The sweeter side of Spago in Bachelor Gulch
Vail CO, Colorado
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado ” Ask Sherry Yard about skipping dessert and she puts it in terms High Country folk can understand: “It’s like climbing a mountain and being 15 feet from the top and not going to the top.”
The petite, charismatic Yard represents the sweeter side of Wolfgang Puck’s empire. As executive pastry chef, Yard works around the country creating recipes for Puck’s restaurants, including Spago, Cut and Chinois. When new restaurants open up, like Spago Beaver Creek at The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, Yard arrives on the scene to work with resident staff, build a dessert menu and show off her playful side. At the opening bash, for example, she molded the world’s second largest chocolate truffle and people dug in with mini shovels. She also made gigantic marshmallows to roast over The Ritz’s slope-side fire pits.
Yard’s home kitchen is Spago Beverly Hills, Puck’s flagship restaurant. It’s there that she experiments. She rolls out new recipes and cooks for celebrities, and it’s there, in between mad rushes, she penned her two cookbooks: “The Secrets of Baking” and her newest, “Desserts by the Yard.” Each year, she also spins sugar into “wow” desserts for the Academy Awards’ Governors Ball. “Nobody leaves The Governors Ball without an Oscar,” she writes in “Desserts by the Yard.” “It may be chocolate, but it’s an Oscar nonetheless.”
Calling Yard a pastry chef, albeit convenient, isn’t necessarily accurate. Yard is a dessert chef, and her widespread success hinges on the fact that she’s changed the way people think about the decadent final course. Too often it’s a course diners pass over. “I’m too full,” or they don’t want to expend the calories. Like summiting that mountain, dessert with Yard is not optional.
“There is an art to what we do in plated dessert, not unlike a chef. I consider dessert the last part of the dining experience,” Yard says. “Dessert chefs are like the triangle at the end of an orchestra. When it comes to us, we’re like that last little ‘ting’.”
So how does one woman change the culture of dessert from a special treat to an integral part of a meal? (The Spago Beverly Hills bar fills up around 9:30 each night with diners ordering solely from the dessert menu.) The answer is simple.
“Sugar is not my love, it’s my friend,” Yard says. “Desserts should not be cloyingly sweet.”
Yard composes desserts in the same way a savory chef composes an entree. She considers the seasons (fresh passion fruit cheesecake), textures (chocolate Rice Krisipies bar) and temperatures (chocolate donuts served hot with cold ice cream and warm chocolate sauce.)
“Her understanding of flavor, texture, balance and eye appeal is unique among pastry chefs ” and I have known many,” Puck writes in the foreword of “Desserts by the Yard.” “Sherry has even learned the pastries of my native Austria and then taken them to a whole new level. In fact, I’m always telling her I wish she’d go back to Vienna and fix the pastries there ” so many of them taste only of sugar.”
Yard’s most notable characteristic is her attention to the seasons. “Ingredient driven” and “locavore” are the foodie concepts of the moment, but they’re not always applied to desserts. Yard lives and breathes the seasons, and as a result, her most inventive creations blossom from farmers markets. She picks what’s fresh and then “listens to the flavors” to determine how to prepare it.
“The answer is in the fruit in front of you,” she says. “You can’t lose the integrity of the farmer in growing what he did.”
Sitting up in her seat to drive home the point, Yard tells the tale of the Ring of Saturn Peaches that farmer Fitz Kelly was selling for the first time in 1990 in California.
“They were classic Ring of Saturn peaches, luscious white, slightly lemon, slightly nutty. I smelled the outside and I instantly knew what I would do with them,” she says. “So I asked the farmer for all three flats. ‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I have to sell some to the other chefs.’
Yard replied, “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do with them ” and you have to promise not to tell anyone. Ask the rest of the chefs what they are going to do with them. If they say pie, crumble, sorbet or ice cream, they’re out.”
Yard ran to the booth next door and grabbed some verbena. “Smell this,” she said to the farmer, holding up the verbena. “Now smell these two together,” holding up the peach next to the verbena. “First, I’m going to marinate the peaches in verbena syrup, then I’m going to dip them in anise-scented biscotti and bake them, so they look like donuts. I’ll dust them with powdered sugar and serve them with ice cream.”
Needless to say, when she returned to the booth an hour later, the farmer handed her all three flats.
Yard believes flour belongs at the beginning of a meal, not at the end. It’s just too filling. So one thing you’ll notice about her desserts is they’re incredibly light (do not read calorie free.)
“We want people to stay up,” she says. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
Good advice for this Valentine’s Day. So following Yard’s lead, one can entice their love with sweets without inducing yawns. For starters, Yard says, make everything fresh. All the desserts at Spago are cooked to order. Nothing is frozen or baked ahead of time, so diners won’t find “weeping tarts” at Spago she says.
Yard also uses a lot of eggs and egg whites ” “I’m Miss Souflee,” she says “which yield lighter flavors and textures. Her most famous example is the Kaiserschmarren, on the menu at Spago Beaver Creek. It’s a riff on an Austrian pancake. Yard’s is much fluffier because she souflees creme fraiche pancakes and serves it with a strawberry sauce. Even her 12-layer chocolate cake, also on the menu, is whisper light due to the absence of flour.
But her favorite ingredient? Love, of course. What attracted her to the Wolfgang Puck empire was how all the chefs truly love what they do, and you can taste it, she says, in each and every bite.
“If you don’t have love, it’s not going to come out the same way. The most important ingredient is the chef,” Yard says.
Cassie Pence is a freelance writer based in Vail. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.