Food-centric TV may have hit its zenith this year, what with the launch of the Cooking Channel, and the premieres of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, The Worst Cooks In America, The Great Food Truck Race, and a slew of other reality shows. Forebear Top Chef is also expanding its franchise, which already includes Top Chef Masters, with next season’s Top Chef All-Stars, and next week’s premiere of Top Chef: Just Desserts. Grub Street grabbed a few minutes with 29-year-old pastry chef-testant Yigit Pura (pronounced “Yeet,” of Taste Catering in San Francisco and formerly of Daniel in New York), henceforth likely called “the hot one” in the cast, who explains why pastry chefs have a much tougher time improvising, how he calls Daniel Boulud “Daddy,” and how he stays trim on a butter-and-sugar-based diet.
How did you get started in the pastry trade?
Yigit Pura: I didn’t initially start out in culinary. I actually studied business first. I come from a very Turkish background, and when I was a kid and would try to help in the kitchen my mom and grandmother would tell me it’s not a boy’s thing. My mom actually refused to teach me how to cook. Ironically, she tried to teach both my sisters and I don’t think either of them could heat a can of soup to this day. My dad, though, was always really encouraging. My parents didn’t figure out exactly what I was doing until they came to visit me in New York and ate at Daniel.
But my first professional experience was at age 20, with Joanna Karlinsky at Meeting House in San Francisco (in the space that’s now Baker & Banker). Then I got a job at Le Cirque and started working at The Four Seasons in New York shortly after that. But I probably learned the most from Daniel Boulud. That was the most challenging two years of my life, but he molded me into the pastry chef that I am. We’re still close and he considers himself like a father figure to me. When he heard that I was on the show he sent me an email that said, “Daddy is very proud of you.”
You were born in Turkey, right? How old were you when you moved to the U.S.?
My whole family moved here when I was twelve. I had two older sisters going to college here, and we had family here, so my parents picked up and moved thinking it would be better for all of us.
Would you say there’s any Turkish or Middle Eastern influence on your desserts?
The way pastry chefs work, their sensibilities tend to be very ingrained. I’ve worked mostly in French technique, but I err very heavily on the use of spices and florals, so in that way yes. I’m definitely a unique mélange of different backgrounds.
What made you decide to move back to the Bay Area after New York?
Well, there’s a tiny dark spot in my bio called Las Vegas - I was executive pastry chef at Boulud Brasserie for a while. And though I’d say the restaurant itself was great, Las Vegas the city didn’t fit well with me at all. I happened to be in S.F. visiting friends one weekend, and I met the two owners of Taste, and we just hit it off really well. So they offered me a job. San Francisco’s just a great place to be a chef.
We know you can’t talk about the specific challenges, but what would you say was the most challenging part about being on the show?
Pastry chefs are very controlling creatures. We work in a highly planned space. By the time service starts in a restaurant situation, we’ve spent many hours creating components and prepping and it’s really just a matter of plating. Putting a pastry chef against a clock, on their own, without a team, and telling them to create something on the fly, is basically insane. Pastry just doesn’t happen like that - if you mess up one thing, there’s no recovering.
How was Johnny Iuzzini as a judge? Was he a hardass?
You know? I was expecting him to be. I knew him from New York, and thought he’d be really tough, but he was really fair and on point the whole time. He did a really good job.
You’re quoted in one of the promos for the show saying, “If I wasn’t a perfectionist I would have become a savory chef.” Care to elaborate?
Pastry chefs and savory chefs are very different breeds. Pastry chefs get this rep for being really sensitive and compulsive. Savory chefs will never understand all the minute details and extreme amounts of love that have to go into what we do. I think there’s a lot more of an effortless process on the savory side, going with the flow and creating on the fly. What I do often comes from a craving, imagining a flavor pairing in my head, and then you have to go through hundreds of dessert recipes and try various techniques to figure out what combinations work best and what technique brings out what I want.
But without our recipes, we’re really lost. My biggest advantage was that I work on the metric system when I cook, and once you understand the formulas and percentages with various pastry recipes, you can definitely feel your way through the process. It may not be as perfect as you want it, but it’ll pass.
Do you ever get sick of sugar and butter like Gail Simmons said she did, judging the show?
Absolutely not. A good 60% of my diet is probably sugar. My favorite tattoo artist in San Francisco actually put the molecular formula for sugar on my back. I’ve known several pastry chefs who didn’t like desserts and said they didn’t event like eating sugar and I could never trust that.
… but you’re so thin!
That comes from a lot of nervous energy, and a lot of biking around San Francisco.
Top Chef: Just Desserts premieres Wednesday, September 15, at 11 p.m./ 10 p.m. Central.