Few chefs have lived through modern pastry's evolution like Nicole Plue. From an externship in the early '90s at Masa's that touched her like a calling, to opening the pastry department at Eleven Madison Park in New York, developing recipes for Martha Stewart Living, and refining a California style at Redd and Cyrus (her work at the former netted a Beard Award), Plue has seen pastry go from second-class citizen to savory's equal. Next for Plue: teaching the next generation of pastry chefs to navigate the professional kitchen.
In June, she started a new gig as director of pastry arts at the San Francisco Cooking School. Plue is developing a pastry curriculum that, like the school's mission, will seek to give students no-bullshit lessons about culinary work. The SFCS pastry program launches in September. Between selling Saltine Toffee from her online company Sideshow, planning the SFCS curriculum, and teaching pastry basics to students in the school's savory program (and commuting from her home in Calistoga), Plue spared phone time to talk about the state of San Francisco sweets.
SF Weekly: With the success of William Werner's Craftsman & Wolves and Belinda Leong's B. Patisserie, this has been an amazing year for pastry in San Francisco. Has it surprised you?
Plue: Things are as vibrant and as pastry-chef driven as I've seen them here, but it's weird how things cycle in and out. Five or six years ago it seems like the same thing that's happening here now was happening in New York. I was in New York this year for the Beard Awards, and now a lot of pastry chefs there seem to be shifting to consulting jobs, trading hours and flexibility to move around a lot.
SF Weekly: Talk about the curriculum you're working on for SFCC.
Plue: You know, whenever I say I'm going to be teaching, my colleagues always say that culinary students are so bad these days. When I was in New York recently I went to a demo and saw students doing nougatine baskets filled with marzipan fruits — as a pastry chef you will never, ever be called upon to make that, unless you go back in a time machine to the 1950s.
SF Weekly: What are the main things a pastry student needs to know these days?
Plue: It's more about having the right mindset. I want to make sure my students are really prepared mentally — really prepared — for what the business is like the minute they step into a kitchen. I know what I always needed from a new hire, and it wasn't necessarily experience. If you can queneller ice cream that's great, but it's more the way you move around a kitchen that's important, your eagerness to learn.
The SF Cooking School really emphasizes externships, and my externship at Masa's was so important to me. The plating presentations, and the really quiet discipline — it just really stamped the expectations of working in a professional kitchen. I stood in the corner picking chervil, and that was okay with me; I was honored just to be there. Here I'll mainly be emphasizing how ingredients work together. That's more important than anything.