What do you enjoy most about your craft? I get to be imaginative by creating art with food, and I get to create new and exciting flavors for people who might have never thought to try X and Y together.
This is part two of my interview with Amy Sayles, pastry chef of Panzano; part two of our chat ran Wednesday.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? This silly little frying pan my mom gave to me a few years ago as a joke, except that I use it all the time. It's the perfect size for frying an egg, and the exact size of a bagel. The other greatest gift would have to be my pink KitchenAid mixer.
What's your fantasy splurge? There are so many things I wish for every day, but my fantasy pastry splurge is a huge pastry kitchen with standing ovens and enough table space for all of us to work comfortably.
If you could get a free ticket to, and a free dinner at, any restaurant in the world, where would you go? I'd fly to Yountville, California, and have dinner at the chef's table at the French Laundry. I've admired Thomas Keller for as long as I can remember, and would love nothing more than to sit and have dinner and a glass of wine with him.
If you could train under any pastry chef in the world, who would it be? François Payard, for a few reasons. He's known for his ice creams, which are my favorite, but he's also mastered the art of a perfectly crafted French macaron. I'd also love to study under Bill Corbett, of the Absinthe Group; his style is fresh and his flavors are clean.
What piece of advice would you give to a young pastry chef? Stay strong. There will be thousands of obstacles along the way. Trust me -- I've seen my fair share of fallen cakes, crystallized sorbets for no apparent reason, adjusting every recipe for change in altitude and humidity. But at the end of the day, if you can go home and say to yourself, "Today I succeeded in overcoming this challenge, tomorrow is a new day, and I will continue to learn how to remedy the issues brought before me," then one day, one month, one year at a time, you'll slowly but surely grow and become something amazing, and when all is said and done, you'll look back and laugh at how silly it all was.
Is having a pastry chef separate from the executive chef important in a restaurant? I think that having a pastry chef who focuses solely on pastries and desserts and an executive chef who oversees the savory dishes is extremely important. I've seen chefs try and do it all, but I've never seen it work. The overall quality of both pastry and savory dishes suffers, because the focus of the executive chef is spread too thin and dessert becomes an afterthought.
How does executive chef Elise Wiggins's menu influence your desserts? Elise's food and style plays a very large part in how I develop my dessert menu at Panzano. We're a modern but traditional Italian restaurant, and if you look closely at my dessert menu, you'll see that although the plating and execution of each dessert is not necessarily "Italian," the flavor profiles are all based on very classic "Nona-style" desserts from all regions of Italy. The chocolate-mousse cake is based on a classic chocolate-and-orange dessert known as torta di arance e cioccolata, which is served for Passover all over Italy. I do extensive research -- not only on flavor profiles, but also about how the food pairs with the rest of Elise's cuisine.
Favorite dessert on your menu: Right now, it's the chocolate and orange mousse cake. It just screams autumn, from its multi-shades of brown and orange to its cinnamon parfait. And to top it off, the entire dessert is gluten-free and one of three gluten-free desserts on the fall menu.
Biggest dessert fail: There is no one moment or one dessert that sticks out more than the rest as a failed attempt. Like all chefs, I go through a serious period of trial and error in the development of each menu, and part of being mentally successful is being able to put those failures behind me. If I were to sit around and dwell on past failures, I'd never get anywhere in the development of each menu. I will tell you, though, that every dessert that finally ends up on the printed menu undergoes anywhere between five to ten compositions before it becomes guest-worthy. I won't stop until each dessert on the menu is the best I can make it.
What's been the worst disaster in the kitchen? When I was an intern at Montage Laguna Beach, I was pulling a tray of molten chocolate cakes from the oven...and dropped them all.
Craziest night in the kitchen: I don't work nights, but there are definitely crazy days for me in the morning. The week we change the menu is especially insane, and this past menu change was no exception. We are running two full menus simultaneously in the dining room, not to mention banquets for fifty-plus almost every day that week -- and I had two regular cakes, a wedding cake and a cake tasting on my plate, too.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: The day Elise told me that my apple-pear crostada was one of the best desserts she'd ever had. I definitely called my mom.
Weirdest customer request: Guests ask for all kinds of interesting things: "Can you spare a cookie?" "Can I substitute this for that?" "Can I have extra sauce but no ice cream?" I've heard it all, but I think the oddest thing I've ever been asked was from the guest who wanted a chocolate cake with espresso gelato and blueberry sauce. This may not seem so odd, but I challenge you to eat blueberries and wash them down with a swig of coffee. Trust me -- it is not a pleasant taste.
Why are people so obsessed with chocolate? Chocolate is more than just an aphrodisiac; it also encompasses umami, or the sixth sense. Chocolate releases endorphins, which give you that magical feeling that we all crave out of the best things in life.
Best baking tip for a home cook: Always, always use unsalted butter when baking. I always knew this was the case, although I never knew why...until I met Elise. She enlightened me on the topic, and I'll share her baking tidbit with you: There's an anti-caking agent in salted butter that inhibits your baked goods from developing those much-needed gluten binds that are necessary for cakes, cupcakes, cookies and pie dough. Voilà!
What's your biggest pet peeve? Pastry people are known for being a tad bit obsessive-compulsive about the oddest things -- things like having enough spatulas and whisks; finding just the right spoon; and making sure every cut is just so. But of all the things that make me go a little bonkers, not having a clean station and organized spice cabinet are my two biggest pet peeves. It's one of the things that I will stop mid-task to do, just because I can't stand looking at that chocolate blob or backward container of vanilla extract for one more second.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring pastry staff? Speed, cleanliness and ability to follow directions.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? A wine and dessert bar -- and, oh, there would obviously be gourmet cheeses, too. I love cheese. I eat it like it's my best friend.
Greatest accomplishment as a pastry chef: Getting my jacket for the first time, which is something more than just having your name on a menu or a title for your résumé. I felt like I was part of something bigger.
One thing that people would be surprised to know about you: I like to knit. It relaxes me at the end of the day, and I'm able to just zone out and decompress from my day.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Try something new every time you go out, and always ask what the chef's special is. You never know what chefs are experimenting with or what kind of gem you might stumble upon.
What's always lurking in your pantry? There are two staple items in my pantry at Panzano: cinnamon and feuillantine. Cinnamon is a staple in my life -- always has been and always will be -- and feuillantine is a staple because it adds an extraordinary crunch to dessert without really changing the flavor.
If you hadn't become a pastry chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd most likely be an event planner. I love organizing parties and gathering all the components to create the perfect event; it's the party equivalent to creating the perfect dessert.
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What's in the pipeline? There are always new opportunities arising every day, but for right now, I plan on staying at Panzano and doing super-fun, super-crazy things. I like pushing the envelope with things that are basic and then bursting into a whole new realm of food ideas.