This is part one of my interview with Noah French, pastry chef and co-owner of Sugarmil; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
It's just before noon on a Wednesday, and already Sugarmill, the Ballpark-neighborhood dessert temple from pastry chef Noah French, is saturated with sugar fiends. And French, who's chugging coffee at the community table, seems to recognize every face that comes in. Open less than a month, Sugarmill already seems to have found its groove; French, who's relatively new to Denver, has definitely found his. "To me, this is a dream come true; it's what I'm passionate about, and I love the interaction I have with guests," says the 46-year-old pastry master, who hails from New Jersey and started baking as a teenager in an effort to butter up a teacher.
"When I was in high school, my math grades sucked, so I'd make my math teacher a cake every Friday, just to kiss her ass. Cakes were my bribes, and they worked, because instead of getting a 'D,' which I deserved, I got a 'C,'" remembers French, who somehow recounts this scheme without cracking a smirk.
The icing on the cake, however, came when he enrolled in the CIA to pursue a cooking career and, while doing an externship at the Rancho Bernardo Inn, in San Diego, found himself enamored of pastry instead. "Despite the fact that I could bake cakes, I really wanted to be a garde manger -- not a pastry chef -- but when I saw the pastry chef there creating a chocolate-and-pistachio-mousse cake, I was unbelievably wowed. That was my epiphany, and I went back to the CIA and started working at all the pastry stations at the student-staffed restaurants on campus," recalls French, who after graduation quickly became a pastry jet-setter, creating desserts all over the world.
He began his career in Atlantic City, at Resorts Casino, then took a jaunt to Disney World, where he piped icing at the Disney Grand Floridian hotel alongside an acerbic Italian pastry chef. "He cursed at me every day in Italian and made me miserable," says French, "but he also saw potential in me, so he pushed me, and whenever he left to open another Disney hotel, he took me with him as his assistant."
And when the Italian curmudgeon was offered a position with another company to open a hotel in South Africa, he looked to French to carry the cake. "He was having some personal issues, so he sent me there on my own to open this insane 400-room, half-billion-dollar hotel," says French, who stayed for a year before returning to New Jersey to be closer to his dad, who was ill, and landing a pastry-chef position at the exclusive and private New York Athletic Club. "They keep the Heisman Trophy there," French reveals. And he stayed there for three years, knocking out desserts for high-profile athletes and Olympians before leaving the Big Apple for the Big Island, where he was hired as the corporate pastry chef at Roy's, a position that started in Maui and took him all over Hawaii, California, Texas, Arizona, and back to New York City. In all, French was with Roy's for a dozen years -- "That's longer than most marriages last," he quips -- and finally left to work for a high-end catering company in Miami, a gig that lasted all of three months before French was let go. "The owner wanted to save money, so I was cut," he says. But bigger and better things were on the horizon -- specifically, an opportunity to do pastry at a high-caliber Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados. "It was the hardest two years of my life," admits French, "but they set me up in a three-bedroom house and they were paying me a lot of money, which was important, because I wanted to save money to do my own venture."
That opportunity came when he got in touch with Troy Guard, a former chef with Roy's. "Troy and I had met at Roy's in New York, and we really hit it off -- and right before I signed the contract to go to Barbados for two years, Troy contacted me about doing a dessert bar in Denver," recalls French. And while he was tempted, French is the kind of guy who adheres to his commitments -- and he needed dough if he was going to invest in any projects -- so Guard bided his time.
In February 2012, the two finally had the chance to talk seriously. "I came to Denver, Troy and I drove around looking for spaces, and as soon as we really started talking, I knew I was 100 percent on board; Troy had me at 'Let's open up a dessert place,'" he remembers. "I work fourteen, sometimes sixteen hours a day here, and I never look at the clock. That's a sign of happiness," says French, who in the following interview extols the virtues of chocolate, admits that a hostess at a Denver restaurant left him cold, and predicts that 2014 will be the year of interactive desserts.
Lori Midson: What do you enjoy most about your craft? Noah French: It's hard to pick just one thing, but I'd have to say that I most enjoy preparing desserts so that guests can indulge their sweet tooth. Desserts are often seen as "guilty pleasures," and when I see the look on a guest's face as they take a bite of something decadent and delicious that they're really enjoying, it's priceless.
What's your approach to baking? My approach to pastry and dessert is to keep it simple. I'm a big fan of using pronounced flavors in my desserts and putting a twist on the classics. For example, I make a red-velvet crème brûlée that combines a layer of red-velvet cake topped with a layer of cream-cheese crème brûlée. They're two classic flavors incorporated into one unique and unexpected dessert.
Ingredient obsessions: I love using different brown sugars, and right now I'm especially obsessed with muscovado, an unrefined brown sugar with a pronounced molasses flavor and a complex taste. If I make an ice cream using muscovado, it tastes just like a Bit-O-Honey candy.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: I adore the smell of cinnamon. My favorite desserts are those made with apples and cinnamon, specifically a simple apple galette. It just smells so good.
Favorite kitchen-gadget obsessions: It is a toss-up between a microplane and my Kuhn peeler, which I use to peel everything from apples to mangos. And the microplane is perfect not only for zesting citrus, but also for grating chocolate -- it gives the chocolate a "snow" effect.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: Peter Arendsen from Ice Cream Alchemy is a genius when it comes to creating ice creams with natural flavors -- and he loves a challenge. We asked him to produce a lobster-caramel flavor for TAG, and incredibly, he pulled it off with flying colors. The flavors were perfectly balanced. My newest favorite from him is a blend of black walnut and maple...it's just incredible.
One ingredient you won't touch: There isn't a pastry ingredient I won't touch, but I'm not a fan of uni -- the edible part of a sea urchin. I love sushi and sashimi, but uni is not my favorite.
One ingredient you can't live without: Vanilla beans -- they're so fragrant. People think it's a simple flavor, but it's not; in fact, it's quite complex. I use them in panna cotta, ice creams and vanilla cream, and I make vanilla sugar to make sauces.
Food trend you'd like to see more of: Dessert-tasting dinners: five dessert courses paired with wine or spirits.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear: The whole molecular thing has overstayed its welcome. Food should be recognizable as food. I think a granulated carrot cake with cheesecake foam and cinnamon air might intrigue a guest, but will they go back to a restaurant to try it again? Does it actually taste good? I believe they're more likely to go back to a restaurant that makes a killer chocolate cake.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten: I wanted to have dinner at Alain Ducasse in Paris, but the restaurant was closed for a private function, so I ate in one of the other restaurants at Plaza Athénée. The service was impeccable, and the food was perfect. From the first cocktail to the final cup of espresso, it was definitely one of my most memorable meals. I had a black mojito muddled with blackberries, and dinner was a Belgian endive salad and roasted rack of lamb that was perfectly cooked and perfectly balanced -- not too mild and not too gamey. And I had two desserts: profiteroles and a layer of chocolate cake with raspberry mousse on top and a caramel-cookie tube with a thick raspberry coulis.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: Guests who sit at our chef's counter always ask me what my favorite dessert is, and I always have them ask their server, mostly because I don't have one favorite dessert. When I created the menu for Sugarmill, I made sure all of the desserts were all-stars. Everything from the chocolate "Noahsphere" to the red-velvet crème brûlée to the pineapple upside-down cake are all really great. That said, the "Noahsphere" does have quite the tableside presentation: We pour hot caramel sauce over the creation, and it literally implodes with goodness
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? I love tiramisu, so I hope to eventually put it on the menu. I plan to put my own twist on the traditional dessert without compromising the purity. Good tiramisu is hard to find.
Last meal before you die: A large mushroom pizza; a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon; and a great tiramisu. Oh, yeah, and a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream from Baskin-Robbins and a scoop of Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream with almonds.
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What's next for Denver's culinary scene? I think we're going to see more interactive desserts on Denver menus as diners start to skip the heavy apps in favor of saving the best for last. It's becoming more about the presentation and less about cake-on-a-plate. Desserts are going to become much more than an afterthought in 2014.