Executive Pastry Chef Zac Young: The Theatricality of Cookies
An Interview by Nicole Witko
While working in the wig department of the Radio City Rockettes, Zac Young realized that his heart was with the batch of cookies he brought into work every day. As the current Executive Pastry Chef for David Burke Group, Young graduated with honors from the Baking and Pastry Arts program at the Institute of Culinary Education. Following his love for sweets, Young pursued a job at Bouchon Bakery in New York City. In 2006, Young took on an unforgettable role as Pastry Chef for Alexandra Guarnaschelli’s Butter Restaurant. He trained in France with renowned chefs such as Philippe Givre at Valrhona and Philippe Parc at Chocolate Michel Cluizel. Young went on to explore more of his whimsical creations at Flex Mussels, leading him to open two pop-up Flex Donuts in Grand Central Station.
Before he knew it, we were all able to see his vivacious personality and creativity at their finest on Bravo’s first season of “Top Chef Just Desserts.” Landing a spot in the final four, Young has embodied his love for French technique and theatrical creations. Zac Young is a personable and vibrant chef whose heart is displayed in every dessert he makes.
Executive Pastry Chef Young sat down with us on a bustling afternoon at David Burke’s newest restaurant, fabrick at the Archer Hotel, to discuss his love for theatre, surprise us with his deep dark secret, and explain to us how endearing it is to bake with flair.
CC: Take us back to your childhood. When you were little, what did you want to be?
“I kind of wanted to be everything growing up. Like an astronaut, a scientist, and I was really involved in theater, which kind of helped me to express all of that. Like I realized through that that I could pretty much be anything that I wanted to be. And that was pretty much the trajectory of my life until I was 22. You know, I went to an arts boarding school for high school.”
CC: You went to Walnut Hill right? I have a few friends who’ve gone to Walnut Hill for ballet.
“Yay! And so yeah I went there for high school and then I went to Boston Conservatory afterwards for musical theatre. And that was the course of my life. And, during all of my theater days I was always involved or interested in the design aspect, you know? So I spent a lot of time, in the costume shop in high school.
“When I moved to New York, I started working at Radio City in the wig department. And I was always interested in this kind of design side. And then, all of a sudden, I fell in love with making cookies. And I was actually at Radio City at the time, and I’d wake up and I’d make two batches of cookies and I’d bring them into work. And as the Radio City season was winding down, I didn’t have another show booked, I didn’t really want to go onto another show, and my vegan mother, of all people, was like ‘You know you’re not talking about performing. You’re not talking about design. All you’re talking about are your damn cookies. You know, have you thought about going to culinary school?’ And I didn’t really realize that was an option. Like, ‘oh, I could get paid to make cookies?’ This was crazy. So I went to ICE [Institute of Culinary Education] and in the admissions interview, they were like ‘So you’re here for the pastry program?’ and I was like ‘No, I’m here to make cookies.’ ‘Well you know we don’t really have a cookie program, we have a pastry program.’ And, even in the beginning of my training at ICE, they were like ‘Okay well, today we’re going to make soufflés!’ and I was like ‘Ok, well when are we going to make cookies?’ And, through the course of my education there, I kind of became enamored with all aspects of pastry, not just cookies.
“But, I was very focused on the cookie aspect.”
CC: Did you have an “aha” moment there at ICE when you realized this is definitely what you wanted to do with your life?
“You know what it was? Every class takes a field trip and we went to Park Avenue Café and met with Richard Leach there. And, you know, he put out a whole spread of his desserts. And I was just in awe of the beauty and the flavor. You know Richard Leach really pioneered the whole architectural dessert movement … single handedly. And just looking at those desserts, I remember, he made a sour cream ice cream and I was just blown away by that. And so, he was really a big inspiration. Now I think it’s funny, almost ten years later, I’m working for David Burke who worked with Richard at Park Avenue Café.”
CC: So it’s kind of a full circle…
“Yeah it’s crazy. It’s like oh my God, this is where I am. I mean that trip to Park Avenue Café really set my aspirations and showed me where I wanted to end up.”
CC: And so from there, what ended up being your first job in the food world?
“So my first job was while I was in culinary school I started working at Bouchon, in the front of the house, just to make a paycheck while I was in school. So from 6 in the morning ‘til 4, I would work at the front of Bouchon. And then when it came time for my externship, I’d already made the connections there and so I went into the kitchens there. And that was an incredible experience. I mean I joke that I was the first extern at Bouchon New York and I was the worst. And actually, a couple of months ago, I was at dinner with Sebastien Rouxel, who was the Pastry Chef there at the time, and I asked him, ‘Was I your worst intern there ever?’ And he was like, ‘No, not the worst, just the most opinionated.’”
CC: I was going to say, did you make any big mistakes while you were there?
“I just didn’t know what I was doing. I had no discipline in a professional kitchen. I had all of these creative ideas coming out of school and I never really realized the whole process of becoming a chef you know? So yeah, like I mean I burned down the microwave my first day there.”
CC: Oh my gosh…
“Yeah in the chocolate room at Bouchon there’s a microwave and I was softening a jar of peanut butter. And the foil seal was still on the cap and the next thing I know, I walked away and there were smoke and sparks. The microwave was dead and it was horrible.”
CC: I’m surprised they didn’t fire you right then!
“I’m shocked actually. They should have!”
CC: Do you have any advice for someone who is interested in going into pastry arts? Is there a way you can tell if someone is meant to go into pastry? A lot of people say being detail-oriented and precise are essential traits for Pastry Chefs.
“You know, it’s funny, because it’s the exact same thing a lot of my theater teachers told me, ‘If there’s anything else that makes you happy, do it, because this industry is too hard.’ And it rings true in pastry as well. I mean it’s a lot of long hours, little pay, you know, working in basements. Especially in pastry, the pastry kitchens are always an afterthought unless you are at a top tier restaurant. You know it’s always the ole coat check or the broom closet or the basement. There’s nothing glamorous about [it]. You’re always the first one in, the last to leave. You just have to take pride in what you’re doing. You’re always going to be playing second fiddle to the Executive Chef. And my true joy in life is seeing a dessert from menu concept to final product on the plate. And I think at fabrick here it’s been so wonderful to see the desserts go out and everyone picks up their phone and starts taking pictures. I mean what better reward is that for me, to know that I’ve created something that’s just awesome?”
CC: Yeah, and beautiful. And so what exactly is your role here at fabrick?
“I am the Executive Pastry Chef for David Burke Group. So my biggest projects are the David Burke Kitchen, and the James Hotel, and David Burke fabrick, and the Archer Hotel. Which, you know it’s so much more than just a restaurant. We’re basically open 24 hours a day. We’re dealing with banquets, we’re dealing with amenities, we’re dealing with turndown service. The great thing about David Burke fabrick and the Archer Hotel is I’ve been involved with this since the very beginning, since the initial meetings. So it’s been fun for me to create things like our turndown program, which is eight different nights of turndown which rotate. So it’s fun, but the hotels are just, I mean they’re just a massive operation. And I’m just so lucky to have such amazing sous chefs in both properties that really oversee the day-to-day operations. And, because of that, I am able to do my creative thing.”
CC: That’s nice. Since you’re allowed that creativity, what is your favorite thing to make?
“Well I have to say here at fabrick we’re doing the caramelized peach melba donuts.
“I have an intense connection to the donuts. My first chef job was at Butter Restaurant. And when I got there Alex Guarnaschelli said, ‘You can do whatever you want with the menu, however, you can’t change the raspberry beignet.’ And, I was like, What’s with these raspberry beignet anyway? Like, it’s just a donut. And then I ate one. I mean it was fried-to-order, warm raspberry-filled donuts with a vanilla bean dipping sauce. It was just mind blowing. Simple, but mind blowing.
“And from there I went on to Flex Mussels restaurants. And you know the raspberry beignets were so successful down at Butter, that I did a wild blueberry donut at Flex Mussels. And that took off. And so I had a running joke with the Executive Chef there saying, ‘Well you can do 23 different sauces for mussels, how about I do a dozen different donuts?’ And, from that, the donut thing just exploded there, so much so that we did two pop up donut stores in Grand Central Station.
“So then, coming back to fabrick, we were doing mini raspberry-filled donuts in a tin of salted peach caramel. So for me, it’s the culmination of almost 10 years of making donuts in restaurants and it’s kind of like my magnum opus of donut making.”
CC: It seems like the donut has now overtaken the cookie for you.
“It has, it has. I joke that my tombstone’s going to read, ‘He’s an asshole, but he made great donuts.’”
CC: [Laughs] That’s priceless. To shift a little bit, since you’re into theater, if there was going to be a musical about your life, what would it be called and who would play you?
“Oh god. It would probably be called, “Zac: The Short Musical” and Neil Patrick Harris would probably play me.”
CC: Is there a favorite musical or show that’s out now that you’re in love with?
“Well … [My partner and I] really loved Pippin. So much so that we named our dog after it.”
CC: Wait, what kind of dog do you have?
“So he’s a Coton de Tulear, which is actually a breed that was brought to Madagascar by the French. And it became the royal dog of Madagascar. So when we found this dog, we were like, okay, so he’s a French prince, what are we going to name him? And we were like … Pippin, Son of Charlemagne! Um, so that happened. And you know I still have intense ties to the theatre community. Most of my friends have gone on to have stunning careers. A highlight was [when] I did Audra McDonald and Will Swenson’s wedding.”
“Which was donuts as well. They basically called me and were like, ‘So we don’t want a wedding cake, but we love your donuts. Would you like to do it?’ And then I dropped the phone … and freaked out … and then I was like ‘Yeah, of course … Audra McDonald.’ She only had five Tonys at that point and you know, now she has her sixth. But yeah, it’s kind of wonderful to still be connected to that community. And live vicariously through my friends.”
CC: I’m sure. Is there a way that you incorporate your theater days into your baking?
“Well yeah, I think dessert does lend itself to theatricality. Whether it’s the old school bananas foster where you light a fire in the middle of the dining room. And, you know David and I really love a little tableside presentation, a little bit of flair. So whether you’re at Fishtail and you’re having the can of cake which is when all of the fix-ins are poured into the tableside or down at Kitchen, we have the monkey bread which is all carved up tableside. Or here we do the donuts, which are in the tin and get flipped upside down. There’s always this kind of element of theatricality that really translates well into dessert.”
CC: You guys seem to be a perfect fit. Do you have a favorite place to go out to eat?
“Um, Little Owl is my all-time favorite restaurant. Joey Campanaro, he just cooks food that you want to eat. And I normally don’t ever order entrees. I’m always too interested in trying everything else so I normally order a ton of apps. But, you know, I’m really married to the pork chop there. It’s the one entrée I’ll order. I will commit to that pork chop. Although recently he put a lamb t-bone on and it’s competing for my attention right now.”
CC: That’s too funny.
“But I just love Little Owl. There’s only 30 seats in it. And every time I go it just feels like I’m home. And the service there is just … I think it’s the best service in the city. Not only are they knowledgeable, but you feel like you belong there. Whether you’ve been there 50 times or it’s your first time. You always feel welcome.”
CC: Sounds wonderful and intimate. So segueing into “Top Chef Just Desserts.” What was it like to suddenly be front stage when you’re usually backstage in the kitchen? I’m sure with your theater background it might have been an easier transition for you.
“The last thing you’re thinking about on “Top Chef” is the cameras. You’re just focusing on trying to get something done before the clock runs out and hoping that it tastes good and doesn’t look horrible. The cameras, you don’t even realize they’re there. I mean I was on my flight home I was like, ‘Oh shit, I hope I didn’t say anything that was too horrible,’ because you’re not focused on that at all. You just put your head down and try to make something and hope it doesn’t suck.”
CC: Did you enjoy the pressure?
“There were a lot of challenges. We weren’t allowed to bring recipes, so that was really challenging, especially for pastry because we are so precise. So for a week I just crammed ratios. I was like, ‘Okay basic cake, here we go.’ But I think the fun part of the “Top Chef” experience was making something that I’d never put on a menu. You do have so much freedom there, you’re not restricted by a restaurant concept or style or cuisine. I just stepped out and tried techniques and flavor combinations. And, for the most part, it worked. And I was like, ‘Oh cool, I can do this. Sure let’s incorporate that back into what we’re doing at the restaurants.’”
CC: How long was it?
“It was six weeks.”
CC: It was only six weeks? That’s nuts!
“Yeah six weeks. So I think my favorite part was getting to be with so many talented pastry chefs. Because especially in pastry, we don’t really get out that much. We are kind of confined to the restaurants. We don’t get to do the fun events like the executive chefs do. So for me to be immersed with 12 incredibly talented pastry chefs and see what they’re doing and kind of learn from them. I mean there were like no secrets on there. We were all like, ‘Oh that’s really cool, how did you do that?’ And, so um, it was all really kind of exciting. And I think we all kind of grew from each other. And that was just a great experience.”
CC: If you were asked to do it again, right now, would you?
CC: Should I ask why?
“I’m happy to be on the other side of the judging table now. I mean it’s really physically and emotionally draining. And I’m really happy with where I ended on that season. And I wouldn’t want to do any worse.”
CC: What is your favorite thing about being a Pastry Chef?
“You know, I think at the end of the day it’s about the guest’s reaction. There’s something remarkable about food and sense memory. And whether we’re giving someone a first time experience of trying a food that blows their mind or bringing them back to their childhood with a whimsical play on a childhood favorite. I mean people have a very emotional response to food. And, I think it’s just really powerful to see that play out. For example, we have a matzah ball soup here on the menu. And my grandmother is a wonderful cook. And the only two things that I have never made are her matzah ball soup and her pumpkin pie, because I’m just too scared that they’ll never come out as good as hers.”
CC: It’s that grandmother’s love…
“Right. And I knew that the matzah balls here could be better. So I emailed my grandmother and I was like, ‘I need a recipe.’ And she sent it to me with very detailed instructions on how to do it. And, just this morning I made them. And I was very fearful. And I had to resist the urge to add my chef-y touches, like don’t use tarragon. Don’t do it. Just follow the recipe. And they came out perfectly. And I just had this moment in the kitchen downstairs eating them and I was completely transported back to my childhood on her farm having a family dinner. And it kind of reminded me of why I do this and what I love about it. And so I told her it worked. And she was like, ‘Great. You know this recipe belongs to you now.’ This came from her grandmother. So now this is five generations tied together by one soup. And, I mean, that’s powerful.”
CC: And aside from reviving and maintaining family recipes, where do you find your inspiration when seeking new recipes?
“Alex Guarnaschelli brought me to the Union Square Greenmarket for the first time. And she introduced me to her favorite farmers and from there I developed these relationships with them. And so, you know, luckily for me, I don’t have to wake up at 5 in the morning anymore. I can just text them and be like ‘Whatcha got?’ But for me, just going there and walking around and just smelling and squeezing and talking to the farmers about what’s coming in this week or next week, that’s just always such an inspiration for me. Especially at David Burke Kitchen, which is kind of a farm-to-table concept.
“In terms of recipes, you gotta give it to Martha Stewart, you know? Any time we’re trying something for the first time, I’m like, ‘Ah biscuit dough… Martha.com!’ Her team just does such a great job with the staples for us to build on. And eventually we tweak it and change it and convert it into grams. But I mean, the joke is, that that’s always our go-to. My sous chef at Kitchen was like, ‘You asked me to make Jalapeno-cheddar biscuits, so I just went to Martha.’ I was like, ‘Oh you’ve been trained so well.’”
CC: Martha is the best. Is there any hidden talent you have that most people wouldn’t know about you?
“Not really. My best friend jokes that I could single-handedly throw a wedding. You know, from singing the bride down the aisle, making the bride’s dress, making the cake, catering the reception, arranging the flowers. I mean, basically I could do it all. That’s our joke.”
CC: That’s so true!
“And she’s getting married in October.”
CC: Well it looks like you have a job to do then!
“I think as of right now, I’m only making the cake. [Laughs] I haven’t heard about anything else.”
Interview by Nicole Witko. Photos by Nicole Witko and Laurie Ulster.