2011 New York Rising Star Pastry Chef Jenny McCoy took a gamble after high school. Not ready to enter college proper, she enrolled in the Baking and Pastry program at Chicago’s Kendall College, mostly on a whim. Her parents might have trembled, but for McCoy, it was a win-win situation. If she liked baking, she’d have a viable career path. If she didn’t, she’d at least be a sought after dinner party guest. Lucky for McCoy, and her pocket book, she fell into baking with gusto. She was such a natural talent that her first jobs were in some of Chicago’s top restaurants, including Charlie Trotter’s, Blackbird, Gordon, and Bittersweet Bakery. It was in these kitchens that McCoy refined her palate and honed her talent for seasonal desserts.
Following such formative experiences in fine dining, McCoy took a decisive hiatus from professional baking, traveling to various countries in Europe and South and Central America to broaden her culinary vocabulary. When she realized that her interest in food extended beyond the kitchen, she returned to school and got her B.A. in Food Writing at DePaul University. When McCoy first returned to a pastry kitchen, it was in New Orleans, where the still young chef ran three restaurant pastry departments for Emeril Lagasse and contributed weekly to the “Cooking Blog” at Emerils.com. It wasn’t long before New York City’s siren call drew her north.
McCoy’s Big Apple arrival was a splash. She worked as opening pastry chef at Marc Forgioneand oversaw pastry operations for both locations of A Voce. Now in the kitchen of Craft, McCoy fuses a career in finesse, seasonality, and discipline with her own bright personality—and a healthy appetite for creative risk-taking. When she’s not busy in the Craft kitchen, McCoy teaches at the Institute of Culinary Education, volunteers with Wellness in the Schools, and flexes her writer’s muscles with regular contributions to SeriousEats.com, HuffingtonPost.com, and a forthcoming dessert cookbook (keep your eyes on the shelves in 2013).
Interview with Pastry Chef Jenny McCoy of Craft - New York, NY
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jenny McCoy: I started cooking on a complete whim after I graduated from high school. I was not interested in college proper. “Why don’t I go to culinary school?” I thought. “Sounds like fun! If I don’t do it for a living I’ll just know how to cook.”
I went to the baking and pastry program at Kendall College in Chicago and completely fell in love with it. Halfway through my program, I started working in restaurants and fell even harder for it. That’s how I started—randomly. I then went on to get my college degree and stuff like that. What’s the risk?
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
JM: Every cook that works in my kitchen, when they first start, I give them three pieces of advice. Read everything you can: industry magazines, Food & Wine, cookbooks, read, read, read all you can about food. Spend as much of your money as you can eating out, exposing yourself to different types of food, trying different foods, tasting and experiencing others’ food. Spend all of your free time, days off, staging in other kitchens. If you work somewhere five days a week, spend a day in someone else’s kitchen. It’s like a foreign language. If you immerse yourself in it, you’ll become so much better and grow to love it so much more.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
JM: I would recommend it. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, but I think a lot of people who are entering kitchens in the upper echelon, many of those cooks have gone to culinary school. If you want to work at three- and four-starred level restaurants, culinary school gives you a leg up. But it’s not necessary. I do think it provides a great foundation for entry-level cooks, helping to familiarize themselves with basic equipment, lingo, and techniques. Entering a kitchen with no exposure to what a professional kitchen could be like is pretty intense. If you have basic understanding I see cooks tend to do a little bit better. I would recommend it, yes.
EB: What is your philosophy on pastry?
JM: I feel like this is lots of peoples’: less is more. To me, dessert is the end of the meal. It needs to wrap things up well; there needs to be a continuity from what you’ve been eating earlier in your meal. The best dessert complements what you’ve had previously. Keep it simple and not overly adorned. By the time people get dessert, they’re ready to kind of kick back and not think so much and really enjoy themselves. By keeping things a little less fussy and a little more straightforward, you can offer guests the opportunity to have that experience.
EB: What goes into creating a dessert?
JM: I’m inspired by so many different things—walking through the market and finding an ingredient at its prime. Going out to eat and seeing something someone else did stimulates a different idea in my head. It could come out of nowhere. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night. Ideas for new desserts come from all over the place. It could be a flavor combination I thought of. Sometimes I’ve put together desserts cause I wanted to try flavors together that rhymed. I don’t know where they come from. They just come to me. The well that I dip into for inspiration can be deep.
From there it’s kind of testing, and deciding how to create a composed dessert so it is truly composed and it has a certain handful of elements that all plated desserts need—flavor balance, texture balance, a visual appeal, a combination of hot and cold, and having the right kind of acidity levels and crunch. That all kind of goes into a plated dessert. It needs to encompass everything one would want in a small course. From there, I narrow in on what I think a composed dessert should be, taste and texture elements together, more salt, too much lemon, what about something else? Sometimes it morphs into something completely different from the original dessert. Sometimes it’s spot-on what I thought it would be. It can take testing on the menu, tweaking a recipe five, six, seven, eight times. Sometimes it’s just once.
EB: What’s your favorite flavor combination?
JM: So tough. I'm really into rhubarb and rose.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JM: One of hardest for me is saying goodbye to a cook that I really felt like I shaped and kind of mentored into being an amazing pastry cook. A lot of times I really try to cultivate strong relationships with people under me. I spend a lot of time setting goals for them, helping them achieve goals in my department and sometimes as individuals. They get so good they need to move up and you don’t have a place for them. Having to look at someone and say, “you’re so amazing, but you have to leave.” Helping them spread their wings. And that happens with your best people. It’s almost like sending your kids to college.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
JM: I think if I could do anything over—earlier on as a cook or when I wasn’t so concerned with time for my own personal life or didn’t have quite same financial obligations—I would’ve spent more time in a more specialized area of pastry, spent a good solid year learning the art of bread making, chocolate making, or sugar work. Those type of things you have to delve deep to comprehend. As a pastry chef I have experience in all those, but I have not had too much time to really be more than a restaurant pastry chef. I’ve never gotten to be a bread baker or a chocolatier.
EB: What are some of your favorite food-industry charities? Why?
JM: Wellness in the Schools, definitely. I’m a sort of active member. I started with them a year ago and originally was working with PS 89 in Brooklyn, one of very few green schools in Brooklyn. There’s a greenhouse on the roof. It’s a fantastic school. We’re spending time changing over the entire school lunch program from processed, frozen food to a completely-from-scratch menu. They’re doing that in 27 schools this coming year.
EB: Do you do dessert there?
JM: We do a little bit. Did a lab on carrots and we made carrot cake. It’s not especially healthy. We taught them how to make granola, oatmeal with dried fruits and honey. Not full-on desserts but elements of pastry and sweets in a somewhat healthier format or formula. Mostly, I encourage them to eat fresh fruit.
EB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
JM: When I first got to put something on the menu. I wasn’t a pastry chef at the time, I was pastry sous chef at Blackbird. I had a pastry chef who was really great to work with. To see my first idea become executed and menu-ready, that was probably one of the proudest moments. Another thing—sentiment carries on throughout my career. Every time I put a dessert on the menu I feel really proud. I’ve gotten it to the point where it’s fantastic. I’m ready to share it. It’s good. I get all excited about it.
EB: What does success mean for you?
JM: Slowly, over the years, [accumulating] all this vast wealth of information, learning how to become an authority in your field, learning how to share that knowledge and that information. To be an authority, not just a restaurant pastry chef—to be a cookbook author, to be involved in organizations like James Beard, Wellness in Schools, to be teaching in culinary schools, to dip my fingers into every area of this industry. And from there, kind of spreading the gospel about having enthusiasm for this industry beyond the walls of the kitchen. Teaching cooks how to really love what they’re doing, beyond just making food, to really love this industry as a whole.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
JM: Probably on television, with more than one cookbook under my belt. My goal is to be almost like Emily Luchetti. I want to be the pastry chef of Craft, but not here every day. I want my protégés in the kitchen and to be in charge, but I want to teach, to write books, do television. Craft allows me to wear many hats. I love doing more than just cooking. In five years I hope I'm doing what I'm doing now, all over the place.