We are thrilled to have Emily Luchetti for our very first Bakepedia interview. This is the first of many. We will be bringing you the bakers that matter – the ones who have been on the scene for a while as well as brand new rising stars. Each subject will get the Bakepedia Questionnaire, á la Proust, but we have also allowed room for them to ponder and muse upon themselves and their careers. Our goal is to bring these great talents right into your home.
Emily was named one of 20 Visionary Chefs in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Chronicle, has authored six cookbooks and won a 2004 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Luchetti has been featured on Food Network‘s “The Ultimate Kitchen,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Cookin’ Live with Sara Moulton,” “Sara’s Secrets,” as well as “The Martha Stewart Show,” and was also the co-host of the PBS series, “The Holiday Table.” She currently writes for the Chronicle and is the Executive Pastry Chef at both Farallon and Waterbar restaurants in the Bay area.
Bakepedia: Emily, welcome! We are so excited to have you.
Emily Luchetti: It’s great to be speaking with you.
Let’s get right to it. When people ask what you do, how do you answer?
I get paid to make cakes and cookies. (We both laugh).
What a great answer! We were sure you were going to pull out the “C” [chef] word, but how lovely, that even with your training and experience, that it distills down to this.
Well, I sometimes refer to myself as a pastry chef, but not often, because many classicists think that means I bake bread, too, which is not my area of expertise. We aren’t in France; I wasn’t trained broadly in that way. In fact, some people challenge me about that; in their mind, if you don’t bake bread then you are not a baker! I am a baker and a pastry chef.
Let’s talk about your philanthropic work. You are well known to be very helpful, both formally and informally, to aspiring pastry chefs.
Once I had experience under my belt, I felt I wanted to help people on the way up. It is so important to give back. Ten minutes of your time and an opinion can be very directional and have a huge impact. CIA (Culinary Institute of America) students will call to ask for my help and I always say yes. They’re trying to further themselves and it’s important for people like us to be there for them. Back in the day, when I was President of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, it was pre-Internet, and women needed to gain more of a foothold in the industry. The way to do that was networking.
What is your favorite part of what you do?
Oh, this covers so many levels. I love when you make something and serve it, and people eat it in your presence and they say, “Oh, that’s amazing,” and you get an immediate and personal connection to their experience. Other times, someone calls up and has made something from one of my books and they tell me how much their family enjoyed it. This is a more remote experience, but the person eating my dessert has received the same pleasure whether I am there or not, and it is so gratifying. I still find it amazing to be able to create something with your hands and say, “I made this; this is mine,” and then there is the satisfaction of serving it to people and getting their reactions. The first is an internal experience, the other an external – giving to others. Both are so satisfying. When you eat dessert, it doesn’t change the world, but on the other hand, if throughout your life you have a series of events where you’re at the table with friends and family having happy, interesting social interactions over the food, you add these experiences up and they become something bigger. It does make a difference.
How are you inspired to create recipes?
Deadlines! (Emily laughs). Deadlines have a way of bringing focus. I write a column for the San Francisco Chronicle every three weeks, so it keeps me on track for producing an article; but being a pastry chef and someone who just loves food, it happens everywhere; eating out, traveling, looking – always looking – it can even be fashion-related. Then an idea sits in my brain, I might pull the idea out two days later, or if I don’t forget it, a year or two later. The seasons have always been influential for me, too. If I come across a flat of beautiful strawberries at the market, I’ll grab them and immediately start thinking, “What can I do differently that I haven’t done before?” I love being creative and being able to vary it up. At this point, while I am still attached to both Farallon and Waterbar restaurants in San Francisco consulting and developing menus, we have great pastry chefs and I let them take the creative reigns. I didn’t want to be tied to the restaurants everyday.
Running a bakery or working as a pastry chef in a restaurant is seriously hard work with physical demands, like being on your feet for 10 hours a day and having to lug 50lb bags of sugar. People approach you all the time and tell you that they have dreams of changing careers and “taking up baking.”
Churning out production is a lot of hard work. Often people are middle-aged and thinking of changing careers, and they truly don’t understand how demanding our field is. I say to them, “Okay, if I came to you and said I’m 40 and thinking about becoming a lawyer or an accountant, what would you tell me?” It sheds a new light. Is it possible? Yes. Is it easy? No. People romanticize what we do. Better to be a frustrated baker wishing you could bake more than to be frustrated because you never have time off with your family and your knees hurt. You can always bake on the weekends! The world was a different place when we started; it’s a much more crowded field now. In a way, it was good that there was no one telling us what not to do, so we experimented and did it, hunkered down and made it work. If you still have those dreams, then get in there volunteer at a bakery.
Will you still be in love with it a year from now? I think being a pastry chef is also better suited to certain personality types. If you are one of those people who always say “Give me more, give me more. Challenge me,” then you have a shot. It’s a lot of hard work. Just ‘cause we work with sugar doesn’t mean its sweet.
Do you have a moment, event or recipe from your career of which you are most proud?
I would say my version of Summer Pudding. Most recipes I tweak every time I revisit them. This one stands. I would also have to say my Stareos. They truly were the first gourmet Oreo. [Ed. note: Stareos are a homemade version of Oreos in a star shape with a rich, chocolatey cookie and a creamy center.] Thomas Keller has his TKOs [Thomas Keller Oreos], but when I came out with Stareos people went ballistic and had never seen anything like it.
What are the three most important things that you think the home baker should know?
1. Baking is precise.
2. Baking has a lot of leeway and give-and-take, but you have to know which rules to follow and which you can change, and the more you bake the more you will learn which is which. Also, don’t multi-task. Focus and learn the recipe. Then you can swap it up or talk on the phone [while you bake]. Get it under your belt, then you can experiment.
3. Have fun! Enjoy the process.
Tell us about what you are doing currently.
I’ve been writing the baking column for the Chronicle for about a year and it’s fun because it’s a recipe every three weeks, which means I have time to develop and create. When you are writing books or on the line [in a restaurant kitchen], you don’t have the luxury of time. I am also the Dean at the International Culinary Center with locations in California and New York; I get to work with students and give them the reality about what to expect in real world. I am chairing the board for the James Beard Foundation as well. I’m always looking for different ways to challenge myself.
What do you hope to do next?
I am trying to figure that out! Learn Italian on Rosetta Stone for one, and I want to travel more, the more the better – food and wine-related travel, of course. If you aren’t going to include food and wine, what’s the point of going? (Emily laughs). I am always looking for ways to grow and expand.
Emily, thank you so much for your time with us. You are an inspiration to us here at Bakepedia and we know our readers will enjoy getting to know you.
It’s been good to talk with you, too. Let me know if there is any way I can help you. You are doing something that needs to be done.