Photos: Kelsey McNeal / Bravo
From day one of this inaugural season of Top Chef Just Desserts, Zac Young's outspoken nature and love for show tunes threatened to overshadow his pastry skills. Yet he made it to the final four, with a notable Quickfire win on Episode six, in which he boldly traded his immunity status for an easy $5,000. Yet in the last challenge, he created what can only be described as an utter "caketastrophie" -- he presented cake master Sylvia Weinstock with an Smurf-colored anniversary cake. While the judges noted their appreciation for Zac's out-of-the cake box thinking, they couldn't bring themselves to give his disco-dust style another shot.
A graduate of the Institute of Culinary Arts' baking and pastry arts program, Zac is currently the executive pastry chef at New York City's Flex Mussels, where he treats restaurant goers to twists on traditional desserts, such as deep fried whoopie pies and lemon meringue pie "in a glass."
Slashfood spoke with Zac about pastry style on Top Chef Just Desserts, how wigs factor into his budding pastry career and dessert trends for 2011.
This last episode, you seemed a bit more outspoken about your fellow contestant's skills than in the past.
ZY: We're tired. We'd been doing this day after day after day. It's a long time and you're stuck with these people. You're working and living with them, so it all adds up. It piles up and at some point that pressure valve needs to be released -- and some obnoxious things come out of your mouth. It's interesting to watch the show in retrospect; we're all sitting there, saying some pretty bitchy things and you've just got to laugh about it. You realize it wasn't really that bad, but in the heat of the moment, it was annoying.
Along those lines, the season's been over the top -- do you think you were judged on what you put out or more on an idea that developed around you?
ZY: You're judged against yourself; they judge you on your style and your ability. You look at Eric, who's a phenomenal baker. They have to judge you on where you come from and what you do. I felt really lucky that the judges got my style and understood what I do. You take a chef like Johnny, who is very high end and very refined, who's enjoying my whimsical, American deep-fried fare -- that was really cool.
In the regular Top Chef, it may be a bit more difficult to come out of the gate with a defined style, but I guess with the medium you're working with, it seems more definable early on.
ZY: Absolutely. We are pastry chefs and we are artists and scientists. Our works of art can be attributed to us like looking at a Picasso versus a Monet -- looking at style and technique in what medium they used. We all have our preferred medium and style.
You worked at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
ZY: I did, I did. I did their wigs.
Do they have good Christmas cookies backstage?
ZY: I made them -- that's how I started. I started making cookies while I was there and fell in love with the creative aspect of it. I kept putting different things in the cookies and learning from my mistakes. I became fascinated by that. But the wig room was definitely favored by the Rockettes. It's four to six shows a day and I'd wake up two hours before I had to be there and bake two batches and bring them in. I went through a lot of flour, sugar and butter in those days.
Did you catch flack for the episode in which you traded immunity for $5,000?
ZY: I did. But it was harder for me, because the second I gave up that immunity, I regretted it. I thought the judges would be extra hard on me because I gave it up for five grand. Also, you always wonder what's going on with the producers, thinking they'd say: "Won't this be a great episode? He traded immunity and got the boot!" Luckily, on the show, it's completely judge driven.
You seemed bummed that you didn't make the final three -- what do you think of pastry being competitive?
ZY: There's a deep history of pastry competition. But you train for months to do that one competition, which is like a 14 hour competition. You look at Top Chef Just Desserts, we did that ten times in a row. It's not natural. To do that day after day, which was part of the reason we were all so tired and bitchy at the end. We cooked for 14 hours a day, back to back. It's like running a marathon. We all lost weight.
Anything you learned there that you're taking back to Flex?
ZY: Well, in any kitchen, you're peeking over and seeing what other people are doing. As a pastry chef, normally I get my ideas from the savory chefs but with this, it was really inspiring to be with a bunch of other pastry chefs. The ones on the show are really at the top of their game. I picked up a bunch of techniques and tips and whatnot. Certainly, I have a laundry list of new equipment I want.
You seem like a forward thinking guy -- what do you see as a dessert trend in 2011?
ZY: Well, I don't want to give it away, because it's mine! We had cookies in the '90s, we had cupcakes in the 2000's. I think we'll move into another dessert product -- maybe ice cream, maybe donuts. I feel like dessert needs to tie into the main course and that's a reason why my food is so aggressive -- I feel like it has to match the rest of the meal. There's nothing worse than having this big, robust pork chop and then you get this wimpy, white chocolate dessert. I think another trend is big flavor, small size. People are health conscious, but they do like desserts, so the idea of dessert tapas and sharing desserts is big too. It's the one part of the meal that people are willing to share. People rarely share their steaks, but always their desserts.