Jim Poris / June 2003
Food Arts presents the June 2003 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Emily Luchetti, the San Francisco-based pastry chef and cookbook author who synthesized American and European traditions into a template that informs dessert menus coast to coast. On the professional level, she was an active advocate of mentoring and peer networking during her tenure (1994-99) as a chairwoman of Women Chefs & Restauranteurs.
Starting in the mid-1980s at Jeremiah Tower's seminal American bistro Stars, through two influential books—Stars Desserts (1991) and Four Star Desserts (1995) (with a third, A Passion for Dessert, due out this fall)—and on to her present position as pastry chef at Farallon, Luchetti has produced desserts reflecting her axiom "simple in looks, intense in flavor." Ebullient and articulate, she first signaled the emerging American pastry aesthetic by cleaning up the rustic edges of "back porch" American pies and cakes and homey European favorites like steamed pudding and trifle, desserts that were in keeping with Stars' fresh/seasonal gospel.
Even though "America never had a tradition of haute cuisine for pastry" ripe for revolution, Luchetti notes, it was the land of sugar packed cakes thickly cloaked with dense buttercreams and pies heaped with gooey toppings and drifts of whipped cream—desserts, in other words, that needed to turn down their teeth-cracking volume. Her forthright presentations— admittedly influenced by Lindsey Shere, the former Chez Panisse pastry chef who "was the first to show it was OK to go simple and focus on American ingredients"—shuns theatrics because they're designed to reveal all their flavors in the first bite.
"In the final analysis, you shouldn't have to wonder where to start in on a dessert when it's put in front of you," she says, sounding a cautionary word to her more artistically inclined colleagues. "You don't want to hopscotch all over the plate for bits and pieces of flavor. A good dessert should make you want to dig right in."
Oddly, Luchetti spent her first five years of kitchen life on the savory side. After graduating from Denison College in Ohio, she migrated to New York City, where she first cooked in an executive dining room before graduating from the New York Restaurant School, working in establishments around the city—including The Silver Palate—spending 1982 in Gérard Pangaud's restaurant near Paris. Even at Stars, her first-day assignments included opening oysters, and making pizzas. When the pastry chef left to have a child, Luchetti pitched in for the job and discovered her vocation.
"It's no harder to make a good cookie than it is to make a bad cookie," she says. "With my desserts and with the recipes in my books, I want to show Americans that a lot of baking doesn't require a degree in geothermal engineering." For Luchetti, the virtue of refining "simple" doesn't get simpler than that.