Chucky Dugo, pastry chef for Charles Phan's restaurants -- including Slanted Door, Out the Door, and the Moss Room -- grew up in a small town in the Central Valley with a big Italian family. Meals, especially at holidays, were a multi-dozen-person affair, with grandmothers bearing homemade breads and aunts carrying cookies impossible to resist. Dugo had an early and unusual foray into the world of pastry, the details of which he revealed in his candid interview with SFoodie. Tomorrow, part two of the interview will run, and on day three, SFoodie will share one of Dugo's recipes.
SFoodie: Were you a kid who loved sweets? How did you become interested in pastry?
Dugo: When I was about 10 or 11, PBS had a series called Great Chefs of the World, and you could order a cookbook from the series. The book had all these really elaborate French and Creole dishes with crazy old-school presentation. The first thing I attempted to make was Paris-Brest, but I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. My pastry cream was lumpy and the dough didn't bake and puff up.
Of all the recipes in the book, why do you think you made pastry first?
I think it was the aesthetic of it, and that it was such a foreign thing. A Paris-Brest is this huge, lacy, sparkly ring, and I was like, "Oh my god, what is that creamy, yummy, yummy thing?" So many men in my family are Renaissance men -- artists and frame-makers and sign-printers and mechanics -- so it appealed to my artistic side. For me, there's a lot of romance involved in making desserts.
When did you decide to pursue pastry professionally?
When I was about 18 or 19, I decided I had to leave the area -- coming out of the closet in a small town and that whole thing! So I came up here when I was 20 and went to California Culinary Academy. After graduating around 1993, I had the great fortune of working with some amazing people, and I went up through the ranks quickly.
Who were some major influences?
Jemal Edwards is an amazing pastry chef, and working with him really opened my eyes to the possibilities. He's a master at chocolate work and an incredible master at sugar work. Working with Alain Rondelli [at his eponymous restaurant] was also quite a turning point for me, because Rondelli was really French-disciplined and precise. Actually, he was a little bit too militant and too disciplined for me, so I worked with him for a while and then I went to Asia.
What were you doing in Asia?
I was hired to go to Taipei to help this guy broaden his business. He already had a couple of restaurants and had just added bakeries onto each one so he could do this whimsical, Western patisserie. I went over there, not really having any experience running something like that or even working in a patisserie, but I talked my way in.
Were you particularly interested in the position or in going to Taipei?
I think it was both. Traveling teaches you things that nothing else can. Truth is, that was kind of a rough period in my life. I got caught up in drugs and alcohol and all that, so part of me just needed to drop everything here and change. I did it for three years, came back to the states, and met Charles Phan.
What brought you back home?
I was tired. By the time I left, they had about 18 locations, and TGI Fridays was buying them out. I met Charles through Elizabeth Faulkner, when I asked her if she knew of anyone looking for a pastry chef. I came and talked to Charles, I started, and I've been here ever since.
There's a general impression that to work for Charles is to be part of the Phan family. Is it true?
It really is. I know I'm getting kind of personal with sobriety stuff, but it is a very intrinsic and important part of my history with the restaurant. I was a maniac before. I would go down to Dalva after working here all night and stay there until 6 a.m. I was getting crazy, and Charles and the family sat me down, offered me help. I declined and ended up leaving. A few years later, after I got myself together, I came back.
For them to give me a second chance was a huge deal. The timing was pretty cosmic, too. When I left, Mutsumi Takehara took over for me, and when I came back she was getting ready to leave and do her own thing [at Sandbox Bakery]. Now I'm back, and the company is much larger and much busier. I've been back almost four years.