This is part one of my interview with Amy Sayles, pastry chef of Panzano; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
"Baking is just part of my family's culture," declares Amy Sayles, a native of Orange County who spent her childhood soaking up sugar, an early precursor to her position as pastry chef at Panzano. "I think I started baking when I was around three, and I remember having cookie bakes every year, plus my grandmother had a bakery in Germany, so it definitely runs in the family," says Sayles, whose first journey into the professional world of confections came when she was sweet sixteen and spinning shakes at a retro diner. "I was the designated fountain girl," she quips. But while the job started out as an after-school pastime, it quickly turned into an experimental playground: "I loved creating new flavors and having fun with different flavor combinations, and without my really knowing it at the time, it was a sign of things to come."
See also: Chef and Tell: Elise Wiggins of Panzano
She moved to Arizona and enrolled in the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, marching her way through an accelerated one-year program that gave her the opportunity to do an externship at Montage, a luxurious coastline property in Laguna Beach, California, that boasts several restaurants. The externship evolved into a permanent post, and Sayles eventually became the assistant to the head pastry chef. "There was so much knowledge in that kitchen, and I was always learning something new -- a new technique, a new way to make ice cream -- and while I thought I knew a lot, along came this job that taught me ha, just kidding; I still had a lot to learn, and the pastry chef at the time, Maren Henderson, was a great teacher," recalls Styles, who would work with Henderson again at Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's in Costa Mesa.
She spent several more years doing pastry at various restaurants across California before a jaunt to Nebraska resulted in an epiphany. "It's a little hoity-toity in California, and I went to Omaha for a wedding, and everyone was so friendly -- there was none of the cattiness I was used to -- and when a friend told me that she was moving to Denver, I came out here to visit and loved it, and then I made the move," she says.
Like so many pastry chefs before her, Sayles wound up at Restaurant Kevin Taylor and was hired on the spot, she remembers, as the assistant pastry chef. But when the slow season hit, she found herself looking for a second job, and a friend who'd worked with her at Taylor's signature restaurant was now at Panzano. Sayles left Restaurant Kevin Taylor altogether to join her...two days before the start of the 2013 Denver Restaurant Week. "I like to hit the ground running -- that's what I'm known for, and what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," jokes Sayles. But Elise Wiggins, Panzano's executive chef, made the transition effortless, she adds. "I love working for Elise. She's got the spunk and the fire, she's very straightforward, and she gives me constant opportunities to be creative," says Sayles, who in the following interview warns that blueberries and coffee are not a harmonious pairing, divulges that salted butter is a big mistake in baking, and explains why a Neapolitan shake from In-N-Out Burger would be her last-day-on-earth sugar finale.
Westword: Ten words to describe you: Amy Sayles: Musical (everyone calls me "Jukebox Amy"), straightforward, determined, logical, creative, energetic, sarcastic, bubbly, loud and funny and, because I couldn't just pick ten, detail-oriented.
Five words to describe your desserts: Modern, classic, fresh, clean and colorful.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Spice blends, specifically cinnamon and lemon.
What kitchen tool would you be completely lost without? A Sharpie. I basically feel naked without one; I even keep them in my purse.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: Definitely our twenty-quart Hobart mixer. It's been through hell and back and still works like a gem.
Favorite smell in the kitchen: Wesley Ligon, our bread baker's focaccia bread, fresh from the oven. Not a lot of people can do focaccia well, but his is perfect, with just the right amount of Parmesan and herbs. I could probably eat a whole sheet of it, but I try to limit myself to just one piece a day.
Favorite ingredients to work with: Without a doubt, local honey from Fort Collins. I love the idea that it's a natural sweetener, and buying local is what I am all about.
One ingredient that you won't touch: There really isn't an ingredient I won't try at least once. I mean, I'm not going to try and serve the guests sriracha sorbet, but my curiosity may get the better of me, and I might try it just to see how it works.
One ingredient in baking that's way overused: All the basic ingredients -- sugar, flour, eggs and butter -- are used in almost everything I do, and I don't really think that there's any one thing that's overused. There are, however, plenty of things that are heavily underused: gluten-free flours and some unique fruits like persimmon, quince and bergamot that aren't readily available in Colorado, for example.
Dessert food trend you'd like to see more of: I'd have to say more molecular gastronomy. Although it's a broad topic, I think a ton of cool new things could be explored and developed.
Dessert food trend you'd like to see disappear: There's not really a dessert trend I'd like to see go away. I feel that combining both classic and modern dessert techniques is the key to a successful dessert menu.
Which dessert needs to retire from dessert menus? Retiring a dessert isn't necessarily the best option; sometimes all an old dessert needs is a little dusting off and remodeling. Same flavors, same basic dessert integrity, but with a more modern and revamped sparkle.
Which dessert needs to be brought back in vogue? If there was ever a dessert that needed to be brought back with style and panache, it's panna cotta. This Italian delicacy is creamy, light, and has the versatility of being both simple and complex at the same time.
Most memorable dessert you've ever had: The deconstructed strawberry shortcake from Maren Henderson, of the Michael Mina Group. It has fresh Harry's berries, fluffy angel-food cake, and a curl of frozen mascarpone cheese, and while it has a really comforting flavor profile, it's also upscale. It was also one of the first desserts I ever made, and kind of started me on this career path.
Your five favorite Denver/Boulder restaurants for sweets and/or pastries other than your own: In no specific order, the Squeaky Bean, Central Bistro, Harman's, the Beehive in Boulder, and Sweet Basil in Vail. All the menu items -- both savory and sweet -- at the Squeaky Bean have never failed to impress me; the dishes are modern and fresh but still comforting. The desserts at Central Bistro are pretty outrageously awesome, and I've never been disappointed. Harman's just blows me away. I went in on a slow night not long after they opened and asked the bartender to point me toward something exceptional, and boy, did he ever. The Beehive is like a dream for me. I stumbled upon it on a slow Wednesday after going to the Boulder Farmers' Market, and I'm obsessed with its farm-to-table approach. They don't do anything crazy -- just great, clean flavors, plus exceptional service and a late summer breeze. And last but not least, Sweet Basil. Most of Denver knows about Sweet Basil, but I'm not a native, so I was blindsided by this mountain gem. I asked our server to have the pastry chef make me something that she would want -- this is my fine-dining trick to get the best dessert -- and out came a light purple lavender "float" that literally jolted me because it was so amazing.
What's the secret to baking bread? Good yeast and patience.
How many people really do order dessert first? I'd say only about 1 percent of people order dessert first, and most of those people are probably pastry chefs.
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Last dessert before you die: Hands down, a Neapolitan shake from In-N-Out Burger. I know it's so simple for a pastry chef, but I grew up with In-N-Out, and there is no abandonment of tradition.