Slice: Sweet Things
There is no reason to skip dessert, not in this town. We boast some of the best pastry chefs in the nation right here in our little Twin Cities. One is a James Beard award nominated chef, another is a best-selling author, blogger, rising celebrity chef and the third has diners delighting all over this town (even in the suburbs!)
Growing up on a commune doesn’t sound like an auspicious start for a pastry chef. Lucky for us, Zoë François had a kindly grandmother who snuck her sugar. Sweet unadulterated real candies, the sort of thing that would make a curly haired little sprite vibrate, thrill and plot the next candy fix. That little girl, who was attendance at Woodstock (just to solidify that hippie kid cred) grew up and blazed her own trail to culinary school, worked with all the big name chefs in this town before becoming a national best-selling cookbook author.
The commune was in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont doing things like growing their own food, churning butter and making granola. Eventually, they left the commune. While attending college at the University of Vermont she worked as a prep cook and waitress at an area restaurant. Still, she didn’t dive into a full time culinary career.
She grew up, found a job in marketing, got married, but her husband noted that her way of dealing with stress was to come home and cook. With his blessing, she applied to and was accepted to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. She loved every second of the experience, as exhausting, grueling and unforgiving as it was. She has described life in the kitchen as a dance where everyone is armed and you’re surrounded by flames.
She and her husband had packed up all of their belongings with the intention of driving to a new life in San Francisco. On their way, they stopped in Minneapolis for a visit, and ended up staying. While here, she began working for the D’Amico’s. She worked with Andrew Zimmern (now national food celebrity with his Bizarre Foods television show) and Steven Brown (of Tilia).
Eventually, she decided to step out of the kitchen to stay home and raise her two boys. Her stay-at-home-mom detail was short-lived as she soon hooked up with co-author Jeff Hertzberg. The way their book partnership began is almost unbelievable.
Hertzberg and François’s children had a music class together. As the kids were banging on instruments, they began talking the sticky gluten. Their first book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day became a sensation. It was the number one bestselling bread cookbook on Amazon.com. A successful partnership that continued with Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day and their latest Artisan Pizza and Flatbreads in Five minutes a Day.
She was coaxed back into the kitchen by her friend Chef Steven Brown. “He is the only person I would even consider getting back into the kitchen for,” she laughs.
When Brown was creating his newest restaurant, he asked Zoë to try out a couple of desserts. They were comforting foods with balanced sweetness, like the ethereal butterscotch pot de crème, topped with crème fraiche. Dcadent, but so light in texture, that the tiny spoon plunges into the cup time and time again, until it clangs against the empty bottom.
The Linden Hills restaurant was an overnight dining destination.
Because of her crazy schedule, François is quick to point out that the desserts are a team effort. She comes into Tilia to discuss and then their talented staff executes them.
When not traveling on book tours, writing recipes, consulting, or spending time with her family, she still manages to find time to blog. Her award blog Zoë Bakes (recognized by Savuer) walks readers through creating stunning desserts with drool-inducing photography and her girlfriend-next-door encouragement.
It’s almost as though there’s nothing she can’t do with a whisk and a wisp of sugar.
La Belle Vie is generally regarded as the pinnacle of fine dining in the Twin Cities. The final taste, the parting remembrance is always artfully arranged, astoundingly flavored dessert from the sweet laboratory of Diane Yang. Her creative combinations of sweet and savory with stunningly constructed presentations are always interesting and memorable. Sweet tooths delighted when her creations began to spread and slowly conquer the Minneapolis dessert scene. Her consultations at many of the area’s top restaurants have resulting in a many a sweet ending.
Yang grew up in Junction City, Wisconsin. A self-described good, Hmong girl they lived on a farm where she learned at an early age how to kill a chick or a pig and make dinner for her five siblings.
Married at a young at she hadn’t meant to get into cooking. Her husband made sushi for Lund’s and Byerly’s. She remembered being intrigued by the cakes in the bakery department. One day she saw a commercial advertising cooking school and knew what she wanted to do.
After graduation she interned at the IDS Aquavit before going to La Belle Vie and Solera. She settled into a very successful working relationship with Chef Tim McKee, regarding by many as the best chef the Cities has. His appreciation of her need to be committed to her family was important. She’s a mother to two children now, a boy and a girl.
Her exquisite desserts are often a combination of expectedly savory, like an olive oil, couscous cake beautifully textured and sweet enough to be a cake, served with Earl Grey ice cream. When asked how she comes up with her flavor combinations she shrugged, seemingly genuinely mystified by her own creativity.
She began consulting for Barrio then Smalley’s, before assisting with the opening of Soprano’s. Next she began working with the people at Crave, the quickly expanding local restaurant group. More jobs came at Bar La Grassa and 112 Eatery, chef driven restaurants where she could really stretch and put some extraordinary dishes together. Yang enjoys the opportunity to change and grow, while maintaining her roots at her James Beard Awarding winning restaurant home.
Judging by the delicate swoop and crest of her buttercream, Michelle Gayer, the James Beard award nominated pastry chef is in full mastery of her skill. A single bite of her coconut-packed macaroon is enough to have a palate as hardcore as Andrew Zimmern’s swooning. He proclaimed it the best sweet he’s ever eaten to Food Network viewers. Her butter-domed milk buns as tender and optimistic as a toddler, are a world class vehicle for any slider. More than anything, it’s obvious after just moments with Gayer, she is one bad-ass chef. Put this woman in a knife to knife battle with the likes of Anthony Bourdain and she would likely make the tough man shed a sugar coated tear, before sending him away with a butter-packed chocolate chip cookie. After having cooked professionally with the likes of Charlie Trotter of the soon-to-close Trotters and Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery, she somehow settled here, in Minneapolis.
After growing up in Northwest Iowa she had her first job in the restaurant industry at the Ok Café. She worked herself all the way up to “salad girl.” While other kids were preparing their college entrance essays, Gayer realized she’d have to come up with her next step. Knowing she knew a four year college like Iowa State wasn’t her thing, so she packed up and headed to culinary school in the big city, Chicago.
Throughout school she figured she would work the line as a cook. It was when she was doing her externship that she realized that she really dug doing the prep and plating of dessert. Plus, it was infinitely better to leave work smell of cinnamon rather than fish. She was working at a restaurant called Gordon’s, which she described as, “My first restaurant where all the cute waiters were gay and all the busboys were sleeping with the waiters, and then the busboys were all drag queens on their night off. I was like, ‘I love this city!’”
She landed at Charlie Trotters by bolding showing up at the back door, resume in hand. Through a bit of luck he agreed to let her stage and she agreed, quaking in her clogs. The pastry chef was leaving to get married. Gayer gritted her teeth and swore she’d become indispensible. It worked, that chef returned only to pack his knives and that was the last they saw of him. She stayed in his kitchen for years, breaking to travel to La Brea Bakery to work with Silverton.
When she was called by a recruiter to assist in opening Franklin Street Bakery, she decided it was a perfect opportunity to try out opening a bakery, without having to invest all the capital. For two years she ran the bakery, dazzling the city with her bread and pastries, but slowly became mired in the office work. It was her first job that ever involved a desk, a difficult transition for anyone creative.
She was again ready to make a leap. After being pursued by Midtown Global Market, they courted her with the promise of a space, grants, leaving her an investment that wouldn’t put her in hock for the rest of her life. Thus, the Salty Tart was born.
When asked what’s next for, she says she dreams of taking her bakery to a storefront location, somewhere sweet with meal options and wine. A vision of delicate bubbles next to those confections is a sweet dream, indeed.