An Interview w/ Chef Zac Young, PieCaken Creator + more!

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

Last Thanksgiving, the PieCaken took the world by storm!  A sweet tooth’s twist on the “turducken,” the all-in-one dessert includes Pecan Pie, Pumpkin Pie, and Apple Upside Down Cake layered together with cinnamon buttercream.  Kelly Ripa loved it so much that she featured it several times on her show.  CNN and The New York Times quickly followed suit.  This year, the PieCaken is upping the ante with nationwide shipping!

CTBites had the opportunity to sit down with the mastermind behind the PieCaken, Chef Zac Young.  Creative and outgoing, it’s fitting that he came up with such a whimsical idea.  Young appeared on Top Chef Just Desserts, was named a “Top Ten Pastry Chef in America,” and currently serves as Pastry Director of Craveable Hospitality Group.  Here are excerpts from our conversation.

I was a huge Top Chef fan, especially Top Chef Just Desserts.  What was that experience like for you?  I’ve heard it can be pretty intense, but also fun.

You know, it was an awesome experience.  It’s like anything, you just make the best out of it.  You can’t focus on the little things because you’ll drive yourself crazy.  You just have to go with the flow, which is really hard for most chefs because we’re all control freaks.  We’re used to having our own kitchens and knowing where everything is and being in charge and then all that gets taken away.  Once you get over that “I’m really not in control here but I just have to do what I do and hope that it comes out right and isn’t a huge failure,” it becomes kind of fun!

Are you still in touch with any of the other cheftestants?

I am.  It’s fun.  I feel like we have this kind of comradery just going through that experience.  You know, it’s like going to college or being in a fraternity.  You share this little special thing that not many other people have.  It’s true of people from other seasons of Top Chef too, whether it’s regular or desserts or masters.  It’s kind of like there’s this little club and you’re like, “Yup! You were there too! How much wine did you drink?”

Speaking of Top Chef Masters, you’re currently working in the David Burke restaurants.  How did you wind up there?

Well, I had kind of resigned to not necessarily working in restaurants anymore.  I was working on a bunch of book projects and media stuff, and had kind of been… not burnt out… I just didn’t want to do the 16 hour days anymore.  I took the summer off to work on some projects, and then I got a phone call from our founder.  He said, “I hear you’re not working. I want you to come work for me.”  And I said, “Well, so much for the summer off!”  And that was 5 years ago.

Thanksgiving was all about the “Piecaken,” which, from what I understand, was your idea…

Oh, yes, the piecaken.  The idea of a cake pie situation has been floating around the internet for a while.  There was the cherpumple, which was like a cherry pie and an apple pie all baked into cakes.  I loved the idea of that and I wanted to take that and do Thanksgiving version.  It was kind of that all in one Thanksgiving dessert because I am that person at Thanksgiving who is like “I will take a piece of every single pie, and the pound cake, and the ice cream.”  I wanted to create something that had everything in it and also make something that was a little more refined and fun.

It started as an idea for a dessert special at [David Burke] fabric in Midtown.  I posted a picture of it in progress on my Instagram, and everyone started saying I need to buy that.  That wasn’t really on the table at that point…. And then enough people asked that I said “Alright, I guess we’re going to sell them, and we have to figure out how to do this.”

The whole team rallied from our marketing team to our sales team who was taking orders to my amazing kitchen staff making them and it turned into a thing.  Then we turned it around and we did the Pielogen for Christmas and the Red Velvet PieCupen for Valentine’s Day and we have an Easter Piecaken coming out now.  What was supposed to last for one day has now turned into a thing!  It was an accident, an organic thing.  We didn’t go out via our normal routes, like our publicist and all of that.  It was really internal and it just got picked up.  It was crazy to see that happen, because it was organic.  Sometimes when you don’t try so hard is when it actually happens.

I saw it on Live with Kelly & Michael, all the talk shows.  It was awesome.

Kelly Ripa has basically paid for my future children’s college education!  I owe her!  That was just crazy!  We didn’t go to them and say, “Hey do a story on this.”  They picked it up.  And then it kept going with them.  The second day, I brought it to them, and it kept going.  Crazy.  Great crazy!

Do you have any advice for aspiring pastry chefs?

Don’t do it (laughs).  You know, this is a really rough profession, a really rough industry.  It takes a long time to get anywhere.  There’s no substitute for love or dedication.  If there’s anything else that you’d be happy doing, I’d say do it, because it’s hard.  Restaurant life, in general, is hard, physically, mentally, personally.  It gets slightly romanticized by people like myself.  People say, “Oh, your life is so crazy.  You travel and you’re on TV.”  And I say, “Yes, but I also work 80 hours a week in the restaurants, too.”