Jennifer Yee can see the forest for the trees. This pastry chef has managed large-scale production of all things pastry, but still pays microscopic attention to the details. No doubt her Fine Arts degree in Interior Architecture from San Jose State University allows Yee to appreciate the scale of any successful design. And the Patisserie Diploma from London’s Le Cordon Bleu that Yee earned with honors allows her to apply that sensibility to dessert, a forum where the large and small scale flavors, textures, and portion sizes are counterpoised in a constant game of balance and boundary-pushing.
Yee’s professional experience is divided between England and the US. She earned her pastry degree under the auspices of the Queen, but had her first professional experience in a San Francisco kitchen. Her career path took her back to England, to Gordon Ramsay at The Connaught in London, where she was appointed to garnishing daily afternoon tea—a lesson in the delicacy and ceremoniousness of dessert if ever there was one. 2004 saw her as pastry supervisor at Yauatcha, working directly under Stephanie Sucheta and co-managing a team of ten in the production and finishing over 400 items for the patisserie showcase.
Returning to the States in 2006, Yee continued to hone her dessert and pastry repertoire under David Carmichael at Gilt, where the young chef was in charge of the restaurant’s chocolate program. Now at Aureole, this well-traveled chef works her years of experience into all the elements—large and small—of her own dessert menu. Like a kid in a really fancy, well-stocked candy store, Yee plays with combinations at Aureole, juxtaposing opposites of texture, temperature and flavor—as in her chilled melon soup with salty dehydrated black olives, a lesson in the fine architectural balance of a great dessert.
Interview with Pastry Chef Jennifer Yee of Aureole – New York, NY
Antoinette Bruno: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jennifer Yee: It's one of those things where I've always loved cooking; watching it on TV and doing it at home with my family, and it was just natural to me to study it in school. I didn't originally go into pastry. I received my bachelor’s degree in interior architecture. I graduated and worked in the design field for about a year. I just really knew my path was going to lead into culinary school. I went to Cordon Bleu in London and ended up staying there for about three years. My family had the kitchen be the heart of their home, so it was very natural for me to want to stay in the kitchen.
AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
JY: I definitely do prefer someone who has come from the culinary school background. It just shows they have made that decision to take their career path seriously. They have the foundations set for them. It's easier for me to train someone who can understand what I'm talking about, the technology.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just starting out?
JY: First and foremost you must have the passion and the drive to work hard in order to succeed in the kitchen. Expose yourself. Go to as many restaurants as you can, taste as much as you can. If you are trailing, trail at as many different venues as you can, and not just restaurants. You should expose yourself to different places—chocolate shops, hotels, bakeries.
AB: What are your three top tips for pastry success?
JY: You can't go anywhere without hard work. That is really important. Obviously I don't think you can work hard if you don't have the passion and talent. You just need to have that natural knack of creativity and balancing the food.
AB: How do you approach a new dessert concept?
JY: Dessert shouldn't be heavy; you want something a little lighter and more refreshing but still intense flavors. I definitely have [Chef Christopher Lee’s] menu in mind when I'm creating the tasting menu. I don’t want to repeat too many flavors. I know Chris uses a lot of fruit in his cooking. In terms of a tasting menu I try to vary ingredients. There's always going to be a little bit of overlap—there’s always the same fruits of the season.
AB: Is there an ingredient you feel is particularly under appreciated or underutilized?
JY: I love using cheese—queso fresco ice cream, blue cheese cheesecake, feta in desserts. Whenever I have a dessert I do always want some salty component or savory component and I think cheese can give you that if you use it the right way.
AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
JY: With every season a chef sort of clings to certain flavors of the moment. I've always loved peaches and corn together; it's classic barbeque, picnic fare. The cherries and basil are great since I love fruit and herbs together. And I do like to pair fruit with chocolate as well, just because that acid tends to bring out the floral qualities of chocolate.
AB: What is your pastry philosophy?
JY: Any time I'm working on a new dish I always try to strike the balance between sweet, refreshing, light, but still has a little bit of decadence to it. I think balance is just my overall philosophy, whether it's balance of temperature, color balance, juxtaposition of textures, or again sweet and savory. At the end of the day it has to make you want to eat the whole thing. We're just here to make people happy.
AB: What are some of your favorite food-related charities?
JY: We do a lot of events for Citymeals-on-Wheels. Charlie [Palmer] has a seat on Citymeals. We're going to be participating in the Autism Speaks Gala this year. Last holiday we did cookies and cards for Citymeals. I set up a huge dessert display with our gingerbread house and we made cards for the homebound elderly.
AB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel?
JY: I've been to France plenty of times but I still would love to just take a tour of all the patisseries around France or Europe. Everything from the very traditional to very modern; I would love to just expose myself to real professionals, people who put their heart and soul into pastry and into creating. I did take a tour of Southeast Asia about four years ago. My husband and I took about two and a half months and went to about seven countries. That was awesome and I'd love to do that again. I love the flavors of Asia, especially Southeast Asia—so well balanced, so exciting at the same time.
AB: What’s next for you?
JY: I definitely will be here at Aureole and with Charlie Palmer for at least a good few years. This is my first pastry chef position; Charlie and Chris [Lee] have allowed me to grow and develop my style, and I'm not done with that yet. I'm here for the long haul and hopefully I can grow more into an executive position as his company grows. Maybe I can be a part of his other restaurants. I still would always see myself in the kitchen. As supervisory as my role becomes, I still want to be hands-on in the kitchen.