Jim Poris / July 2007
Food Arts presents the July/August 2007 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Sherry Yard, the vivacious wisecracking pastry chef who, for 13 years, has been denting the will of the body-obsessed celebrity food celibates navigating meals at Wolfgang Puck's Spago (née West Hollywood, now Beverly Hills). Yes, some regular folk go to Spago, too, and Yard lets them eat cake. But the Brooklyn-raised Yard is a California girl now, and her desserts reflect the confluence of the Left Coast's sun-and-fun lifestyle, Spago's A-list clientele, and an endless summer of choice produce.
For Yard, that means an emphasis on à la minute desserts that begins with her obsession with the Wednesday farmers' market in Santa Monica—"Cherries are just in, and you should see them!" she raves—and ends when she assembles and bakes a cherry tart, let's say, when it's ordered. "I'm not so much into hotel-style desserts, like a mousse sandwiching genoise with a band of jaconde around it," Yard explains. This is not to say that Yard doesn't have a few tricks up her tunic's sleeve, such as constructing soufflés with pectin added to the fruit base to keep them high and mighty during service crush.
Not that she's high and mighty, despite a slew of accolades, including a James Beard Award as the country's best pastry chef (2002). That she's on hand during service and insists that dessert plating not be left "to some pantry kid" jibes with her conviction that pastry departments can be run as a profit center and not as an afterthought. Credit her let's-get-to-work feistiness to growing up in a multigenerational family of New York City firemen in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay, getting indoctrinated to kitchen systems ("No joke!" she insists) at McDonald's in high school, and then seeing the glam world of important restaurants up close as first a cigarette girl and then a cocktail waitress ("I had a gorgeous outfit, with a dress slit up to here") serving Dale DeGroff's drinks at The Rainbow Room in the 1980s. She was on her way: culinary school at New York City Tech, pastry work at The Rainbow Room, more school and work in London, gigs at Montrachet and Tribeca Grill, and then bye-bye New York for Campton Place in San Francisco under Jan Birnbaum and then more work with Birnbaum at Catahoula in Calistoga.
And then Puck called. "I've been at Spago 13 years. Can you believe it? I told Wolfgang I'd stay two years—two long dog years." That means she's been elbow deep in the forward march of Puck's culinary empire, sometimes literally so, as in running R&D for producing his pizza dough on a large, large scale.
"Over the years I've found that an extension of the work you do to share with guests at the table is to share what you learn with others in this profession. I like being everyone's pastry chef, everybody's friend to call and talk about things you know or they know that you don't. That's what this industry is all about, right? Hospitality."