With all due respects, the first time I met Sherry Yard, I was squirming in my seat. I was sitting in the originally Spago, in West Hollywood, overlooking the city of Los Angeles. The room was filled with celebrities, but I remember getting special treatment.
I arrived in my best; a well-tailored Italian wool suit that I hoped made me fit in a little better with all the glamorous types seated all around me. It was a great meal, and we were having a wonderful time. But the longer I sat in the stylish chairs, the most uncomfortable I was becoming. It wasn’t that I felt out of place. It was that my rear-end was starting to itch uncontrollably.
I knew that I shouldn’t stand up and engage in an all-out scratch-fest (although nothing would have felt better), but I didn’t know what to do. The longer I sat, the more intense it got. The wool in combination with the padded chairs was driving me nuts!
But soon enough, it was time for dessert, the cavalcade started. Sherry starting bringing out all sorts of wonderful things; tastes of hand-dipped dark chocolates, puckery lemon tartlets, and twists of crackly caramel that were so stunning, all these hot-shot celebrities starting looking at me.
But miraculously, as I started to spoon up and savor all these desserts, the itching subsided and each dessert was more delicious than the next. That was the first time we met and I was charmed at what a genuinely lovely and funny person Sherry is.
A few years later, Sherry moved over to Wolfgang Puck’s newer Spago restaurant, located a few miles away in swanky Beverly Hills which replaced the original. Since we were pastry-pals, Sherry and I run into each other every now and then over the years; her vivacious personality is infectious and I don’t know anyone who’s more enthusiastic about what she does than Sherry. And if you talked to her for a few minutes, as I recently did, you’d see what I mean…
David: Every time I talk to you there seems to be something new and fabulous going on in your life. After all, being the pastry chef at Spago in Beverly Hills makes you the pastry chef to the stars. Plus you make the dessert for the big Oscar dinner every year.
Who are some of your favorite celebrities that you’ve cooked for?
Sherry: I guess you can say them all, from David Lebovitz to Presidents.
David: Thanks for the flattery, but compared to Madonna and Andy Dick (ick!), I’m a rube. But I loved celebrity-watching and Spago is the best. I one stood next to Shaq O’Neill there and his feet were huge! But your boss is a bit of a celebrity too. You’ve been with Wolfgang Puck for a long time as his executive pastry chef.
How’s it been working with him, and what’s he like as a boss?
Sherry: At the 2000 Bon Appétit Awards, Barbara Fairchild introduced Wolfgang Puck as my boss. His response, with a chuckle, when he walked up to the mike was “Anyone that knows Sherry knows she is my boss!”
David: He’s actually quite funny, and works very hard too, which I think is because he was trained as a chef from a really early age. I also like that he gives ample credit to the chef’s in his restaurants, and they tend to stay with him for a long time.
I love the desserts you make. They’re always so contemporary, with clean, modern tastes yet grounded in traditional pastry techniques. I remember a Concord Grape Gelée that you made, enrobed in dark chocolate that was exceptionally good.
Does the menu change every day at Spago and where do you come up with all the ideas to keep things fresh?
Sherry: My inspiration begins when I shop at the farmer’s market and I see what’s in season. As a result, Spago’s dessert menu changes based on seasonality. I work closely with farmers and vendors to get the freshest ingredients, and as a result, I know our desserts will be the best.
David: A few years past you wrote a cookbook that was very well-received and got high praises by both professionals and home bakers called The Secrets of Baking: Simple Techniques for Sophisticated Desserts, which won a James Beard award as well.
So many people love this book, where you’ve successfully de-mystified baking with lots of tips and techniques…and, of course, fabulous recipes! I remember talking to you, like, a decade ago about writing a book but I know you’re insanely busy. How did you find the time to write it and what motivated you to share your vast knowledge?
Sherry: Here’s my secret—start with a ream of paper, build with a table of contents, create chapters and place tabs. Create each chapter based on the content and connection of similar desserts.
I wrote Secrets of Baking because I was passionate about an idea that came to me after hearing from many home bakers that they found certain elements of baking daunting or overwhelming. When I was in culinary school and early in my career I realized many desserts I learned about and mastered shared similar ingredients and baking methods. A lot of desserts come from one fundamental recipe and even the most elaborate creation can be broken down into a combination of simple recipes that anyone can master. I thought sharing this idea along with some key secret baking tips would really help home bakers to see it’s not as complicated as they perceived it to be.
Because I was so passionate about writing the book and sharing my ideas, I found time wherever I could. A lot of inspiration comes when I’m working, so I would write during down time at Spago, late nights after work and when I had time off.
David: Do you think you’ll ever write another cookbook, and if so, what subject would you like to explore?
Sherry: Funny you should mention it! As a matter of fact, Desserts by the Yard: From Brooklyn to Beverly Hills, Recipes from the Sweetest Life Ever will be coming out Fall 2007.
David: Another book? Can’t wait to see it next fall. We all have heroes and for many people (including me) you’re one of them. Which pastry chefs inspire you the most?
Sherry: Pastry chefs are such admirable characters. When I heard the question, faces flashed in my mind like, Pichet Ong, Florian Bellanger, Biagio Seppinni, Robert Ellinger, Donald Wressell, Bill Yosses, Emily Luchetti, Elizabeth Falkner, Sam Mason, En-Ming Hsu, Eckart Witzigmann, Michel Bras and, of course, Pierre Hermé.
David: A lot of readers ask me about how they can become a pastry chef.
What was your path?
Sherry: Coat checker, cocktail waitress, hostess, manager and then pastry chef. Next, lounge act singer…
David: Coat checker? That’s a stretch, but I can see you being a cocktail waitress, you’re so effervescent and fun. Now everyone thinks your life is glamorous, but can you tell me how many hours you work a day? And what’s your typical workday like?
Sherry: Sure thing, so glamorous! I started yesterday at about 8 am and left work last night at midnight. That’s pretty much the norm.
David: If you could go anywhere in the world and eat dessert, where would it be?
Sherry: A sunny day, under the shade of a tree in Africa. I am eating just picked fruits and cream.
David: Not to visit me in Paris? I promise to take you to Pierre Hermé…
So, is there a culinary trend that you don’t like, or that you think is silly and you wish would go away?
Sherry: No, not really, I view trends in food like haute couture. From wild, wonderful and wacky comes change, growth and evolution. Not having trends can ultimately stand in the way of progress. I embrace it all.
David: You are so diplomatic. Ok, since we’re on the subject around here, how about the Food Network: Like it or hate it?
Sherry: Terrific 2 am television!
David: Hmmm. Must be those infomercials. I remember being hypnotized by them after working a night shift as well. But I think I remember once you telling me about a hot tub too?
Ok…back to baking.
My favorite dessert ingredient is probably chocolate, although I also crave anything with coconut. And, I wouldn’t push many things away made with lime or lemon, and I like pineapple too…(help…stop me!) and I also like…er…oh, that’s right, this is your interview. So what are some of your favorite things to bake with?
Sherry: I love everything…except peanut butter. It’s my kryptonite.
David: When I was having my interview at Chez Panisse with Alice Waters, she asked me what I ate for dinner. Not being so quick-on-my-feet, I told her “popcorn” and “peanut butter sandwiches.” Being a working chef means that you have little time for yourself, doesn’t it?
What do you make for dinner when you’re home alone? And do you have dessert?
Sherry: Me too, popcorn!
Here’s the deal on what’s in my refrigerator—champagne, chocolate, mustard and “grab-n-go” sushi. My cupboard is full of popcorn.
David: Next time I come to Los Angeles I want to eat at your new place CUT, a steakhouse where you’re overseeing the dessert menu. Can you fill us in on what’s on the menu and why you took on another project?
Sherry: Chocolate Bread Pudding with Butterscotch Ice Cream, Inside-Out Profiteroles, Over the Top Chocolate Soufflé with “John Do Ya” Gelato to name a few.
I took this project on because it’s fun to be part of a team opening new restaurants with different varieties of food. At CUT we focus on light comfort yum.
Can’t wait to see you there, David!
David: Thanks Sherry. I guess I need to come in to find out about those Inside-Out Profiteroles. I know you’re super-busy…so thanks for taking the time to chat.
See you in Beverly Hills!