Maricel Presilla, which goes into the history of chocolate. I also took the plated dessert class by Philippe Givre from Valrhona and a bonbon class at the Cacao Barry school. But what really cemented it for me was competing in the National Pastry Team Championship. I was recruited by Richard Ruskell – on our team, he was making the chocolate centerpiece and one of his colleagues was doing the sugar showpiece. I was just doing the desserts. En Ming Hsu, whom I had become friends with, told me, ‘You can’t just be the dessert guy. You have to have a skill in making a centerpiece, if you want to make an impact.’ She encouraged me to set my sights on trying out for the World Cup team. So I decided, all right, I’m going to do that. So in order to do that, I had to be able to make a chocolate centerpiece. So I took a class, I volunteered to assist Donald Wressell teaching a class, and I did whatever I could do to learn about chocolate centerpieces.  I entered the World Chocolate Masters a couple of times, the national selection. I just did everything I could to try to immerse myself in that world so that I could gain proficiency quickly, because I was eager, and also because I was so much older than everyone else – in the end, I made the World Cup team and competed in the Coupe de Monde on my 50th birthday!  I’m sure I was the oldest person there. My Coupe teammates were Andy Chlebana and Christophe Feyt – I’ve been lucky enough to always surround myself with the most talented people. I try to work with the best people and hope that some of their talent rubs off on me, seriously – those two guys and the colleagues that I had at the CIA and the chefs that I worked with at The French Laundry. The list of people that I got to work with and learn from is amazing.   And now I get to work with the most talented people at Dandelion Chocolate

What sets Dandelion apart from other chocolate companies? 

Dandelion is a small craft chocolate company that’s always been of particular interest to me…. they’re very transparent in their relationships – about where their materials come from and about the relationships that they have with growers in various parts of the world. They were obviously trying to make an impact. It’s not a social venture, like the mission is to improve people’s lives….. they are just respectful in the knowledge that they find a great product that they want, they take the time to cultivate a meaningful relationship with the grower, and then pay fairly for that product. I admired that. And their product is really good.

When I was teaching at CIA, I used to visit them and I would bring my classes down for a tour. I’d come down a couple times a year and I became really familiar with the company. So when I decided that it was time for me to do something new, I tried to assess my own skillset and determine what could I possibly be doing that would be new and exciting and different? So I called them up and said, ‘Hey, I’d love to come down and meet with you guys and see what you’re up to these days.’ Fortunately for me, they were interested in expanding their educational offerings at the same time when I was interested in teaching a new audience. So we seem to meet just at the right place at the right time.

What are some of the things you will be doing in your new position, and what would you like every visitor to Dandelion to learn from you?

Right now I’m leading tours, while we put together our Chocolate Experiences team. Pretty soon we will be back working with the public, so that will include tours and tastings and any type of outreach when it comes to classes – we do both public and private classes. To start, most of those will revolve around tasting classes and flavor orientation, and that type of thing. But I’m really interested in branching out and building out a kitchen here so we can do baking and pastry and confections classes. What makes Dandelion’s chocolate distinct is that it’s “two-ingredient” chocolate: cocoa beans and sugar, without anything else added. Each bar is 70 percent cacao nibs from one specific origin, carefully roasted, and sugar – that’s it, no added cocoa butter. We have maybe a dozen different origins that we’re working with right now. Really the only variation is the origin and the roasting profile, and it’s truly remarkable, the variations that we get. But because we don’t add any extra cacao butter, the chocolate is thicker, so it introduces certain challenges that you don’t come across when you are working with classic couverture. We’ve been doing projects like this for years in my class at Greystone. We made our own “bean to bar” chocolate then we would use our own chocolate that we just made to bake brownies with. Then we do a brownie tasting and it’s like, wow, these are so different from each other. Or we do a similar experiment with ganache and compare the finished truffles. When you’re tempering the chocolate and it’s thicker, it just behaves differently. So, I think I would definitely like to share more of that experience with guests here, offering baking and pastry classes on site.

The craft chocolate community is pretty tight, and there are other equally great companies all around the country. So there’s more of an opportunity I think, to network with some of them and to share experiences with other craft chocolate makers. The more that we’re able to do together, we can help to sort of raise each other’s profile. I think that’s kind of my mission overall is just to raise people’s awareness of what are some of the beauties of craft chocolate and what makes it special.

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