Interview w/ Chef Zac Young, Executive Pastry Chef @ David Burke Restaurants

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

We recently gave you a sneak peek at Savor: A Celebration of Wine, Food, & Spirits, that will unfold in Hartford from April 7-9.  The event’s Grand Tasting will give guests the chance to try hundreds of wine, spirits, and beers, indulge in dishes from area restaurants, and watch celebrity chef demonstrations. 

Celebrity Chef Robert Irvine will headline the event while proceeds go toward the Robert Irvine foundation.  A few weeks ago, he spoke with CTBites and told us about the foundation, upcoming Food Network shows, his varied food projects, and what to expect this year.

Savor just announced another addition to its celebrity chef line-up: Chef Zac Young.  Fun, gregarious, and whimsical, Young currently works as the Executive Pastry Chef for the David Burke Restaurants.  I became a fan of his when I watched him compete on Top Chef: Just Desserts.  This past holiday season, his Thanksgiving “PieCaken” became a bona fide sensation.

In honor of the upcoming festival, I had the chance to speak with him.  He talked about everything: from life on Top Chef to hints about a new concept coming to Foxwoods to the Red Hot Red Velvet PieCupen he’ll serve at Savor to advice for aspiring chefs.

Tickets for Savor are on sale now.  Catch Zac Young, Robert Irvine, and more in April.

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.

What are your favorite desserts to make there?

Oh gosh, that’s like picking a favorite child.  It’s still donuts.  There’s something about donuts that’s like a great blank canvass for anything you want to do whether it’s cake or yeast or fills.  There’s just so many options with it.  And the other is ice cream.  I do eat a lot of dessert, but I’m not like a dessert fiend.  But ice cream is definitely my go to.  My refrigerator at home is basically empty and my freezer is stocked with ice cream.

And one of my favorites… This 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!

Tell me about this Red Hot Red Velvet PieCupen that’s on the menu for Savor’s In Style Charity Gala.  What goes into that?

That was actually what we did for Valentine’s Day.  I wanted to do something for Valentine’s Day Piecaken related, but that’s really a holiday for two.  I didn’t want someone to bring home a massive cake and say, “Here ya go, honey!  Happy Valentine’s Day!”  So, we decided to do it in cupcake form.  Basically, it’s a mini chocolate cream pie inside red velvet cake topped with red hot cinnamon cream cheese frosting.  We actually take red hot candies, pulverize them into a dust, and mix them into the frosting.

I love red velvet.

I wanted to bring something to the red velvet party.  Sometimes red velvet, can be a little… “it’s just red cake!”  I wanted to give it the class that it deserved.

How did you get involved with Savor?

We [David Burke restaurants] have Prime, the steakhouse, at Foxwoods.  We are also opening an exciting new project there later this year.  Foxwoods is a sponsor of the event.  They came to me, asked if we’d like to do it, and we said absolutely.  We’re doing the grand tasting, both with Prime and our new concept.  Prime is doing candied bacon pops, which I’m very excited about because I get to eat a lot of them!  I’m doing a demo and the gala on Saturday night.  But I will be there all weekend, probably slinging bacon pops!

I read somewhere that you used to work in the wig department of Radio City…

I did!  In my other life!  That’s actually where this all started because over Christmas I started baking cookies- just because.  My mother was vegan growing up, so we never did that whole cooking thing as a family.  We ate so we didn’t die, basically.  It wasn’t a joyful, “I bake cookies with my grandmother!” kind of thing.  So I thought, “How hard can it be to bake cookies?  I’m going to teach myself.”  So I went to Williams-Sonoma, bought a kitchen aid, bought The Cookie Bible, started baking my way through it, and kept bringing them into work at Radio City over Christmas.  People started saying, “Hey, I need a Christmas present for my Aunt.  I’m going to a party.  Can I buy cookies from you?”  And I thought, “Wow, I can actually make money from this.  That’s interesting!”

What I really loved with cookies, and pastry in general, is the play within limitations.  It’s a very scientific, precise medium, so you have to stretch the boundaries and find the balance of what works and what doesn’t.  I learned that through cookies.

So the season was coming to an end, and my mother- my vegan mother of all people- said,
I don’t hear you talking about going onto another show, or anything really, except your cookies.  Why don’t you go to culinary school?”  I didn’t know that was an option, really.  So I went.  That was the beginning.

Where else did you work?

Right out of school, I worked on the opening team of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery in New York.  From there, I took my first chef job at Butter, Alex Guarnaschelli’s restaurant.  From Butter, I moved to Shapiro group, which has flexed muscles within seafood restaurants.  That’s where the whole donut thing came into play.  I started making donuts there.  It took off.  It became a part of the restaurant, basically.  We ended up doing 2 pop-up donut shops in Grand Central donuts.  That was when I got on Top Chef.  Then I started at David Burke kitchen.  Then I moved into the executive pastry chef role of the company.  We have kitchen, fabrick, Bloomingdale’s, kitchen Aspen, Prime, and also a lot of other licensed brands.

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.”

You teased a new concept.  Can you say anything more about that?

Um… well… (laughs)… We’re really excited about it.  It’s going to be at Foxwoods.  It’s going to be a full service restaurant.  It it’s going to involve a lot of carbs.  I’ll just leave it at that.  It will be fully announced by Savor, and we’ll actually have a table for that restaurant.  We’re excited, and I’m excited to spend more time up at Foxwoods.  I do love it up there.  I grew up in Portland, Maine, and I went to college in Boston.  I’m a New England boy, so I enjoy spending time in Connecticut.

Which leads to my last question…. What are you looking forward to most about Savor?

Being with the Foxwoods team.  I love working with them.  Also, being able to see all of the great restaurants that I haven’t been to up there, and basically eating my way through Connecticut!