This is part one of my interview with Samm Sherman, pastry chef of Root Down and Linger; part two of my chat with Sherman will run tomorrow.
It was the pot au chocolat that changed Samm Sherman's life. She was a student at the University of Colorado and working the front of the house at the now-closed Bloom when a friend offered to take her to lunch. They went to the Kitchen in Boulder and ordered the restaurant's pot au chocolat -- a sugar high, says Sherman, that sunk in. "I don't remember anything I ate except for that dessert, but it was completely magical, and that's when I had the realization that there existed something more than starters and entrees -- that dessert could be really special," recalls the native of Tucson, now the pastry chef at Linger and both Root Down locations.
See also: First look: Root Down at DIA
She started creating desserts at CU, too, while surviving a sorority house. "I needed an escape, so I always retreated to the kitchen to bake, and the more I did it, the more I realized that baking was something that I really loved," says Sherman, who originally wanted to design wedding cakes but whose lack of experience was a roadblock. "I thought that wedding cakes would be my deal, but I didn't have the experience, so I moved to California to go to the Culinary Institute of America," says Sherman, confessing, too, that plated desserts -- not wedding cakes -- became her focus. "Maybe someday I'll do wedding cakes, but there's something about plated desserts that I love. It's the last thing you eat, and I like the pressure of making sure it's a great experience," she notes.
Pastry certificate in hand, along with enviable stages that included stints at Bouchon Bakery in Yountville and San Francisco's Tartine Bakery, Sherman returned to Denver in 2009 and secured a position at WaterCourse Bakery. The plan, she says, was to stay in Denver for a year -- a promise she made to her boyfriend, now her husband -- and then explore opportunities in other cities, namely New York and Seattle, where she had job prospects. "I made my boyfriend stay in California for a year, and since he gave me a year there, I said I'd give him a year in Denver, but I wasn't planning to stay any longer than that," admits Sherman.
But on a whim, she submitted a résumé to Root Down, and after an interview and a stage, she suddenly found herself on the schedule, but she wasn't hired to do pastries. "I was working pantry and I got to plate desserts, but I wasn't doing any production," she says. Still, she was persistent, coming in on her days off to assist the then-pastry chef, and when that person left, Sherman says, she was offered the job...by default. "I just kind of walked into it, but I'm still here and going strong, and I don't see myself leaving anytime soon.
"I so appreciate that Linger and Root Down are places where you can really create your own path -- I'm proof of that -- plus I like what the company stands for, I love what I do, where I work and who I work for, and I'm passionate, not just about my position, but this company," adds Sherman, who's also a new mom. And in the following interview, she pleads for diners to eat dessert so she can send the kid to college, admits that breast milk in desserts isn't out of the realm of possibility, and explains why "Fuck you" is a compliment when it's uttered from the mouth of Justin Cucci.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? The challenges of creating dishes that people crave. Dessert is a choice, not a necessity, and that means making desserts that people say yes to, of taking food and creating art. I also love the elegance of a beautifully plated dessert and the fact that dessert is the last part of the meal, the last thought in someone's mind and mouth before they leave, the last impression you leave on a guest.
Five words to describe your desserts: I hate describing my own desserts. I don't want to dictate how someone else feels about them.
What are your ingredient obsessions? It changes all the time, but right now it's breakfast cereal. It's the perfect example of something familiar that I can repurpose into a plated dessert.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: An offset spatula, big or small. You can use it to plate, ice a cake or slap an intruder.
What kitchen tools would you be completely lost without? A rubber spatula. My crew hides them around the pastry stations so we always have at least one available.
Who or what inspires you? This is really cheesy, but Justin Cucci. He's constantly pushing himself and his business, so that what was good enough yesterday isn't good enough today. He's always working to please the guest and trying to anticipate their needs before they need it -- that's how he creates the best experience. And that's what I want from my desserts. Being around him inspires me to constantly work toward improving my dishes and myself. Oh, my God, don't tell him I said that.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: Man, that's hard because there are so many, but I really love Ritual Chocolate. We have their chocolates on both Root Down and Linger's dessert menus.
One baking ingredient that's way overused: I don't know if I would say that anything is overused. If it's being used a lot, it's usually because there's a demand for it -- salted caramel, for example. You see it everywhere because people want to eat it, drink it and pour it all over their bodies. It's a welcome challenge to take an ingredient that may seem overused and give it new life. Rather than salted caramel, how about dulce de leche with Malden salt instead? Yum.
One baking ingredient that's way underused: Most desserts need at least a little salt, but they don't always get it.
Pastry trend you'd like to see in 2013: Breast milk in desserts. I'm just kidding...kind of. But if this does catch on, my freezer at home is stocked and ready.
Pastry trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Bacon in desserts. Sorry, bacon lovers, but while I love cured meats as much as the next lady, I don't like them in my sweets.
Most noteworthy dessert you've ever eaten: Nine years ago, I had the pot au chocolat at the Kitchen in Boulder, and at that moment, I decided I wanted to do pastry for a career. Who would have thought warm baked chocolate with cream poured over the top would be so life-changing?
Favorite dessert on your menu right now: That's like asking a mom who her favorite child is. I don't have a favorite dessert, although if I were to eat one right this very minute, it would be milk and cookies at Linger.
What dessert would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? If it doesn't sell, what's the point? My career is based on giving other people what they want, not deciding how to satisfy my own dessert needs.
Which dessert would you bring back from the grave? Lemon meringue pie. It's not really dead, but I would love to do something new with it, maybe a cornflake crust? You might want to look for that on an upcoming menu.
Which dessert would you like to see retired from menus? I would love to see something other than bread pudding and panna cotta. Those desserts are easy and overdone.
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Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: When Justin eats one of my dishes and says, "Fuck you." That means he likes it.